Billionaire Barons Back in the Newspaper Game
When I stepped down as the editor of Reason magazine in 2000, I had no idea I was leaving behind the business model of the future.
I left nonprofit publishing just as the Internet was about to do to metropolitan dailies and many other periodicals what television had done to general-interest magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s: Destroy their businesses by swiping their advertisers and giving their audience alternative content free.
Now the future of journalism depends on the model I knew so well in the 1990s: patrons and amateurs. The patrons underwrite a relatively small cadre of professionals, while the amateurs use other sources of income to subsidize their work. (Think of all the academics writing here and elsewhere, or of the many consultants churning out free columns and blog posts to woo new clients.)
Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post and John Henry’s of the Boston Globe are the latest shift toward that model. These new owners are following the well-established form of family newspapers -- with a major difference. Old-style press barons combined their civic-mindedness and personal aggrandizement with the pursuit of profits. Their papers made them rich.
Bezos and Henry, by contrast, aren’t really investors. Both are immensely rich: Bezos founded Amazon.com and Henry made his first fortune in commodities trading. They’re white knights coming to the rescue of culturally significant institutions. Like the fans sending pledges to National Public Radio (or Reason) or the foundations funding ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting, they’re patrons.
A world of patrons and amateurs can produce excellent work. But it won’t reproduce the journalistic culture that newspaper reporters, in particular, are accustomed to.
It means, first of all, abandoning the monolithic norms established by American metropolitan dailies.
Beginning in the late 19th century, U.S. newspapers developed a principle of objectivity based on the need to deliver as many readers as possible to mass-market advertisers. As more papers became monopolies and journalists professionalized, the idea became ever-more entrenched. Newspapers took a business requirement for broadly acceptable content and turned into a definition of “ethical” journalism so restrictive that it would exclude most magazines. (Vogue is not “objective,” and no one wants it to be.)
At the same time, newspapers professed allegiance to muckraking ideals -- “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” -- that required taking sides and in many cases campaigning for controversial policy changes. Coexisting uneasily, these two standards defined the culture of American newspapers and, because of the sheer number of jobs newspapers supplied, the culture of journalism schools, journalism prizes and other norm-enforcing institutions.
Journalism supported by patrons and amateurs will, of necessity, be more diverse: in content, style, viewpoint, reliability and organizational forms. Money is fungible, but passion is not.
The goals of patrons and amateurs are more varied than providing a platform for department store ads. Some will want to preserve 20th-century ideals of objectivity and investigative reporting. Some will want to explore new forms of story-telling or data analysis. Some will want to pursue social crusades, and those crusades will themselves vary. Some will want to demonstrate their high-mindedness or support for the arts. Some will want to support political candidates, foster downtown development or root for local sports teams. Some will, like magazines, want to serve niche audiences, defined by lifestyle, ethnicity, religion, ideology, education or enthusiasms.
The second big shift complements this increased variety: a greater emphasis on the audience’s experience. “The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners,” Bezos told a Post reporter.
Coming from the chief executive officer of Amazon, that sounds like a restatement of the company’s emphasis on customer experience over short-term shareholder gains. Coming from a newspaper owner, however, it means something slightly different. It signals a shift toward readers, rather than advertisers, as the primary customers -- and toward reading, rather than buying papers, as what the paper wants most from them. By buying the Post, Bezos gives readers hope that they can get its reporting even if advertising and subscription revenue continue to collapse. For a patron, whatever his goals, reading is fundamental.
(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style” and the forthcoming “The Power of Glamour.” Follow her on Twitter at @vpostrel.)
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