Jeff Bezos, who made billions building Amazon as an online bookseller before transforming it into the big box retailer par excellence,1 sent journalists scrambling with yesterday’s purchase of the Washington Post and its subsidiaries. Some of the pundits even think it’s a potentially beneficial change of ownership for the Post.
Of course, it would be entirely premature to pass judgment at this stage, but I incline toward the opinion that this is better for Bezos and his businesses than it is for the Fourth Estate. If your goal is to influence digital legislation, you could do a lot worse than buying the most circulated paper in Washington, not to mention the eighth most circulated in the nation and online. That’s especially true given how the evolution of Amazon’s business model has come to depend on how well the company courts the political establishment.
When you’re as skeptical (or is it cynical?) as I am about Amazon’s impact—and, by extension, that of its founder—it’s difficult to read the favorable op-eds in the spirit their authors intended. Many of the possibilities they spin as potential boons for the Post and its peers look to me more like worst case scenarios. I read opinions like that offered by Virginia Heffernan and wonder if they really understand just what they’re asking for. In a piece for Yahoo News, she wrote that,
It would be spectacular if Bezos figured out a way to merchandise the content in the Washington Post—have readers and viewers come, as to Amazon, for the content—and half-accidentally buy from Amazon’s brilliant retail operation souvenirs of that media experience.
If I’m honest with myself, I probably have to admit that there was never much chance that Heffernan and I would see eye-to-eye. Anyone who would think it “spectacular” that a “media experience” crafted to entice readers to “half-accidentally buy” from a retailer that’s already swallowing entire markets whole obviously views things from a different perspective than I do.
I wonder, though, how much of that stems from a failure to see the full potential of her idea. She envisions the Post routing through Amazon to sell “Post-branded Umbrellas and crossword-puzzle books and commemorative covers and framed photographs of the royal baby or the Redskins.” That in itself ought to be reason for concern. After all, more articles about the royal baby means more opportunities to sell frame photographs of the royal baby, so why shouldn’t the Post run as much royal gossip as the public can stomach?
Down that road lies the potential for cultural dissonance on a large scale. What, for example, is the marketable object from a story about rising gun violence? More guns, perhaps. When it pays the bills for more culturally responsible reporting, will a Post jacked directly into Amazon be able to avoid the temptation presented by softer stories that happen to have a strong product connection, like articles about the latest untested herbal remedy? Most importantly, what becomes of civically important news stories that contain no clear funnel back to the checkout page?
Heffernan is right that some measure of profitability is necessary to the health of journalism, but profitability cannot be allowed to override other concerns.2 There’s a reason that guardians of the Fourth Estate have long insisted on maintaining a wall between the advertising and editorial departments. Apart from his general willingness to tear down old conventions, there’s no indication yet that Bezos intends to touch the wall at the Post. If he’s genuinely interested in the future of journalism, he’ll make sure that the paper’s revenue is never tethered to Amazon.