The Washington Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, long wary of journalists, held a series of meetings with the paper’s editors and reporters Wednesday, saying that he is optimistic about the future of journalism and wants to create a “daily ritual bundle” that would appeal to a variety of readers.
The Amazon.com founder and chief executive, who has agreed to purchase The Post for $250 million, said he plans to invest in the paper and rejected the idea that news organizations could cut their way to profitability or stability, or attract advertisers without adding readers.
Asked how he would define success, he replied: growth. Continuing to contract by cutting the staff would lead to extinction, he said, “or, at best, irrelevancy.” He told a group of reporters and editors Wednesday morning that “making money isn’t enough. It also has to be growing.”
“What has been happening over the last few years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said.
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“All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s,” added Bezos, who created the world’s leading online retailer. “The number one rule has to be: Don’t be boring.”
He mentioned two pieces from this week’s paper that he found particularly compelling: an obituary of the stereotype-defying, widely-known bouncer/doorman at the popular 9:30 Club and the “9 questions about Syria” primer that ran initially online and later in print.
Bezos seemed relaxed, said several people who attended the meetings. He didn’t prepare any remarks. He gave long, thoughtful, nuanced answers to the questions, punctuated with a “dramatic, forward-leaning laugh,” as one attendee put it. Many of the people who attended the morning meeting said they were relieved and reassured by his answers.
He said the newspaper faced two business problems: the Rewrite Problem and the Debundling Problem.
In the former, the newspaper could spend weeks or months on a project that a Web site like the Huffington Post could rewrite it “in 17 minutes.”
In the latter, whereas people once bought a paper and read and passed sections of it around, the Web has debundled the paper so that people can read one story and move on to a different site.
“We can’t have people swooping in to read one article,” he said, adding that the paper should not be seeking to bolster hits from such one-time casual readers. “What you can’t do is go for the lowest common denominator, because then what you have is mediocrity.”
He repeatedly said that the success of The Post depends on its ability to draw readers into a “daily ritual habit” of reading across a collection of different topics — and paying for it. “People will buy a package,” Bezos said, “they will not pay for a story.”
The Post introduced a digital subscription plan in July, although many types of readers such as students, government employees and members of the military do not need to pay for access.
Bezos added that he was confident that old media like The Post could master the new technology landscape. “There are arenas where the transformation was done by the incumbents,” he said, citing the example of Amazon which dominated the sale of print books and later adapted to the sale of e-books.
He postulated that the tablet could offer a way of rebundling the newspaper.
Bezos’ acquisition of The Post took the media industry by surprise. Bezos dealt with Nancy B. Peretsman, a managing director at Allen & Co., who contacted him on behalf of Donald Graham, the chief executive of The Washington Post Co., about buying the paper. He decided to buy the newspaper on the basis of what he called “three gates.”
He first considered whether The Post remained an important institution, which he said was clearly true.
Second, he weighed whether he could still be optimistic about its future and he said his “genetic optimism” combined with his conclusion that The Post still retained an extremely talented staff of journalists led him to conclude that the company could be successful.
The third “gate,” he said, was whether he could personally make a difference, and he said he could because of lessons he has learned inventing Amazon.com, turning it into a disruptive force in an existing industry, and creating packages or bundles that customers value.
He urged the paper’s journalists to think about “how are we going to be different. We should think big about what is the next golden age of The Washington Post.” He said that he plans to invest in the paper and that some areas needed to expand and others to contract.
He said that the print edition of the paper remains “very, very important” both to readers and the business model and that “the physical paper can be optimized for the local audience.”
He said that if he has both the print and a tablet edition in front of him, he would still choose the print edition because it is “an elegant product that has evolved over decades.” Digital editions of newspapers, meanwhile, are still adapting to the new ways in which people look for information.