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Noah Millman Saves the Washington Post

There’s a lot to think about in Noah’s post on Jeff Bezos and how the newspaper he now owns might adopt a Bloomberg model. First I should clarify something about my own thoughts on the Post as an instrument of political power: it’s less that I think Bezos would use the Post directly for pushing an agenda on, say, the Internet sales tax than that I’m intrigued to notice that DC properties like the Post or New Republic more easily attract tech billionaires than do seemingly comparable institutions like the Boston Globe or Newsweek. There’s a libertarian streak to many techies, of course, which has long made them hesitant to play the DC game. But they may be finding as they get older that it’s a game they can’t afford not to play—for reasons of opportunity cost if nothing else.

And as I said, even if Bezos had the purest motives in the world, he just incidentally happens to have acquired a tremendous amount of political power along with a troubled newspaper.

But on to Noah’s bigger ideas. It seems to me that Bloomberg isn’t comparable to anything the Washington Post could do. Although Bloomberg terminals now aggregate many types of content, the initial buy-in came from a specific clientele, the business community, which wanted a specific high-value service, financial analytics. The Post, on the other hand, prides itself on serving a wide public—a national public, even—and covering may fields beyond its specialty (the goings-on in this city at every level). Political data can be monetized about as well as business data, I would think, but for the Post consciously to serve a restricted, elite clientele would entail tremendous cognitive and professional dissonance. It just wouldn’t be a newspaper any more, in ethos any more than in substance. Even if Bezos wanted to move in that direction, he would be crucified by the national media for trying. Assuming, of course, there’s any national media left.

But maybe I’m taking Noah’s analogy too literally. Long-form premium journalism, analogous to what “House of Cards” has been to Netflix—yes, I could see something like that working, in theory. Though I do wonder whether the Post brand, with its connotations of a daily product, is quite as well positioned for that kind of thing as one might imagine. Long-form journalism is the bread-and-butter of the magazine world moreso than for the newspaper, which often excels at that kind of thing, yet only as a secondary feature on top of its primary selling point, daily coverage of the news.

The Post is a huge operation with hundreds of newsroom personnel, and that, like its public-oriented mission, is part of what it means to be the Washington Post. But that sheer bulk is almost certainly unsustainable in the emerging media environment. Doing fewer things better—specialization—is the wave of the immediate future, but that’s entirely contrary to the point of being the Washington Post, which is to do everything, whether well or not.

And oddly enough, the thing I see as being the irresistible lure of the Post to figures like Bezos will further complicate any attempts at renovation—everyone who has a political interest in the Post has a reason to be innovation-averse, or at least innovation-specific. They’d be happy to see the Post become more like Politico, but that’s about the limit of their appetite for experimentation.

I don’t really buy the idea that Bezos is purchasing the Post to save journalism. He certainly didn’t start Amazon to save bookselling. His company doesn’t care about books or publishing except to the extent that they provided a specialty with which to get started. And now that the juggernaut is rolling along, it’s going to crush every form of retail, and the books will be an afterthought—an increasingly expensive afterthought for consumers now that brick-and-mortar is dead and small online competitors are facing an Internet sales tax that will harm them far more than Amazon. Bezos is in the business of bulk, and it would be astonishing if he looked at journalism any other way.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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