Illustration by Ben Sanders

Where Is Our Netflix for News or ITunes for Ideas?

a | A

Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) -- If “Googlezon” is becoming a reality, as predicted in the dystopian Epic2014 video produced 10 years ago, should we users of Google and Amazon at least get some benefits? Shouldn’t we draw direct advantages from the real-life takeover of the Washington Post by Amazon.com Inc.’s chief executive officer?

The sale offers the news industry another chance to fully join the technology revolution that it has long covered and envied. Can we dream of a Netflix for news?

When the man who created the gold standard of customer satisfaction takes on an organization whose fortunes still depend on the 15th-century printing press, radical revolutionary technological transformation is in order.

News publishers care about two things: readers and businesses. They pay the freight through subscriptions and advertising. Jeff Bezos knows about pleasing readers and re-engineering our model of commerce.

Let’s consider what could lie ahead as he assumes control of the newspaper and its digital products this fall. First, here’s a peek at the low-hanging digital fruit.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to find stories on a news site? Search on most news sites is many years behind the Google Inc. standard. How many times have you searched for an article you’ve seen but can’t find it again?

Then there is the act of easily saving and retrieving stories. How about sharing stories with the two or three groups of people you like to share with all the time? Can’t that be made less time-consuming? Then there is the “vacation hold,” for those of us who travel.

One Click

That’s the baby stuff. It’s what Bezos should raise in one of his first meetings with an able Post technology staff, saying, “What could we do within 90 days to reduce the friction between us and our customers?”

Amazon is the ace of friction reduction. Think “1-Click.” Amazon invented, patented and trademarked it. What basic tasks on a newspaper site that demand three clicks could be reduced to one?

The Post may be average, or even above average, among newspapers, with some of these functions and the innovations of WaPo Labs, which surprisingly isn’t one of the assets Bezos is buying. Yet the Post could do much more and set a standard for the industry.

Then there’s the fun stage, the next-generation, not-quite-Google Glass and iWatch stuff, but the kind of thing that will amaze thinking, news-munching readers in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland and around the world; the Post’s national and global audience is vast -- far more than half its total readership -- and largely little monetized.

Couldn’t Bezos start with the voluminous reporting of the Washington Post and create a Netflix for news or an iTunes for opinion?

Netflix Inc. has rounded up movies and TV shows. Apple Inc.’s iTunes has rationalized the buying of and listening to music. You know the buzzwords of the consumer digital revolution made meaningful: recommendation engines, aggregation and curation, socially mediated discovery, save lists, wish lists and flexible alerts.

All of that would create a boffo news product. The Associated Press offers a 1.0 version of it, in AP Mobile, and Google News and Yahoo News, among others, have long aggregated. Google caused near apoplexy when it pulled the life-support line from Google Reader. Feedly seems to be the replacement flavor of the moment.

Seriously, though, there’s nothing like a Netflix or iTunes experience for heavy news consumers -- a place to read, buy, share and be easily informed without heavy lifting.

Archives Included

Wouldn’t business news readers like to get the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Bloomberg News, Quartz, Fortune, the New York Times, CNBC, Marketwatch and their favorite blogs in one pleasurable place?

Add in the mining for gold in news archives, served up appropriately in groups with current stories, and in archival editions, commemoratives and compilations, all for sale from the Post -- and Amazon.com.

Then there are the advertisers, which provide 55 percent or so of the Post’s revenue. Bezos can hope they don’t associate the two businesses he owns with each other. After all, Amazon Local Express Delivery, the jujitsued solution to the company’s seeming loss of the sales tax fight with governments, takes dead aim at local retailers. In about a dozen cities, it is delivering goods to homes and lockers (think 7-Eleven as the new local post office) the same day its customers order them. Goodbye, Bed Bath & Beyond and Best Buy?

Assuming that businesses don’t make that association and decide to pull retail advertising from the Post, Bezos can redefine the Post’s relationships with business. Say “businesses” to publishers, and they think “advertisers.” But advertising is just a middleman. It is intended to whet our appetites for buying.

Bezos’s Amazon has changed all that. With its $61 billion in 2012 net sales, it shortened the distance between shopping and buying. Why browse advertising looking for what to buy when Amazon knows our preferences and helpfully recommends what often, uncannily, seems like what we indeed want now? Brand advertising isn’t going away, but the kind of price-item advertising (think Sunday Target circulars) that has been the mainstay of the daily press is being replaced by know-it-all databases matching our perceived needs to what’s available.

How can an Amazon-like see-read reviews-buy functionality come to the Post? One clue is the just-introduced buy-within-a-page buttons that Time Inc. and Hearst Magazines are testing with a startup called ShopAdvisor. I’m sure Bezos would have even better ways to sell directly.

Amazon’s slick interface -- and all the smarts lurking behind it -- took two decades to build. Maybe the purchased Post has bought itself a shortcut to the technology and thinking that took it 20 years to develop.

(Ken Doctor is an analyst for Outsell Inc., a research firm. He is author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get” and runs the Newsonomics website.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ken Doctor at kdoctor@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.