If anyone can find a viable plan for newspapers, Jeff Bezos can

Anyone who loves and values newspapers should rejoice at this turn of events

Share

If ever there was a miserably clumping, clodhopping metaphor for the decline of newspapers – and I do hope I’m not giving away any market sensitive trade secrets by mentioning that things haven’t been so good for us for a while – this week’s shock sale of the Washington Post is surely it. In 1974, the paper legendarily brought down Richard M Nixon with the dogged, unswerving brilliance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative journalism. Almost four decades on, not a single reporter on that great title had the vaguest clue it was about to be purchased, for $250m, by the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The long and winding road from Deep Throat to Deep Pocket has not been smooth.

Yet this is not, the Lord be praised, another whingeful, self-pitying article about the slow death from blood loss of this industry. We have all read, and in some cases written, enough of those that each fresh one has the flavour of a haiku. Far from it, the musical accompaniment to this piece about the future of newspapers is not the exquisitely doleful strains of Fauré’s Requiem, for once. It is the cheery disco beat of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (or more accurately, We May Survive).

The flame of hope flickers anew on the basis that Mr Bezos’s decision to spend almost one percent of his personal wealth (according to the Post, his net worth is $25.2bn) may represent a luscious oasis in this brutally arid trek through the Atacama of despair. The hope is nebulous, and the oasis may prove a mirage. Mr Bezos, who has bought the Post with his own cash rather than Amazon’s, appears to have no specific idea what he wants to do with it. “This will be uncharted terrain,” he said in a statement to a staff that will not, he insists, be reduced. “There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.” Nebulous, as I said. But as Alan Bennett put it when asked during a period of prolonged celibacy if he was straight or gay, you don’t ask a man dying of thirst in the desert whether he wants Evian or Perrier. You grab at any potential lifeline, as he was too elegant to spell out, and suck every drop of juice out of it.

Perhaps this unfamiliar burst of optimism is nothing more than naive wishful thinking. For a decade, a host of very clever people here, in the States and elsewhere, have been ransacking their brains until they scream for the Nurofen Plus for a business model to enable newspapers to survive in the online age. And thus far, to put it charitably, without tremendous success.

The internet, as hardly needs stating, is the most ferocious catalyst for cultural change since the invention of the printing press, if not in all of human history. Thanks primarily to Amazon and the Kindle which Mr Bezos invented, it has wrought monstrous damage on publishing. This digital tsunami has swept aside CDs and DVDs, virtually washing away the likes of HMV, and brought all manner of other traditional retailers to their knees: only this week, a government minister called for high-street shops, wrecked by their online rivals, to be transformed into residential dwellings. And it has dealt such destruction to print media that, six years after Rupert Murdoch paid $5bn for the Wall Street Journal – six years in which the Washington Post’s revenues and circulation have both declined by 42 per cent – Mr Bezos could snap up another of the planet’s most illustrious titles for a pitiful fraction of that amount.

The Washington Post has been sold to Jeffrey Bezos for $250m The Washington Post has been sold to Jeffrey Bezos for $250m

This is almost a crude a metaphor as the one in the opening paragraph, but his purchase  of the Post brings to mind the driver of a state-of-the-art juggernaut first mowing down a woolly mammoth that had strayed onto a Seattle  freeway; and then thinking better of it,  reversing, leaping from his cab, and giving it the kiss of life.

If so, one among so many mysteries about this deal is his motivation for wanting to save the creature from extinction. From what little is known about Jeff Bezos (who happens to be a quite uncanny doppleganger for the Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy; please God his next acquisition is Spurs), egomania seems as unlikely an explanation as any Murdochian urge to use the paper to manipulate politicians to do his will, or to promote his other commercial interests. He seems a reticent, modest kind of guy, and anything but the type to treat himself, a few months short of his 50th birthday, to a flashy new toy to alleviate the pangs of a mid-life crisis. He insists he has no intention of interfering with the content, promising to delegate the day to day stuff to the current management.

Part of it could be that, as a Seattle liberal who has donated heavily to the campaign for same-sex marriage, he venerates the Post for removing the malignant mass that was Nixon from the American body politic; and appreciates that, in as flawed and inherently corrupt a democratic system as the United States’, and indeed our own, the central importance of well-funded  investigative reporting, of the sort so gravely imperilled during this endless transition from print to digital, cannot be overstated.

If that torrent of uninformed speculation seems absurdly to idealise an internet titan far away of whom we know little, whose intentions as a newspaper proprietor are unclear even to himself, so be it. Straw-clutching has been the name of this desperate game for a very long time, and the plain fact that Bezos sees a newspaper as a worthy investment looks like one hell of a miraculous straw. All one can state with a shred of confidence is that the man regarded by Warren Buffet as the best CEO in America is an  innovator of genius; that if anyone alive can  develop a viable business model, and illuminate a path enshrouded in darkness for the rest of us, it is him; and that as one revered (and sometimes scorned by Wall Street) for a preference for ultra long-term planning over short-term profiteering – bizarrely, Amazon actually lost $39bn last year – he will not become impatient and jump ship even if it takes an eon.

Anyone who loves and values newspapers, and comprehends that for all their failings, conceits and occasional misdemeanours, they are essential defenders of democracy, should rejoice at this startling turn of events. God alone knows where Jeff Bezos will take the Washington Post, let alone whether he can steer an entire ailing industry clear of the iceberg.

But if so determinedly futuristic a thinker – a man whose other companies include one devoted to developing a space vehicle, and another working on a rocket launch site in Texas – believes that there is life in this old dinosaur yet, that is more than enough excuse to dream, if not of a renaissance, of survival at least.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Sub-System Design Verification engineer

Flexible working, annual bonus, pension & more.: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the oppor...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Architect

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? MBDA has e...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

MBDA UK Ltd: PCB Technologies Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in April. The classical musical festival is one of the BBC’s most cherished institutions  

The Proms must be dragged into the 21st century

David Lister
Lesley Roberts's benefits were stopped after she was erroneously declared fit for work by an Atos doctor  

I started receiving benefits after being given less than 3 years to live. And now the Government wants to make life even harder for people like me

Lesley Roberts
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor