Print Is Dead, Long Live the Media Brand

print is deadThe Onion‘s July 25 article, somewhat prophetically titled, “Print Dead At 1,803,” came only a few days before the epic announcement of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post, proclaiming:

Sources close to print, the method of applying ink to paper in order to convey information to a mass audience, have confirmed that the declining medium passed away early Thursday morning.

The cheeky statement resonates within the industry, as just this month we saw the last issue of Nashville’s City Paper (the August 8 sad editorial will break your heart), Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought the New England Media Group, and The Boston Globe with it; Newsweek magazine was sold to IBT Media, publisher of the International Business Times; and, well, we all know what Jeff Bezos did.

The Guardian‘s Tom McCarthy doesn’t mince words while discussing Newsweek‘s change of hands, calling the International Business Times “a generic-feeling suite of sites with no discernible relationship to the once-venerable weekly’s publishing mission.” He writes:

For all the media carcasses decomposing along the internet superhighway, the stink coming off the bloated and rigid beast called Newsweek is impressive not only for its pungency but for how long it has hung in the air.

The stink doesn’t come mainly from the magazine’s content. Certain ghoulish, offensive and silly covers aside, Newsweek has continued to showcase thoughtful journalism even as it changed owners and suffered the demise of its print edition late last year, after 80 years. Some of the best in the business worked at Newsweek and worked hard to give it new life.

The stink comes from the better part of five years now that the magazine has been said to be dying — and from the painful way the death has unfolded…

The details of the deal were not disclosed, McCarthy mentions, but “further layoffs were expected at Newsweek. IBT has said it will re-introduce the Newsweek.com domain, which was retired when the magazine merged with the Daily Beast news site in 2010.”

But it’s The Washington Post news that had us gasping and then speculating on what’s next for the publication, for Amazon, for digital media, for print journalism, and everything in between. The media commentary that has sprouted since the announcement included a fair share of the “print is dead” kind of lament, but mostly everyone just wanted to know what Bezos would come up with next.

This video of Adam Johnson of Bloomberg TV program “Lunch Money” discussing the sale gives a sample of the industry’s reaction, which seems to reluctantly embrace the fact that newspapers are being replaced by media brands, and print media are becoming “more hobbies than profit-making enterprises”:

As Neil Irwin and Ylan Q. Mui provide the details of the sale on August 5, they note that this purchase is only the latest “in a series of purchases of ‘legacy’ print media properties by wealthy individuals and small groups.” They write:

The transaction is a reflection of how much has changed in the news industry in just a short time amid the rise of online media that have put print advertising business models under steep pressure. […]

The Post newspaper division had $582 million in revenue in 2012 and a $53.7 million operating loss.

Still, for Bezos, the purchase should be financially manageable. He is worth about $25.2 billion, according to estimates by Forbes, which means the $250 million purchase price is about 1 percent of his net worth.

And industry analysts do not see any easy fixes Bezos might make that could make The Post dramatically more profitable soon.

‘I don’t think there’s any low-hanging fruit on the revenue front or the cost front, or else The Post would’ve done it already,’ [Craig Huber of Huber Research Partners] said.

The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, who published an open letter to Bezos a day later, calls this transaction “about as risky and consequential a purchase for you as a used 2003 Honda Civic might be for me.” Still, his words seem to reflect the current mood at the paper, expressing hope that Bezos will be “the guy who finds a way to make conventional journalism succeed financially.”

Others are also optimistic, pointing out that it’s easier to implement significant changes within a privately owned enterprise — that The Washington Post would become once the sale closes — when there’s no pressure to please the shareholders. Also, after spending $250 million, it’s a pretty sure bet that Bezos wants to “save” the paper.

In his article for Wired, Cade Metz quotes Alan Mutter, a former columnist and editor with the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and “a serial Silicon Valley CEO”:

Bezos isn’t someone to make a purchase like this without a plan, and he believes The Post could benefit from so many other parts of the Amazon machine, including its ability to deliver physical goods. Now that Amazon is doing same-day delivery, why not deliver newspapers?

Metz adds his own thoughts on how Bezos can “save” The Post — by plugging it into Amazon:

[Y]ou could instantly boost the reach of The Post simply by making it the newspaper app of choice on the Kindle, Amazon’s answer to the Apple iPad tablet. But this is merely the most obvious option. The thing to realize is that Amazon has built a sweeping technical infrastructure designed to promote and distribute all kinds of goods and services — and to keep people people coming back for more.

Not everyone is convinced that the purchase is only a well-intentioned brand-grab, out of which The Washington Post will reemerge bigger, better, richer, and more meaningful to its audience. For one, as The Seattle Times business reporter Jay Greene points out, owning a powerful newspaper located in the nation’s capital will give Bezos more political influence.

Greene notes that Bezos has been relatively quiet politically so far, giving to both parties and $2.5 million to defend Washington state’s gay-marriage law. “Amazon, though,” Greene notes, “has become a greater lobbying force in Washington, focusing on issues such as an Internet sales tax.”

And why shouldn’t Amazon and its CEO have more say in shaping our digital future? At this point, it seems, at the very least we should be grateful someone cared enough — and had the means — to “save” The Washington Post. The New York Times, however, is not for sale, per Chairman Arthur Sulzberger. For now.

Image by Jason Dean.

About Tatyana Meshcheryakova

Tatyana has been a journalist and editor for more than 17 years, including stints at AOL and a number of trade and consumer publications in Philadelphia, covering digital technology and the publishing industry. In addition to editing hundreds of articles and blog posts each month, Tatyana is responsible for training new journalists and editors that join our team. Tatyana has a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University, and is fluent in Russian.

  

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  1. Nice reporting, Tatyana. I think it’s significant that Amazon did not purchase WaPo — Jeff Bezos purchased it individually. There might not be as much integration of the two assets as everyone hopes. I think he could immediately add value to the Amazon shopping experience by inserting relevant news headlines into product pages. Forget about making print more profitable; focus on making ecommerce more informative and entertaining.

    • Thank you for your comment, Steve. Yes, it’s definitely will be interesting to see the integration unfold. Industry insiders/experts seem to mostly talk about how the paper will benefit from being “plugged into” Amazon, but you bring up an interesting point — there’s also potential for Amazon to profit from The Washington Post’s assets and legacy.