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It’s 1968, & Jeff Bezos Just Bought A Hollywood Studio

I have nothing original to add to Noah Millman’s quite fascinating analysis of the Bezos purchase of the WaPo [1], 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 [2], 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 [3].

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.

Yes. Exactly.

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.


21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "It’s 1968, & Jeff Bezos Just Bought A Hollywood Studio"

#1 Comment By ck On August 8, 2013 @ 9:00 am

In regard to an older media organization that hasn’t missed a beat with the internet, tweeting and the like, there is ESPN.

SI, which is old old media, is pretty much dead.

#2 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On August 8, 2013 @ 9:11 am

That’s a fantastic analogy for the movie industry…just about all of my favorite films were produced in just that post-68 generation you describe…

So I am hoping there’s hope…

#3 Comment By Thomas On August 8, 2013 @ 9:15 am

All the sophistry in the world about fusing new and old world journalistic sensibilities won’t make one iota of difference, unless somebody can figure out a revenue model that works.

People can get reams of drecky listicles free at a billion other sites on the internet. They can get quality longform writing from specialist magazines, journals and books. The only thing that newspapers can really offer anymore is local news (not applicable in this case) and investigate journalism, which nobody seems to be willing to pay for, regardless of its importance for the culture at large.

#4 Comment By indolent socialist kenyan On August 8, 2013 @ 9:18 am

This is all thoughtful, good advice. But as for the love of individual bloggers, I think Paul Krugman had an important point the other day: “Somehow the economics of this new world have to be worked out; but they are definitely problematic. Someone like Nate can become a celebrity and cut free of the middleman; but the people reporting on City Hall can’t, and we need those people too.”

There may not be an answer. With the unbundling of classified ad revenue from news reporting– and the possible unbundling of sports, politics, local, style, etc. reporting from each other– unglamorous stuff like reporting from city hall might fall mainly by the wayside.

In which case we might be in for a golden age of entertaining journalism, and a golden age of local government grift.

#5 Comment By David J. White On August 8, 2013 @ 9:28 am

When is the last time you really loved a newspaper writer like you love your favorite bloggers?

Honestly? Probably the 80s-early 90s, when I was living in Philadelphia and read the Inquirer every day, and Steve Lopez, Claude Lewis, and Clark DeLeon were writing for them. The syndicated columnist whom I miss most is probably William Raspberry.

Steve Lopez was a hoot, and also had a great deal of heart. He ended up moving to LA, where he wrote about meeting a homeless cellist; this was later made into the movie The Soloist, with Robert Downer, Jr. playing Lopez.

But in Philadelphia he wrote about local issues, particularly the city government, which of course gave him a wide field. He memorably described the mayoral race between Wilson Goode and Frank Rizzo in 1987 as a choice between the Evil of Two Lessers.

So, yeah, I think this is a great point: to get people to want to read newspapers again — in whatever format — you need to cultivate writers whom the readers want to read and follow, because they want to hear what these writers have to say, and how they say it. Just becoming a clearinghouse for news factoids, even local news, won’t be enough, because there are too many other places nowadays where people can get that, if all they are looking for is bare snippets of information.

So, as with so many other businesses, a news organization’s real assets are its human ones. It remains to be seen whether the owners really understand and appreciate that.

#6 Comment By Scott in PA On August 8, 2013 @ 11:12 am

This strikes me as akin to John Astor purchasing the Titanic after it struck the iceberg. But I’m hardly concerned with how Mr Bezos wastes his money.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 8, 2013 @ 11:17 am

The only thing that newspapers can really offer anymore is local news (not applicable in this case) and investigate journalism, which nobody seems to be willing to pay for, regardless of its importance for the culture at large.

It’s important to highlight a legal difference between reporting, and other forms of creative art, and how they are treated by copyright law.

