Much of the coverage of the surprise announcement that Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos has purchased the Washington Post for $250 million has focused on what worrisome changes the tech mogul might make to one of the country’s flagship political publications. But it strikes me as relatively futile to read the tea leaves of Bezos’ minimal political contributions and his company’s political priorities, much less his reassuring public statements. The truth is, the Washington Post could be a stronger paper than in is presently, and rather than trying to predict what changes Bezos might make from his geographically distant perch, I think it’s worth focusing on what the Post could do better. Whether Bezos wants to do a department-by-department audit is up to him. But I think these are three opportunities presented by the transfer of the paper from the Graham family to Bezos that could take advantage of Bezos’ strengths and the particular weaknesses of the current ownership:
1. The Washington Post has a new chance to figure out its brand: Unlike the New York Times, the Washington Post has long been a local paper that, virtue of the particular locale that it covers, has been at the leading edge of certain national stories, including the crimes that lead to the impeachment of President Nixon, and more recently, revelations about the National Security Agency’s data-collection activities. That split brand produces complications for both the Post’s journalism operations and its business. It’s never going to cover as much territory as the Times does, and the readers that come in for its big, national exclusives aren’t necessarily going to be long-term customers. But one place where the publication has acted like a national news organization is online, where Ezra Klein’s WonkBlog and Tim Lee’s The Switch cover policy-centric news with a tone and eye aimed at the national audiences for health care, budget, and technology news, and sometimes culture as well.
In his letter to readers and staff of the paper, Bezos suggested that a commitment to local reporting would continue to buy the Post. ” Our touchstone will be readers,” he wrote, “Understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there.” The Times has managed to do all of those things too, but it has an added advantage in that there’s a certain perception that stories about New York are national stories, indicative in some way of what’s coming for the rest of us next, particularly when it comes to sociology, food, and fashion. It would be an uphill battle for Bezos to do the same with the Post’s local coverage–Washington, despite its status as the nation’s capital, isn’t seen as a trendsetter in the same way New York is. But it might be an interesting way to try to reconcile the two halves of the Post’s brand, while growing its audience.
2. As the Post’s ownership changes, so could its leadership–and with it, some of the paper’s priorities: “The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on,” Bezos wrote in that same letter. But that doesn’t mean that Katharine Weymouth will stay publisher of the Washington Post forever. And as leadership of the paper turns over, some of the Post’s editorial priorities seem like they could change as well. I’ve already seen jokes that the sale might mean the end of stories from Lally Weymouth, Don and Kay Graham’s daughter, and a senior associate editor of the paper, in the Post. On Faith, the Post’s project on religion and belief, is a creative idea for a section that might do better without Sally Quinn, the wife of the Vice President At Large of the Post, Ben Bradlee, who has been tightly associated with the Graham family.
Bezos would probably be wise not to be seen as aggressively cleaning house of the old regime. But if they’re smart, once the transition is underway, some of these representatives of the old Post might step aside in deference to whatever larger vision comes to govern the paper. One of the things that’s always made the Post seem local, if not downright colloquial, is a perception of cronyism that hangs around some of these staff positions that have stayed in the family or that seem more like nods of gratitude to the Post’s history. A break with that tradition might freshen the paper’s brand and public perception.
3. The website could get better: For a major publication’s site, WashingtonPost.com is impressively terrible. Its fonts look antiquated. There’s an enormous amount of awkward wasted space around ad boxes and text. Where space isn’t wasted, the text is exceptionally busy. Images and excerpts aren’t optimized for the space in which they appear. Section divisions like “Lifestyle” and “Entertainment” are entirely arbitrary. And I’ve heard apocalyptic things about the difficulty of using the Post’s content management system from staffers there.
Making an e-commerce site and a news site usable are different tasks, but Bezos could do an enormous service to the Post’s staff and readers by redesigning its and making it more pleasant and intuitive to read. I can also imagine that there’s an Amazon algorithm or two that could recommend content to readers, particularly longform pieces from the Post’s archives keeping them on the site longer and monetizing the back issues better.