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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.