Most forms of creative art–film and television (to tie this to the “studio” analogy), music (composition and performance), literature, painting, etc…. is expressive in nature. Quite a bit of it is fictional. Artistic expression, and original elements of works, receive extensive protection from copyright law. I cannot go write and publish books on the subject of Harry Potter, even if mine were to use none of JK Rowling’s prose–she owns pretty much everything having to do with the Harry Potter universe, that is original. (She doesn’t own non-original elements, and/or what is known as the scenes a faire, however; thus nothing prevents someone else from writing a story about a boarding school for magicians, even though this might seem an obvious ripoff). But the essence of Harry Potter is protected by copyright.

News, on the other hand, consists mostly of the reporting and recitation of facts. All the hard work spent on gathering the news–the time spent browsing through file cabinets City Hall, or on the phone with Deep Throat, or standing on a freeway overpass in the middle of a hurricane to tell viewers that they’d be crazy to be outside in that weather–that all is outside the scope of copyright law (or any IP regime). The only thing that is protected is the final work product of the reporter, editor, and publisher–the journal (whether print or online) and its articles. (Likewise for TV and radio news). And these receive scant protection–for the simple fact that the essence of news reporting consists of facts, and facts may not be copyrighted, even if a given reporter expended a great deal of effort into their discovery. A reporter’s prose is copyrighted, but the prose and the choice of words is not the essence of a story, it’s the story itself. And since the essence of the story consists largely of things (record of actual events) that are outside the scope of copyright law, reporters and journals are frequently able to capture very little of the value of reporting and journalism.

I’m not suggesting that copyright law be changed to “fix” this. One interesting difference between the US and European copyright regimes is the latter has what is commonly known as “database copyright” (a collection of useful information that took effort to compile may be copyrighted, even if the individual elements of the database and its organization are not sufficiently original to merit copyright protection), whereas the US does not (the authoritative case on this is Feist v. Rural Telephone–in which it was held that a telephone directory was essentially not eligible for copyright protection).

But there is a difference between news and the movies. Coppola and his producers could sue anyone who made a film that ripped off Taxi Driver or The Godfather, even if it wasn’t outright piracy; and a blatant ripoff of a seminal work of art wouldn’t be considered an acceptable substitute by the market (unless it was an exact copy). But once a fact or news story is unleashed, it essentially becomes part of the public domain.

#8 Comment By Roger C. On August 8, 2013 @ 11:29 am

What do you think of the idea that circulation numbers might increase if the ideological bias was reduced?

When was the last time the WaPo endorsed a Republican for President?

#9 Comment By Jon S. On August 8, 2013 @ 11:40 am

If one is going to use the the movie studio analogy, I think you have exactly backwards. While it would be easy to pick out some great films made after the collapse of the studios, on the whole the the film product did not get better, it got demonstrably worse (for goodness sakes, who can sit through “classics” like Midnight Cowboy or McCabe and Mrs. Miller without being equally bored and disgusted). The studio system created a discipline that turned out films that people wanted to see. That’s what the profit motive achieved.

In addition, the auteurs like Spielberg, Altman, Scorsese, etc., ushered in the era of the film-school-graduate (although Altman was not a film school grad himself). These are people who learned a lot about the technical side of film making but knew next to nothing about telling a story. Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra loathed the “camera tricks” of the new directors. Just tell a story!

These film school people hadn’t read much literature, hadn’t thought much about character and story telling, and stressed too much the technical and editing side of things. A friend who was in film school for a while (and was an English major) tells me that this is still the case. No one in film school cares about story. It’s all technical stuff.

This is a problem in journalism. No offense, but our journalists are all J-school grads. They know how to get and write a story, but they don’t actually know anything (I generalize, obviously). This is like our education schools that teach people how to teach but don’t think it is important that teachers actually acquire content knowledge. What journalism program did Walter Lippmann or Ernie Pyle graduate from?

If the journalism industry wants to reinvigorate, one thing they should do is close all the J-schools. Learn an actual subject (not a profession), hone your writing skills on the job, and then be brilliant.

Bezos should scour schools and journals that are not Ivy League/elite and look for interesting people who know how to write. Then teach them a little of the newspaper biz, and then let them go out and tell good stories.

