The Washington Post sale has media observers talking… about the NYT
Yesterday’s sale of The Washington Post has the media community in the U.S. in a frenzy. The announcement seemed to come out of the blue, despite the fact that the newspaper properties owned by The Washington Post Co. were being shopped by Allen & Co. Somehow word did not leak, a rarity in Washington these days.
The Post has been treated like newspaper royalty simply because of its history and location. Few publicly questioned the qualifications of its owner or publisher to run the newspaper or its corporate parts.
Dan Froomkin tweeted that the “near absence of anything to do with journalism in NYT Katharine Weymouth profile is disturbing in many ways.” But Weymouth is the publisher, not the head of the newsroom. Her lack of ad sales experience, or her lack of experience running a company, is what disturbed me. With Weymouth remaining on as publisher the Post still is being led as a business by someone without revenue and cost experience. Meanwhile, editorial veteran Marty Baron remains as editor so the newsroom should not be the center of attention at this point (the editorial board, though, is a different story).
Now, however, Jeff Bezos is fair game as media observers wonder what the new owner will do with the newspaper property, and what his qualifications are, besides wealth, for owning the paper. Some find it disturbing that an outsider can come in simply due to their bank account. But freedom of the press, going back three centuries, has always been about property rights more than journalism. Anyone with the wealth necessary to own a paper can enjoy the freedom to do and say as they please. Few question the right of Rupert Murdoch to produce the quality of journalism his media properties produce because he owns the presses and broadcast outlets. Why else would Bezos wish to own the dominant newspaper in the nation’s capitol?
But while most observers were surprised by the announcement of the Post’s sale, others quickly began to shift their attention to The New York Times. Here is another newspaper owned by a family, surely Bloomberg or some other wealthy individual or company will now snap up the nation’s preeminent newspaper?
I doubt it. The sale of the Boston Globe, at a rock bottom price, was all about making sure the bleeding was under control. In the short term, the NYT will most likely remain under its current ownership, with the Ochs-Sulzberger family trust controlling about 88 percent of the company’s class B shares. But five years from now? Who knows.
The next dominos to fall will, of course, be the Tribune Company newspapers – the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and others. The Tribune Company has said it would spin off the publishing side of the business just as Murdoch did with the News Corp. papers. But while Murdoch set up the new publishing company with money in the bank and all its assets in tack, the Trib kept its digital assets on the broadcast side with only a dotted line between them and the print side – surely a sign that the newspaper assets won’t long be associated with the now broadcast dominated media company.
Of the three newspaper empires, I have been impressed with what the NYT has done online, less so what they are doing in mobile and tablets. The WaPo has been behind the NYT when it comes to its website, though it remains an important news source online. Its tablet edition is somewhat more interesting, having been updated recently, but like the Times, the WaPo’s mobile strategy weak. As for the Tribune Co., there is little say about its digital efforts other than they have been weak tea. Whether Bezos will bring new energy and enthusiasm towards mobile and tablets will have to wait to be seen, though that is certainly the hope.
That brings us to Amazon? Few are talking much about the impact the acquisition of The Washington Post will have on the dominant online retailer. The reason appears to be that Bezos has acquired the Post as an individual rather than for Amazon.com – but since when has the activities of Amazon and Bezos ever been separate? Bezos is Amazon and what interests him will necessarily make its way into the activities of Amazon.com
To date, Amazon has been almost entirely focused on book publishing. Its newsstand for newspapers and magazines is awash in replica editions and only in the area of books has Amazon worked hard to provide publishing solutions. Surely Bezos will want to open up his copy of the Post on a Kindle and take a look. Will he happy with what he sees?
It is in this regard that the biggest disruption of the media world may take place. Now, the owner of one of the three big digital platforms is also the owner of a major newspaper. Will things change at Amazon, at Apple, or Google? Will the issue of discoverability, marketing and promotion of media apps now become an important issue for these newsstand owners to address?