Play It Again Jeff

It was recently announced that Jeff Bezos, the Founder of Amazon has bought that great newspaper  ‘The Washington Post’. It’s important to make the distinction that it is not Amazon that has acquired the newspaper; Bezos personally has bought it.

Aside from being an invitation for every wag on the web to crack the obvious joke (“Jeff based on recent purchases you might also be interested in ‘The LA Times’, ‘Newsweek’..”), it’s interesting to speculate on just why Bezos has done this.

Generally people buy newspapers in order to buy access, influence or respectability. They certainly don’t buy heritage newspapers these days to make money (if indeed they ever did), or to help maintain a low public profile (Bezos is by all accounts a private person). He founded one of the most successful digital businesses ever and one has to assume that if he really wanted access to or influence over the great and the good he could make that happen without the encumbrance of a newspaper.

We can set aside any theories about using ‘The Washington Post’ as a vehicle to promote Amazon, or indeed vice-versa, given that the purchase has been made privately as opposed to with corporate funds.

One parallel can perhaps be found in the past. One eventual consequence of Rupert Murdoch entering the UK newspaper market was the modernisation of the industry. Murdoch moved all of his newspapers from their old hot-metal Fleet Street home, where (like every other newspaper proprietor) he was subject to a range of disruptive tactics by the print unions, to Wapping, where journalists entered copy directly from their computers, and where electricians rather than the print unions made up the workforce.

The move to Wapping in January 1986, made overnight and without a single edition lost is one of the great stories in newspaper history (Linda Melvern’s book ‘The End of the Street’ chronicles this period brilliantly. It’s available from you-know-where at the time of writing for £0.01). Others followed; the industry was changed forever.

Today, newspapers are metamorphosing from printed things to online things. Many are struggling to come to terms with this change – including journalists, advertising sales teams and old-style newspaper managers. As Aaron Levie, the founding CEO of Box, tweeted: “Industries are transformed by outsiders who think anything is possible, not insiders who think they already know what is impossible.”

Maybe as an outsider Jeff Bezos simply loves newspapers. Maybe he has a vision that involves taking one of the greatest newspaper brands into a digital future. One thing’s for sure – he’s the first digital superstar to take on a newspaper and thus to become what used to be referred to as a press baron.

Transforming a print-based industry reliant on paper into one that uses digital technologies to build and maintain a dialogue with customers sounds like the sort of challenge that might appeal to Jeff Bezos. After all, he’s done it once before.

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