And as many have pointed out, don’t be insular and elite. The “auteur” film makers may have made some great art flicks, but did people ever go to see those films in droves (obviously the non-artsy Spielberg is an exception)? Wikipedia the top grossing films of 1978 (I picked a random year). Films like Animal House and Every Which Way But Loose made twice the money as The Deer Hunter (which is a fine film, I think). As the critics of the White House Correspondence dinner, and some recent critiques of the Post in light of its sale, have pointed out, Washington is too isolated from the rest of the nation, writing stories that only its (liberal) readers care about, and ignore stories that should be told (see John Podhoretz writing on this the other day).

Non-professionals doing stories that someone outside the elite liberal Washington set might care about. That’s the ticket to success.

#10 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 8, 2013 @ 11:53 am

Considering that the movies of the pre-Star Wars 1970s were unmitigated garbage, unwatchable today with the exception of a few pieces and some really funny soft-core porn, I would think that anyone who bought a studio in 1968 should have been buried at the crossroads with a stake through their hearts.

#11 Comment By J On August 8, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

I used to buy the L.A. Times in good part for Steve Lopez. He did the “Only in L.A.” column for a while which was the thing most worth reading in it.

There’s a lot of putting hope in princes going on here. Let’s not forget that whatever Bezos and is and does, the WaPo as it exists is a second rate paper of a second rate city, sharing its internal culture of myopia, grandiosity, and willing subservience to its town’s main industry and its captains and their conceits.

#12 Comment By Richard Parker On August 8, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

@Roger C

“When was the last time the WaPo endorsed a Republican for President?”

And whose fault is that?

#13 Comment By Beyng On August 8, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

I’m with Scott in PA. Bezos surely overpaid, and what he decides to do with an increasingly parochial, partisan rag that I don’t care to read anyway doesn’t concern me in the least. And no, he’s not going to revolutionize journalism. The internet has already done that.

The real crisis in journalism is at the local level. There will always be ambitious careerists and would-be national news outlets who cover the “big” stories in Washington and New York–whether it be on television, on the internet, or in print isn’t essential. But my venerable hometown newspaper, responsible for covering city hall, the school board, local obituaries and community gatherings, and so on–in short, responsible for being a centerpiece of associational life–just decided to go from printing six days per week to two, and it’s only a matter of time until they decide zero is the optimal number. Of course, my paper is one of many thousands across the country. There are simply very few viable local newspapers.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if there were viable replacements. For example, no one will mourn the passing of the Washington Post if Bezos fails because their are innumerable other sources for the news product it provides, and Ross Douthat and his ilk will be all right. But no one has stepped in to fill the void in local news. No one else has stepped in to cover local elections, school board happenings, and neighborhood politics. And these, friends, are the issues that actually matter to actual people on an actual daily basis. This is a real tragedy, or even a crisis.

AOL tried for a time with its Patch program (locally organized newswebsites and forums with paid staff tasked with doing what local newspapers once did), but as far as I know, that didn’t really work out.

[NFR: That’s a good point. I started a local blog to write about a certain political issue in our parish, from both a repertorial and editorial point of view, because the local paper doesn’t really cover it. Now we’re going into a parishwide election, and though I’m not endorsing a candidate, I’m going to do my best to interview all the candidates and to help readers make as informed a choice as possible. I’m doing this not because I’m making money at it, but because I know how to do it, and think it’s a service to the voters of my community. I don’t know why the local paper doesn’t cover this stuff closely, but it doesn’t. I know I’d happily subscribe if it did, but it doesn’t, so I don’t. — RD]

#14 Comment By libertarian jerry On August 8, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

