Jeff Bezos’ firm hand: Steering news back to the future?

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos. Credit: Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Light years ago, in 1999, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer came to town to do a profile of a young Internet wizard, Jeff Bezos, and his new online bookshop, Amazon.com.

In a bid to assure the world that he absolutely loved the kind of traditional cedar-shelved and -scented bookshop that his critics accused him of being out to kill, Bezos had the television crew follow him down to Pioneer Square, to what he described as his favorite bookstore in the world — the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Suffice it to say that not all Elliott Bay employees took the gesture as a show of support. As the cameras whirred and Bezos browsed the stacks, musing on his love of reading, some even detected a whiff of highbrow “Gladiator” in the mise-en-scene.

“Don’t they know when they’re conquered?!” could well have been the thought bubble emanating from the tycoon’s gnomish, ever-smiling head.

Flashing forward to yesterday, it was hard not to see a reprise of this theme as Bezos stepped forward to claim his latest spoil. The storied Washington Post, the newspaper that once defined American political conversation and even brought down a President, was a Graham family institution no more.

Don Graham, the honorable and hard-toiling son of Kay Graham, herself perhaps the single greatest publisher American journalism has ever known, all but admitted the family was out of gas, money and ideas to save the struggling institution. With years of losses behind them, projections of more ahead and no real strategy to turn the ship around, the family finally concluded that “what was best for the paper” was to sell it to the very man who has broken publishing’s bones.   

There is an undeniable element of Bezos bathos in this deal. The Amazon.com founder is — correctly, I think — widely portrayed as having done a kind favor to the Graham family, of offering them a most generous way out.

And yet for Bezos, the whole gesture represents chump change, less than 1 percent of his estimated $25 billion net worth. So, while it’s a landmark day in journalism and newspaper history, for Bezos this all may amount to little more than a new hobby.

The mogul alluded to that very point in a statement that also pointed up the ever-westward shift of the American publishing industry. Or, more specifically, the ever-northwestward shift, straight to Seattle.

“I am happily living in ‘the other Washington,’” Bezos said, “where I have a day job that I love.”

Still, though Bezos has cast the purchase as a personal one, which will put the Post in his own portfolio and not his company’s, no one in his or her right mind thinks his newspaper takeover is truly divorced from his Grand Plan for Amazon.

So how does the Post fit into his thinking? Writing for The New Republic, Sasha Issenberg wondered whether Bezos was actually more interested in the Post’s “paperboys” than in its reporters, photographers and editors. Noting Bezos’s “overarching obsession with what logisticians have long called the ‘last-mile problem,’” Issenberg speculated that Bezos was buying a delivery network that could get a lot more than newspapers into its subscribers’ hands by dawn every morning.

Have a sudden need for a dozen eggs or a piping-hot breakfast bagel – or, hey, a new washer-dryer or flat-screen television? Add it to your Post account, and the trucks will have it there within hours.

It’s an interesting theory, and one that would fit perfectly with the approach of Bezos’s rapid-delivery AmazonFresh service. Those bright green trucks could well be the wave of the future, battling the UPS brown fleet.

The idea that you could get the consumer anything overnight was once the Holy Grail of delivery systems. More recently, Bezos has publicly said he wants to get it to you within hours. Or minutes. Or maybe Amazon’s software will get so good that it will know what you want even before you know that you want it, so that when you decide to get it, it’s already there. The man is known for thinking several steps ahead of everyone else.

Still, I’m skeptical that Bezos was thinking about physical delivery in this specific decision to take over the Post. In fact, I believe he was thinking about the very opposite. Before long, I expect he will stop delivering the Post altogether. At least, that is, the Post in the flesh; that corporal, inky thing that smells and smudges and rustles pulp non-fiction satisfyingly over your morning cereal.

Jeff Bezos is impatient to push us all into the digital future, and what better way to dramatize and hasten the shift than to convert one of America’s truly great news“papers” into a fully digital product, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s capital?

Political and media leaders will still want to read Post and to do so, they’ll have to call it up on their Kindle. (Or their iPad or their Windows tablet, since Bezos is happy to distribute for free the Kindle Reading software that so magnanimously allows people to purchase Amazon content for just about any electronic device known to man.)

It is a digital pursuit intended to drive analog artifacts such as physical newspapers the way of the horse and buggy. Yet, oddly, I find myself wishing the man good luck and Godspeed. I say “oddly” because I doubt there is anyone alive who could possibly love newspapers — I mean real old-fashioned newspapers, the ones that roll off the presses — more than I do. I take three each day on my doorstep, and I’d gladly take more if they were available and I could afford it.

But as much as I love newspapers, it’s far more important for news itself to survive and thrive than for an antiquated means of delivering it to do so. And, let’s face it: Newspapers are indeed antiquated.

As Michael Kinsley outlined in a Slate piece several years ago, a daily newspaper is an almost comically outdated vehicle for delivering the news, an industrial-era relic for our post-industrial age. What sense does it possibly make to drive hundreds of miles into a forest to chop down trees, haul them back to the city, convert them to paper with printed information and then load them onto trucks again in a rush to get them to readers? No matter how much the circulation teams busts its butt, the news on your stoop is still several hours old by the time you open up the paper.

There has to be a better way. (Or, even if, like me, you may not consider it a better way, at least a more efficient one.) With the press of a button, you can download news that’s far more current than what’s in your fishwrapper. I may be a newsprint junkie, but I’m on the more seasoned side of 50 years of age, and virtually everyone on the other, greener side expects — demands — that their news be fresher.

So I have long thought — and hoped and prayed — that tablet technology will eventually take us straight back to the future.

Cheap, rollable, foldable, take-to-the-beachable and downloadable tablets will give us our up-to-the-minute news while also replicating what was so great about a traditional broadsheet newspaper: a massive amount of information made miraculously affordable by advertisers.

The architecture of a webpage chained to your desktop computer screen was never destined to be an attractive advertising spot, for all kinds of now-obvious reasons. But a tablet with the shape and size, maneuverability and portability of broadsheet, is a very different animal.

And if there is anyone on the planet who can figure out how to birth and nourish this animal, it’s Jeffrey P. Bezos. As oafish as this digital baron’s pre-millennial drop-in on the analog Elliott Bay Books may have been, I’ve never considered him the Darth Vader of publishing.

The man is taking us where we were all going to go eventually; he’s just smart enough to have figured it out first. And just as the Kindle has hardly slaked our thirst for stories, Bezos’s Post won’t lessen our need for news. It may even rekindle the news industry. Here’s hoping that’s exactly what he has in mind.

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