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.
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.
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.