Many media genres just reinvent themselves or become part of a limited niche. Before Television there was Radio. For about 25 years (mid 1920s to the late 1940s) Radio in the home,ruled the roost. By the early 1950s the big Radio in the living room was replaced by a TV set. Since that time,Radio has survived more or less concentrating on music and news. There are of course exceptions,but most people today listen to Radio in the car or on the internet. Radio had to reinvent itself or die. The same with the magazine business. News magazines,especially ones controlled by the elitists, are dieing out. Instead,we have seen the rise of the magazine niche business. That is magazines that specialize in certain fields: home improvement, hunting and fishing,guns,automobiles etc. Even then,many of these magazines are offered on the internet,for a price. The movie business has also reinvented itself. Most of the big movie houses and local movie theaters have been superseded by big multiplexes and or home DVD. Net flex and again the Internet have captured much of the movie business. Back in 1946 the average American attended movie houses,on average, twice a week. Those days are long gone. And now its the newspaper’s turn to reinvent itself. The problem is that many of the newspaper readers of the past have turned to the Internet for their information. Added to this is that most people,especially those under 40, just don’t do much reading anymore. Many of the famous newspapers out there are bleeding red ink profusely. Most of them are controlled by a few elitists who seek to bend or slant public opinion. Of course,a majority of voting age Americans really don’t care about public opinion. Over 50% of the population don’t vote at all. If they do vote,they vote their economic interests. Most thinking people,today,get their information from the Internet. One can click on the Internet and get most of the information they need to form decisions. Also,in the old days editorial pages limited their comments to a few letters. Back then trying to get a “letter to the editor” printed up in the average big city newspaper was next to impossible and frustrating especially for someone with a Conservative or Libertarian slant on events. Today,the big newspapers in America have become what Pravda used to be in the old Soviet Union,the lap dogs of the elitist,government establishment. That and the fact that no one wants to read day old news when,at their fingertips,with the stroke on the keyboard they can get most of the information they need instantly. Can the modern big city newspaper reinvent itself? Balancing things out I say no. Hundreds have gone belly up in the last several decades. Where cities once had several newspapers most are down to one or two. And,in the end,newspapers have become irrelevant. Just like the buggy whip and black and white TV.

#15 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 8, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

Considering that the movies of the pre-Star Wars 1970s were unmitigated garbage

The Godfather was garbage? Its sequel, too? A Clockwork Orange? M*A*S*H (the film, not the TV show)? The Exorcist? Chinatown? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? The French Connection?

Granted, the decade was dominated by many bad Pink Panther movies, cheesy disaster flicks (some things never change), Roger Moore Bond vehicles–and Disney didn’t make a single good film between The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid, which excludes the 1970s entirely–but there’s always good cinema if you know where to find it. And all the films I’ve listed are English-language major-studio productions, not true “indie” films without major studio backing and/or unknown directors or cast.

#16 Comment By The Man from K Street On August 8, 2013 @ 2:08 pm

Of course, the above poster is right that auteurism means nothing absent a salient business model. Of the ten top-grossing films of the 1970s, none of the directors Rod mentions (apart from Spielberg) is present. The film industry owes its survival through the seventies to a) Lucas, and b) immortal artists like Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2), Lewis Gilbert (two 007 movies), Randal Kleiser (Grease), Richard Donner (first installment in a now-dead superhero franchise) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever).

With the exception of SNF (I completely agree with The Derb on the greatness of that picture, but Badham never recaptured that magic), all of them were by-the-numbers studio output. Auteurs don’t bring home the groceries.

Also, bear in mind that that great era, now seen as the Golden Age of American Cinema, was short-lived–it was all over by 1980 with the crash of Heaven’s Gate and (more importantly) great bilious clouds of cocaine dust.

I wish Bezos well, but I think the experiment will fail. Thanks in part to the efforts of WaPo editorial bords, we are entering a post-literate phase of American decline, and an increasingly post-Anglophone one. Can anything top the LA Times’ long-standing campaign to remake its home region into one where most people cannot read it?

#17 Comment By Chris 1 On August 8, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

This line: Trying to describe that is akin to explaining to someone how to breathe. reminded me of this lyric from the early 1970s:

And then I know that all I’ve learned, my kid assumes.
And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons.

“Journalism” is largely a victim of its own success. Having been a trusted and influential institution in the 1970s, the era of Cronkite and Woodward/Bernstein, its practitioners formalized what they thought made them successful, and in the process became fossilized.

