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How will Jeff Bezos disrupt newspapers?

Bezos Post LetterLast week we saw the surprising announcement that Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post. Bezos, of course, led the disruption in the book publishing industry and everyone is wondering what he'll do to disrupt newspapers.

Some might wonder how he could disrupt an entire industry by only owning one paper. Make no mistake about this. The changes he'll implement at the Post will force plenty of papers to evole or die. More on that in a moment...

First I'd like to review the letter Bezos sent Post employees announcing the purchase. I thought it would be fun to look at it as a word cloud. Word clouds illustrate which terms are used most in a document. I put the Bezos letter through a word cloud tool and got the image you see in the top left of this article (click on it to enlarge).

Other than "Post", two of the more popular words in the letter are "change" and "courage". If you look at the context of these words in the letter they seem pretty harmless. And while I'm not suggesting there's a hidden meaning or that we need to read between the lines, I'm convinced the team at the Post, as well as those at other newspapers, will need to courageously face the change that's about to come.

Yes, the newspaper industry has been going through change for many years now. And rather than injecting himself in the distribution chain like he did to disrupt books, this time Bezos is instead starting with the content and a well-known, highly respected brand to drive change.

So as a former publisher who endured all the Bezos/Amazon disruption on the book world, I thought I'd look through that lens to predict a few of the more significant changes I believe Bezos will bring to newspapers:

Think "free"

Yep, that's one of the things that makes Amazon so special. Sign up for Prime and get free delivery, free access to the Kindle Owner's Lending Library, etc. For every dollar of print advertising a newspaper loses today they're only gaining pennies of digital ad income tomorrow. That causes many of them to be cautious about cannibalizing print income while they're considering digital initiatives. I'm pretty sure that's one of the fundamental concepts in Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma.

Even though Bezos spent a fortune on the Post, it's really only pocket change to him and I guarantee you he's willing to give up short-term print income for a bigger chunk of future digital income. Wall Street rewards Amazon for their "short-term loss, long-term gain" approach and Bezos has deep enough pockets to apply the same thinking here.

That means digital Post subscriptions will ultimately become free or an element of a broader package (see Amazon Prime). Today's newspapers almost seem to look at e-subscriptions as nothing more than an annoyance they have to offer to play in the digital game. Bezos will fully embrace the digital subscription and bring it to a much, much larger audience.

Embedded in the Kindle Fire experience

One way of expanding that audience is to make the Post an integral part of the Kindle Fire user experience. If Bezos doesn't make the digital edition of the Post freely available to everyone immediately, look for it to become free for every Kindle Fire owner. (Like B&N needs yet another disadvantage in the digital content/device space...)

This also lends itself to much more than just a free replica edition on your tablet. The Post could easily become the underlying preferred content pipe for all news delivered on the Fire platform. That would huge, representing impression numbers newspapers could only dream about today.

Even more national/global local

In order to implement the vision I've described above, I think the Post must offer even broader, deeper national and global coverage. Yes, they already offer some of that today but it will have to grow significantly. And let's not forget about the most important segment: local coverage. I look for Bezos to either build the infrastructure or partner with local news providers to establish a local news element that's second to none. That's the only way Fire owners will warm up to the services I'm describing; just putting the Post as it exists today on every Fire doesn't really move the needle. These content extensions are a must.

Extending the brand into other types of content

Lastly, why limit this to short-form newspaper articles? We're starting to see more papers extend their brands into longer content as both new original works as well as compilations of articles from the past. Bezos knows ebooks, so it's a no-brainer that he'll get the Post team focused on extending their brand to address these other opportunities. And it certainly won't hurt when those titles get most favored nation status for their prominent placement and treatment on Amazon.

I remember when USA Today launched in the early 1980's. Back then the industry largely scoffed at the notion of a full color paper and how it dumbed-down the news. It turns out the nation was hungry for that dumbed-down content and a star was born.

I think Bezos has an opportunity to create an even more disruptive force with the Post than USA Today was more than 30 years ago. And instead of being a book publisher who was forced to deal with the changes Amazon dictated, I'm now excited about the opportunity to help newspapers learn from what Bezos does with the Post, do some disrupting of our own, and keep these papers from future irrelevance. In order to do so, however, we need newspaper leaders who aren't afraid of disrupting their own existing business and accepting short-term losses for longer-term gains.


Dan Shafer

Good piece, Joe. As an old newsman and a tech pro these days, I agree that Bezos is going to bring some thoughtful and much-needed innovation to the mashup space among tablets, newspapers, eBooks and other similar content.

One thing that occurred to me as I read your piece is that local newspapers in particular are weathering the Internet storm fairly well as a rule. But accessing their content digitally is always an uneven experience. I could see Bezos using Amazon's ability to identify locale and to work with other publishers to bring local coverage to the Post context on a tablet. With an interesting revenue model, he could catapult the Post into being a news *platform*

For this and a number of other reasons, i'm pretty excited to see where Bezos drives this horse. The big stuff is going to be something we haven't even imagined.


Joe this is interesting and I am sure you're right about a lot but 2 observations.

1. It would have been much easier to integrate the Post into the Kindle Fire/Amazon Prime experience if Amazon had bought the Post rather than Jeff Bezos buying it personally. If the plan is integration with Amazon - any thoughts as to why he did it ths way?

2. Your ideas are very similar to those being thrown around a few years back when here in the UK Rupert Murdoch launched a web version of 'The Times' behind a paywall. At the time this was thought to be mad - few people where paying for online newspaper content because so much was free. However the plan was supposedly for Rupert Murdoch's satellitte and cable TV company to delvier millions of readers to the site. For pence added to their monthly TV subscription package they'd get access - through web-enabled TV. Of course the web-enabled TV never really took off but the iPad did so the online version of The Times does OK apparently.

Now Murdoch has split out his publishing from his broadcasting into seperate companies so perhaps the plan for the delivery of millions of TV subscribers isn't going to happen. (He's had a few problems here in the UK with his newspapers - you may have heard).

Joe Wikert

Hi Chris. I figure there are probably a couple of reasons why Bezos bought the Post on his own, not through Amazon. First, he's interested in being the ultimate decision-maker, not being forced to report to a board. You could argue he's doing that already with Amazon but we have no idea what sort of disagreements have come up between Bezos and the Amazon board over the years. At this point, any decision he makes about the Post are his and his alone. That's got to be an exciting opportunity for him.

Second, and related to the first point, I wonder if the Amazon board was even interested in acquiring the Post. They may feel the prospects for it are limited. Also, does Bezos avoid any awkward conflicts of interest for Amazon by not having the company own a paper that's competing against all the others they already sell?

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