Here’s What Your Readers Really Need, Jeff

bezos2No one could argue that Jeff Bezos has it going on when it comes to business sense and enormous vision. According to a recent article in The Washington Post – which he is about to own – he built Amazon.com from “a start-up in 1995 to an Internet colossus with $61 billion in sales last year.”

It’s only logical that Bezos wants to apply what he’s learned to this new venture in the media landscape.

“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient,” [Bezos] said. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.”

(From “Jeffrey Bezos, Washington Post’s Next Owner, Aims for a ‘Golden Era’ at the Newspaper” by Paul Farhi, September 3, 2013)

My Unfettered Advice: 

With all due respect, Jeff – no.

You could school me all day long on how to build a business and I’d take copious notes.

But let me tell you something about journalism – it has lost its way. You know why? Because the world of media has become about giving people (readers/viewers/listeners) what they want, putting them first. The result? Fox News, MSNBC, The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post.

They might be business models, but they’re not journalism models. Readers apparently want their news slanted to agree with their world view. And most of them don’t even know it.

Don’t give it to them, Jeff. Don’t do it.

There are few places left where old-fashioned (in the best possible way) journalism standards are still upheld. One of them is about to be under your control. If by putting the customer/reader first you mean give them content they say they want, I’m saying this is a bad idea. (Have you seen the comments on the bottom of the aforementioned article, Jeff? Do you want to cater to them?)

If, however, that statement is more about packaging the quality journalism in appealing ways so it’s more widely read, sticking so closely to the goal of objectivity that it becomes popular and preferred over the one-sided options, well, now we’re talking.

Incidentally, those other two ideas of yours – invent and be patient – are spot on. By all means let your employees innovate and bring patience to the process of trying new things and, dare I say, create a fresh model for the industry. Journalism first, Jeff.

I for one would be ever, ever grateful.

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2 Responses to “Here’s What Your Readers Really Need, Jeff”

  1. ink_stained_wretch
    September 7, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been in journalism for 50 years and have watched objectivity go so far out of fashion and practice that I don’t think any publication bothers to try to achieve it anymore. In the late ’60s and early ’70s its supposed enemy was “advocacy journalism,” which had a point of view that was often at odds with establishment thinking, which liked to hide behind even-handed, objective reporting in order that the status quo could be maintained. I wish we had real advocacy journalism back.
    What we have now is ideological journalism that drums into various audiences the same talking points that various political/economic leaders want amplified. Three decades of this, since the rise of Reagan, coupled with the Internet, has given us true cacophony. The common thought pushed about this is that having a thousand voices out there is sooooo much better than what we had in the Stone Age of three TV networks and a local newspaper telling us what to think. But some of these thousand voices shout lies nonstop, and the factoids that all of them throw at us are filtered to support political points of view. They have legitimized views that 40 years ago would have been considered fringe beliefs, and there are whole pundit and book industries built to support them. We’re told to hate the mainstream media (whatever that means anymore) by media that have created their own mainstream audiences of millions who believe every word and opinion they shout.
    And if one checks the ownerships of the major media outlets, one finds they are owned by a tight circle of corporations. Which explains why there’s so little that comes out of them that’s anything but orthodox, whatever the “political” flavor. The nation remains “center-right” while the far left and far right rant about how the other side has too much influence. And everything that’s called “journalism” is required to be extremely entertaining, addictively so — so we’ll tune in and consume our brand of journalism every day and night. Intelligence and significance aren’t enough, and I’ll surprise you, possibly, and say that I agree that they aren’t. In today’s media landscape there has to be showmanship. But there needn’t be as much “slant” and slander as there is now. There really needn’t be as much pandering to the hateful “stoopids” as there is. One wonders why this small number of powerful people think having mental and spiritual gridlock in the nation is a benefit to be perpetuated. Do they think their own political ideals will be perceived as valuable and be universally accepted in a time of mass distraction and ill will?
    So the Post’s new owner has bought himself a bundle of fascinating problems. The Post is expected to provide exceptional coverage of the national government and the society that surrounds it, and cover local government and issues, and also all of the regular-agenda things in the suburbs that surround the district in three or four states. And it must do it at a time when there are no models out there in the industry that seem to be working. (The NYTimes looks great, but it’s far from winning its economic battles.) It’s easy to say that what’s needed is “quality journalism.” I used to have great faith in the kind of work that fit that description always being what would save the day. But in this current media world most people hardly ever see quality journalism and don’t know what to do with it on the rare instances they’re confronted with it.
    As always, what’s needed is editors with vision who can make significant and intelligent issues interesting to readers by shaping good work produced by gifted writers. But there are fewer of these people staying in the industry now. And everyone from top to bottom in the business is being told that the readers, the customers, want celeb gossip and sightings most of all, and keep everything short and dramatic so that it connects emotionally. And get a video and 60 photos to go with your story because young readers are “visual.”
    As for this need to connect, at the Post I’m impressed by the young woman who’s been doing the romance/life advice column for the past couple of years. Her writing has personality, a modern point of view. As compulsively readable as “Dear Abby,” but more hip and in touch. I hope Bezos keeps her. I’ll stay tuned to watch as he’s hit with spears from the Right and the Left over the paper’s political coverage, and I’m hoping I’ll see some improvements that can be replicated and perhaps save the industry from its own panic-propelled decline. “Which foot should I shoot next?” seems to be the question most owners seem to be asking.
    I’m hoping that Bezos will take your advice and not pander to the Post’s readers in predictable ways, and also that he won’t do everything on the cheap. Prudence is a virtue, cheapness isn’t. It’s good that he’s got millions upon millions. We’ll see what the Post does to the next presidential election cycle, and what it does to the Post. How well the Post is going to face the future under Bezos should be apparent by the next inauguration.

    • Nancy Colasurdo
      October 25, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

      I so love the thoughtfulness of this post, and not just because I agree with it!

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