The most pathetic suggestion for saving American newspapers from the trash heap was the one that said government should step in, letting taxpayers compensate for revenues fleeing to the Internet. It’s an idea that fits snugly with the progressive worship of an all-embracing Big Daddy on which we all depend for more and more as we sacrifice ever more of our liberties.
Look what is happening instead. Entrepreneurship is happening. Jeffrey P. Bezos is happening. To be more precise, Bezos, the founder and top boss of the amazing Amazon.com Internet retailer, has purchased The Washington Post, a newspaper rightly considered the best there is on Washington news even as its past owners gasped in dismay at income struggling to keep up with outgo.
The Post is hardly alone in that. I have worked for three metropolitan dailies. They are all gone, and, yes, they were all in two-newspaper cities and we learned long ago there is only enough advertising in most cities to support one mainstream newspaper with full-fledged ambitions. But we are at the point now where the possible revenues — including those from national advertisers — can barely keep one major newspaper alive in many metro areas.
The reasons did not all begin recently, and they are many, ranging from TV to public mistrust to a culture that’s less and less into paper, more and more into digital. It’s this last one I will focus on, first mentioning that newspapers are expensive to operate. They depend on hefty capital investments, lots and lots of labor, newsprint that always gets most expensive at just the wrong times and daily door-to-door delivery. What other products do you still get that way?
It is not so much through news competition that the Internet has done its damage. Most newspapers have an Internet presence, and most of the best-reported news you read online is from newspapers. The Internet damage has been largely in the grab of classified advertising, costing papers much too much of what they need to keep chugging along. Once, in Aspen, Colo., I met a man who said his name was Craig. I asked him what he did for a living. “I have a list,” he said, and sure enough, he was Craig Newmark, founder of the extraordinarily successful Craigslist that has helped make newspapers extraordinarily less successful.
Bezos seems to me to be of the same stuff as Craig, or as a Bill Gates, or, to point to some who made the newspaper industry something special in this country, James Gordon Bennett, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, E.W. Scripps. And Adolph Ochs.
Bezos was a Wall Street guy who gave that up, started an online bookstore in a garage and took it to the billions zone, selling far more than books. He has special knowledge of what works on the Internet, and I suspect he will be a leader in showing how to use digital as a rescue mechanism for newspapers, finding a model to bring in the kind of cash needed for sustaining splendid reporting.
In the end, I don’t know whether it will be mostly digital, all digital or what, but the point will be to save entities that gather news like no one else.
We’ve already had some fumbling and some success along these lines, and we need more success because, for all the faults of newspapers — and please, don’t get me started — they have been a major gift to our democracy, providing huge numbers of us on a daily basis with a better understanding of current events than we can commonly get elsewhere.
Maybe Bezos can also help bring some needed reforms to the Post while retaining its excellence. I lived in D.C. for nine years. I read it daily, mumbled about liberal bias sometimes, but knew, too, how good it was on D.C. politics and government. Mr. Entrepreneur, save the day.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a senior fellow at the Independence Institute. Email SpeaktoJay@aol.com.