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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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