The recent news that billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has purchased legendary US newspaper Washington Post (best known for reporters Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s), is unlikely to be an unmitigated shock for those who work in and/or observe the newspaper industry closely. Owned by the same family for four generations, debilitating funds due to declining subscription rates together with ad revenue trickling away and into the eager arms of lean, fast-growing online news sites, has led to the paper's eventual demise - no doubt a sad day for many involved with Washington DC's most prolific political rag.
However, let's face it - the situation's not much better here in Blighty. It's an open secret that certain newspapers have been losing cash faster than a derivatives trader made it in the boomtimes (yet unfortunately a taxpayer bailout is unlikely to be on the cards for newspapers in these straightened times.) With investigative budgets being slashed, freelance rates cut and journalism being increasingly viewed as a lifestyle 'career'; it's no wonder the stereotype of the noble hack of the William Boot vein, is nostalgically wept over by dreamy journos desperate for the days when benevolent editors unblinkingly signed off the expenses account for that little sojourn in Milan during fashion week to investigate a Berlusconi corruption 'tip'.
So whilst Bezos is not entirely sure what he's going to do with the cash-low, talent-a-plenty Washington Post, he's not exactly phased by challenges. Having started Amazon in a garage at the admittedly not-so-tender age of 30, he's well versed in the ups and downs of online business models in their most nebulous forms. And there's no harm in the fact that the paper boasts arguably some of the best journalists in the United States - which, after all, is how newspapers now distinguish themselves from their smaller competitors. Most importantly, Bezos's strategy is likely to be a fascinating exercise in how newspapers can salvage themselves in the digital space, which, as I've mentioned before is set to force age-old institutions to adapt to the 21st century due to the ongoing transformation of the technological landscape.
After all, most businesses are the sum of their parts - their staff, their product and their reputation. This is no different for newspapers, although having being shielded from real competition due to the sheer cost of overheads when it came to the printed press, it's been relatively easy for big names to maintain their monopolies to date. Which has meant that their journalists have been household names, their readers have stayed relatively loyal (after all if you're going to fork out for a paper, you want it to confirm your world view, right?) and news stories and investigative journalism unique to a few broadsheets/tabloids with an agenda to push. However, the internet has changed the game big time. With the rise of controversial sites such as Guido Fawkes' blog, The Huffington Post (which has revolutionised the blogosphere - how could any of us forget :) among others, it's been on the cards for a while that newspapers will have to alter somewhat to survive. Whilst some papers, (such as The Times) have enforced the paywall, most have not; thus leaving themselves vulnerable to competition and declining revenue. And whereas once upon a time as mentioned earlier, readers tended to buy a paper aligned with their political perspectives, now free content's ensured it's more about which sites can attract the most hits. This has forced even the most respectable of broadsheets to 'sex-up' their headlines, to appeal to a wider range of readers.
Therefore, like any other online business, in order to to get ahead, newspapers are going to have to come up with an alternative business model and acknowledge that the old rules no longer apply. Methods such as developing content strategy, a strong online revenue system through building strong communities, social sharing, cross-platform branding and so on, are all going to be vital in the future. The internet's shown that as with any other industry, when the risk is reduced, when regulation is not an issue, true competition thrives and, (in theory at least) the crème de la creme rises to the top of the tree. And one thing mainstream newspapers have on their side is their reputations, which means they've a flying start when it comes to traction and growth, a benefit many other online news sources would love.
So all eyes will be on Bezos in his courageous bid to rescue Washington Post. It's a chance for him to demonstrate a viable business model for newspapers to learn from so they can claim their stake in the digital space while they've a head start. And it couldn't come a moment too soon.