Jeff Bezos And The Future Of News

Jeff Bezos, in a memo to Washington Post employees after he purchased the company:

The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

Once upon a time, when towns were small, all news was passed over the fence, neighbor to neighbor. Did you hear about the Johnson girl? I didn’t but I did hear that there’s a sale down at the general store.

As towns grew bigger the dissemination of news became more centralized and the desire for a single news source increased. The town paper had authority and ethics and all the things we expect from a paper of record.

As the towns grew into cities it was no longer good enough for that paper to just provide the local sports scores and happenings on Main Street on Saturday night. Now it had to provide national news as well. Every city bigger than a couple  hundred thousand people had a paper with both national and local news. Every paper, outside of the evening news, became the source for all information.

And then the Internet came along and suddenly we could get national news from anywhere. This diminished the value proposition of the local paper and that diminishing value meant diminishing financial returns.

You know all this, of course. It’s been discussed ad nauseum for years now.

I believe, however, that at some point we will reach a tipping point where local papers become local papers again and a few national papers become the paper-of-record for US news. At this point it is clear that three papers have the ability to make it as national news sites (paper will go away) of record: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Others may survive also — The LA Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald — but these are the three worth betting on.

A massive overhaul will be required, a re-organization of the mission and goals of these venerable institutions. But if I was a betting man — one with an interest in journalism and money to burn like Jeff Bezos — a bet on one of the Big Three sure makes for an interesting play.