I have nothing original to add to Noah Millman’s quite fascinating analysis of the Bezos purchase of the WaPo, and what it could portend for the future of journalism. But in the same vein, I do want to commend to you, along with Noah’s piece, a great letter to Bezos published by ex-Postie Kara Swisher, advising him on how he has the chance to do something really great and visionary here — something that might save not only the Post, but newspaper journalism. Excerpt:
While technology expertise is surely important to the future of the Post and to all media, and it’s nice to have an extraordinarily wealthy guy that gets the Internet deeply on board, what’s actually going to matter to your success is very different than it seems.
I’ll focus here on the editorial side, since it will be those products that matter first, rather than the more nuts-and-bolts business-side overhaul.
To me, the most important trick is to deeply inculcate the joy of Internet journalism, without losing (actually restoring to some degree, after recent cutbacks) the great editorial values and breakthrough journalism of the Post. Fusing the old-media storytelling and news-integrity values that I learned at the Post with the Internet values of speed and personality — and, well, some level of fun at the right times — is critical.
In other words, make it clear that it is possible to do great journalism in an Internet way — even more possible because you’re freer and, most of all, readers want to read it that way. That entails inspiring the staffers of the newspaper to create content that is — as it has been — accurate, ethically sound, of high quality, but also much more compelling, and delivered in a way that modern customers want to consume it. Formulate those big stories primarily on the Web, and allow a conversation with readers to bubble up from there.
Except in some cases, that is simply not happening at the Post, where the Internet still —still — feels like an afterthought. As much as I like Wonkblog, for example, I love Nate Silver so much more. (And why didn’t the Post grab Silver, rather than Disney, and let him do whatever he wanted?)
Think of that: I. Love. Nate. Silver. You need to find more reporters and writers that readers love again, for all the right reasons, and not because they can string together a clever listicle (though, if truth be told, I love a good listicle). Spend a lot for some, because talent — as you know — is a key element. Reward that talent, too, especially those with an entrepreneurial bent, instead of treating staffers as if they were some fungible cog in the old-media engine.
You know what this reminds me of? Conditions that made possible the breakout of late 1960s – 1970s film directors: Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Spielberg, and the others, including producer Robert Evans. That revolutionary generation got its start because the old studios were on the ropes, creatively and financially and desperate for something new. The old-line media bosses today may be like the studio bosses were in the era that saw the collapse of the old studio system. Back then, the studio bosses didn’t understand the counterculture, and still hadn’t figured out how to deal with the threat from television. Sound familiar? Maybe someone like Bezos, who gets the Web (today’s equivalent to the counterculture) in a way the Grahams and their lieutenants never did, can open the door for the journalistic Scorseses, Spielbergs, and Coppolas. Maybe.
You need to find more reporters and writers that readers love again, for all the right reasons… . When is the last time you really loved a newspaper writer like you love your favorite bloggers? Swisher says Bezos should spend money to hire talent, and that’s true, but he should be very careful about what he counts as “talent.” Tina Brown, who was a great old-media editor in her day, spent lavishly to hire big-name established talent for The Daily Beast and Newsweek. Her hires were often gifted people who had made their names in old media, and became known within the old NYC-DC network, but who didn’t have the same kind of cachet in the digital age. In this way, Bezos can’t see his role as providing the cash for Joseph L. Mankiewicz to cast Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra.
Swisher gets to part of the problem here:
There is also the challenge, too, of training a group of editorial leaders who are immersed in the Internet and, more importantly, who enjoy being in it. I am always being pinged by journalists at big news companies about how much they are being pushed to be more “social” by their editors, to tweet more, to Instagram more, to Tumblr more.
How, they ask, do I and my staff at AllThingsD do it so much? What are the rules and practices they can follow to be successful? Who can they talk to about it? I never know how to answer these queries, because we simply live it. Trying to describe that is akin to explaining to someone how to breathe.
Early in my newspaper career, I got a good friend a one-shot freelance gig reviewing a play for the paper I was working for at the time. He was a brilliant academic who was in the perfect position to review this particular play. We saw the play together and returned to the newspaper office. He sat in front of the computer terminal for two hours, unable to write a single publishable line. It was all too abstruse and academic. Writing in a journalistic style didn’t come naturally to him, and was, in fact, so foreign that it completely stymied him. He finally gave up; we axed the review (it was a mercy killing). I think of how my supersmart, highly literate friend just didn’t understand how to communicate with newspaper readers, and I think of the older, established print journalism figures today.
I think this Bezos purchase is going to mean good things for an industry that hasn’t had good news in many years. I could be wrong.