What could a Jeff Bezos Washington Post look like?

There will be changes afoot at the venerable institution.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post. Given the long and storied history of rich people buying newspapers because they want to have fun, it would be perfectly possible to believe that Bezos has no real plans for the paper. After all, this is a man who has spend huge amounts of his own money on projects like recovering engines used in one of the Apollo missions from the sea floor, a $42m clock designed to tick for 10,000 years, and a space flight company. He is clearly capable of doing things with no eye on making a return.

But at the same time, there's no indication to suggest that Bezos views the purchase as a vanity project, or a donation to the future of journalism. And, while the purchase is technically in Bezos' own name, rather than being a corporate takeover by Amazon, that is likely due to the intricacies of valuing the long-term prospects of a newspaper – as well as the fact that Amazon's shareholders would slaughter him. What it doesn't prevent is any interaction between the two. Amazon has expertise in so many areas where the Washington Post – along with most papers – suffers, that a joint strategy could transform publishing.

Delivery

Amazon offers free next-day delivery to every customer which has signed up to its Prime service. It even offers same-day delivery in major cities; as it expands its distribution centres, expect delivery to get quicker still. When applied to the Washington Post, it's not difficult to imagine that the company could start bypassing newsagents entirely, offering flexible speedy delivery to a location of the customers' choice.

But also consider the fact that printing is a tiny portion of a paper's expenditure. Cover prices are normally enough to just about pay for the cost of distribution, and also to guarantee to advertisers that they are speaking to a wealthy audience. But suppose that Amazon starts shipping it for free to customers, or people who've purchased certain items. It would massively increase readership, which would please advertisers; but would also only involve people who were proven to spend money online, which could retain some of the prestige that advertisers like.

Digital

Obviously the match between the Washington Post and the Kindle is one made in heaven. Periodical subscriptions on the devices have taken a back seat to the sort of thing Amazon likes pushing on the Kindle Fire, such as games, movies and music; but there's still a lot more to do in the space, and the Washington Post could do it well.

But more than simply serving content, where Amazon really comes into its own is in its control of the data behind its customers. Not only is it another layer of useful information to know whether a particular customer is also a Post subscriber; it also comes right back to questions of advertising. Kindle subscriptions to the paper could leverage the company's data stores to deliver targeted adverts, and there's no real reason why the same couldn't be true of print subscriptions (beyond boring questions of cost, that is. But Amazon is a company which bought robots to make their warehouses more efficient. If they want more flexibility with their printing presses, they can find a way).

Alex MacGillis at the New Republic argues that the Amazon mentality is antisocial, one which degrades workers and dissolves community ties. In an age of Tesco and Wal-Mart, it's hard to view brick-and-mortar stores as any more community oriented than Amazon, but if anti-social behaviour on the small scale is what it takes to keep journalism alive on the national stage, it is probably a step worth taking.

Jeff Bezos. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.