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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder