How Jeff Bezos Just Might Save Newspapers

D. Eadward Tree is not impressed. The pseudonymous publishing industry pundit, known for his wit and wisdom as Chief Arborist of the Dead Tree Edition blog, is put off by comments from Amazon CEO and soon-to-be Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos regarding his philosophy for running a newspaper.

Bezos said in an interview this week that he intends to put the Post‘s readers first, and stated his skepticism for “any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece.”

“The last time I looked, the vast majority of American newspapers’ revenue came not from readers but from another type of customer – advertisers,” Tree writes.

As a former newspaperman myself, my instinct is to agree with Tree. Advertisers pay the bills—therefore, on the business side, they’re the ones who need to be catered to (assuming that Church and State wall is strictly policed). That’s why publishers from The New York Times Co. to Atlantic Media are introducing innovative new ad strategies, such as the Times’ Ricochet project, which guarantees an advertiser’s display ad appears with linked content.

But what if Tree is wrong, and Bezos is right? At some point, we in media have to face the music—or in this case, the hard evidence at hand. Conventional wisdom states that newspapers must focus on advertisers, but in the digital era, focusing one’s business plan around advertising has proved to be a disaster. Ad revenue has plummeted, even at the most innovative of media outfits—the New York Times reported late last year that its parent company’s print and digital advertising revenues were shrinking. The only positive trend on the balance sheet was revenue growth from digital subscriptions—those pesky readers Bezos talks about.

At Amazon, Bezos has proven a master of building customer loyalty and brand affection. People trust Amazon and its pledge to make things right for consumers in the face of problems. As newspapers increasingly turn to digital subscriptions to make up for lost ad revenue, this is exactly what is needed to build and maintain loyalty. Smart digital tools, customization, product bundling, a variety of purchase options (by the article, by the day, by the month, etc.)—these are kind of things Bezos knows about, and the kind of thing that could save newspapers.

Relying on advertisers sure aint it. For newspapers, focusing on advertisers is a dead end. It’s not that ads will not continue to be important, but it just might be a better strategy to build the readership first, and then sell ads to that coveted base of paying readers. I don’t know if this is what Bezos has in mind, but I do know the newspaper industry is in desperate need of a new plan. It may be time to ditch the conventional wisdom.

Pile-On the Editors: A Tale From the Trenches

pylon2bIn my days in the trenches as a managing editor, first in newspapers and then in magazines, I occasionally (usually after a long meeting introducing a new task for us word wranglers couched as an “opportunity”) would consider starting an anonymous blog called “The Editor Pile-On.” The home page would feature an orange highway pylon—maybe placed on an office chair sporting a hat, on its side covered in memos, or squashed on the pavement with tire treads—meant to symbolize the ever-increasing responsibilities of the editor amid ever-shrinking manpower and resources.

I worked for a paper in Northern New Jersey in the early aughts which, not too many years previous, had an editor and two reporters on its masthead, all working exclusively for that publication. By the time I arrived, there was one full-time reporter, and I was expected to put out three papers, as well as (unlike in the old days) take care of proofreading, calendar listings, layout, most aspects of production, and some reporting. In recent years, editors have taken on even more duties: social media, html, photo editing, marketing, webinars, events, etc. While needless fat has surely been culled along the way, an editor’s job today often feels like a constant balancing act between quality, quantity, quantity, quantity, more quantity, brevity… and sanity.

On the other hand, the new media landscape has created myriad new opportunities for editors. Down in the trenches, they gain the skills needed to carry them through changes and adjust to this industry’s evolution in a way that their hidebound forebears could not have imagined. Skills in social media, marketing and content management are no longer nice-to-haves, they are essential. The editor’s job, it can be argued, is more critical than ever, and the skills gained can carry individuals through a long career in publishing or other fields.

Where do you stand on this issue? As an editor, do you feel put-upon, on the fast track, or something in between? Take our editor’s survey and let us know. It only takes a couple of minutes. We’ll publish the results on this blog and our website, which launches in just a few weeks, along with helpful ideas and insights.

Editors! Make your voice heard! Take our survey here.

Old vs. New Media: An Outdated Argument?

FioreLaptopA friend sent me a funny video: Mark Fiore’s “Old vs. New” is a debate between a crusty old newspaper and a too-perky laptop over what best constitutes news gathering in the age of Twitter. Newspaper stresses its historic role in uncovering and combating corruption; Laptop, the wired world’s flexibility and freedom of information access.

“I know how to monetize, and collect micro-payments,” Laptop says.

“I need macro-payments!!” Newspaper cries. “I’m laying off good journalists here!”

“And have been for years while trying to satisfy corporate’s hunger for double-digit profits,” Laptop retorts. Touché.

It’s true that newspapers’ former monopoly on the news made them bloated cash cows just waiting for technology to knock them off their slippery perch. It’s also true that this very same monopoly allowed them to shine a light on abuses of power—public or private, local, state or national—far more effectively than any digital publication can today. While the Texas Tribune does great work, it is necessarily niche in a way that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in its heyday, was not. Plus, as a 501(c)3, the Tribune does not enjoy the resources of traditional newspapers. It’s hoping it can just break even.

As I’ve written before, one answer for traditional media is to stop looking down on micro-payments. As the music industry learned the hard way, if you want people to pay, you need to make it easy for them. This means offering paid daily access on NYTimes.com, not just expensive digital subscriptions. It means selling articles, e-books and archives, and figuring out how to capitalize on print in creative new ways.

As Newspaper and Laptop reveal at the end of the video, both often find themselves running a little low on cash. The failure of any one digital news site to corner the market on anything is traditional media’s great opportunity. Unlike the old days, one business behemoth has not been replaced by another; the playing field is even, and, as terms like “traditional” and “new” begin to lose their meaning, the spoils will go to any player who can master the multiplatform marketplace.