On Monday, Jeff Bezos went ahead and got himself the ultimate prestige purchase: An iconic newspaper. Now that the Amazon chief owns the Washington Post, he has an acquisition that can serve all sorts of uses. For Amazon Web Services, which has been aggressively seeking federal contracts, Bezos now has bona fide D.C. power broker status. For Amazon's continuing difficulties with organized labor and workers' rights groups, it helps ensure a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill. Bezos's ego also certainly gets a boost as well: The retail and logistics genius is now part of a small club of newspaper owners that includes the Sulzbergers, Warren Buffett, and Rupert Murdoch.
But purchasing the Post wasn't all about basking in the prestige or serving as a benign, remote paymaster. Bezos told WaPo readers that “The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs… Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about—government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports—and working backwards from there.”
As Slate's David Auerbach notes, Bezos tipped his hand on this. Right now the Post is not much of a player in hyperlocal news. Apparently, he wants it to be.
Bezos is also purchasing a newspaper with a fascinating digital identity. The Washington Post was one of the first newspapers to really grok the Internet thanks to a bold late-1990s strategies, but the brand's digital presence has improved in fits and starts since then while The Washington Post Company dithered between treating the paper as a local or a national property. Meanwhile, The Washington Post Company's digital properties—Slate, The Root, and Foreign Policy—all have top-notch content strategies and outreach. The Post's readership, meanwhile, was eaten alive by Politico and the New York Times despite interesting digital products like Trove.
Now, it's worth wondering whether Bezos will attempt to steer Post digital strategists towards news-gathering for the Kindle. Amazon's e-reader offers the company a host of proprietary metrics and a window into the wallet of millions of American consumers. It also has a low price point and is easy to use for non-techies—a holy grail for newspaper owners, who have been struggling to keep the dwindling number of print subscribers happy while steering them to digital for cost consolidation purposes.
At the same time, the Kindle's AZW and KF8 formats are awful for reading newspapers. That's a temporary issue though. Fast Company spoke with experts on digital content to see what the WaPo purchase could mean for newspapers on Kindle:
Marco Arment is someone to know when it comes to digital content. The onetime Tumblr lead developer created Instapaper. When I spoke to him about his thoughts on the Kindle as a newspaper platform, Arment was skeptical. “Periodicals on Kindle have always been such a low priority to Amazon that they've barely improved in years. They've always been clunky at best, and I don't expect that to change. The problem hasn't been that Amazon hasn't had any friendly newspapers—it's that Amazon doesn't prioritize interface quality and user experience,” he said.
But what if they did?
Author and evangelist for all things tech Clay Shirky has a more optimistic view. When I spoke with him about whether the Washington Post's dev and digital teams might play with some new Amazon toys, he thought it was likely.
Shirky said via email that he “certainly imagines” Bezos will help the Post staff get a new content management system to replace their current CMS, which is rumored to have problems. More importantly, Shirky expects Bezos will insist the new CMS export to e-book formats used on the Kindle and other readers.
In addition, Shirky believes Kindle Singles will become a new revenue stream for the Post. Citing a recent interview Kindle Single's head David Blum did with the president during a visit to an Amazon warehouse that will become its own standalone Single, Shirky notes, “I expect the Kindle Single-ization of more long-form reporting, as with [David] Blum's Obama interview."
Bezos does have big ideas for the Washington Post and it's very likely the Kindle will be a part of them. Equally likely, however, is a focus on more everyday pursuits like improving their CMS or improving digital UI.
[Image: Flickr user Mace Ojala]