The world changed, journalism as a craft has been slow to learn and embrace what the younger generation assumes. A person who is 20 years old today was born in 1993, they do not know a time before the internet. They were two years old when Amazon.com was launched. They were born into a virtual environment in which newspapers were already archaic. Not reporting, but newspapers.

Journalism needs to break free from its delivery technology, Bezos is as good a candidate to do that as any.

#18 Comment By bones On August 8, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

“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.”

Isn’t the problem for newspapers that people do not consume the product its offering anymore? Or rather, that the method in which news is consumed is at odds with how newspapers are designed to deliver it? The internet (blogs, forums, Twitter, AmCon, Gawker etc) changed how the erstwhile newspaper subscriber interacts with the product. If that’s actually the case, I can’t see how having a wealthy benefactor will actually do much to arrest the collapse of the traditional newspaper model.

Put another way: Millenials are never, ever, going to suddenly start subscribing to the WaPo because it finally, 20 years later, reacted sensibly to the internet.

#19 Comment By jamie On August 8, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

I seem to recall the New Hollywood was bankrolled by power agents and insiders — Lew Wasserman, Arthur Krim, Ted Ashley, Warren Beatty, former actor Robert Evans. Hollywood has historically been a money pit for outsiders trying to “turn the place around” — see Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Marvin Davis, Mark Cuban. (Smart industrialists go to Hollyood to bed actresses, perhaps in exchange for producing some movies within the system — see Joe Kennedy, William Randolph Hearst, François-Henri Pinault.) I think the analogy is imperfect, mainly because history has shown that it’s impossible to “buy into” a Hollywood revolution; change in the American film industry has always been rather endogenous.

Newspapers are completely different, they often benefit from the ownership of well-meaning billionaire cranks (see the aforementioned Hearst), however they do much better if they’re owned by home-grown white-shoe types who bash the east siders on the editorial page, but at least make sure someone goes to the city council meetings — Norman Chandler, Robert R. McCormick, many a Sulzberger.

Since Bezos is buying only the paper, and not Slate or any other WPC properties, you have to wonder why he’s so passionate about zoning ordinances and the lack of good Mexican within the District. Either that, or he just bought it for the editorial page, so 7 days a week Washington elites will get to read the kind of technocratic, scientistic, world-is-flat Aspen Instituty liberal/libertarian schtick people like Kara Swisher would approve of.

#20 Comment By jamie On August 8, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

so 7 days a week Washington elites will get to read the kind of technocratic, scientistic, world-is-flat Aspen Instituty liberal/libertarian schtick people like Kara Swisher would approve of.

Oh, did I say union bashing? Union bashing too. Amazon hates them some unions.

#21 Comment By Ann Olivier On August 8, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

One point about the sale I’ve not seen made yet about an East to West shift:

Bezos is a Westerner through and through, though he was a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton. But the sale is going not from the West to the East, but, rather, a great Eastern institution is being given a new taproot in the West.

Consider also that many, many years ago Leland Stanford took 200 million of his own dollars from California to Harvard to bestow it on that venerable institution. Mr. Stanford, so the story goes, was kept waiting too long by an administrator so he took his 200M and took the train back home and established Stanford University. The nascent movie industry around that time shifted from New York to California, and the sometimes largest bank in America was started by Italian immigrants in California.
True, the financial industry is still centered in New York, but it is also much spread out now.

True, the center of the book industry is still there — but Mr. Bezos himself may have started changing that with the great success of Amazon. It’s also true, the most important *political* newspaper remains in D.C. But Mr. Bezos owns it now. (By the by, Phil Graham, the founder of WaPo was from North Dakota, and I might even add that the founder of the NYT was from Memphis — though not quite the West:-)

When I read obits of great scholars and intellectuals it is often said that they taught at one of the Ivies. But many of them moved from the Ivies to the West — not in the other direction. They might be the most important pioneers of all. Aren’t some of the greatest theorists of computer science among them? And they’re why Silicon Valley is in the West, not the East.

My point is that the cultural center of the U. S. seems to have been drifting slowly or maybe not so slowly now to the West from the East. And Mr. Bezos is among the pioneers. We’ll see.