August 10, 2013

Jeff Bezos and the death of print: Hypocrite, or right?

In the wake of Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, Tech Crunch and others are pointing to an interview he did in 2012 with a German magazine saying that print newspapers are going to be dead in 20 years.

Now, with his buy of the Post, some critics are saying he was hypocritical. More yet are saying he was, and is, clueless. Yet others are talking about papers as playtoys for the rich, implying that's all Bezos wants.

Let's briefly address those observations, then go on to discussing his original interview.

First, in response to all three critiques: Did Bezos promise he'd keep the Post open 20 years as a print paper? No. Has he retracted his interview comments? No.

Now, on to each individual one.

Hypocrite? Why? Even if he bought the post to get inside-the-Beltway access to politicos, lobbyists, etc., owners of all major metropolitan papers trade off access, at least to some degree, and have for decades. Some get too chummy at it. But, it's not hypocritical to do that, or at least  not in the way critics mean.

Clueless? I talked in my original post about all sorts of Amazon-Post synchronicities, even though it's Bezos as an individual, not as Amazon CEO, buying. The obvious, since the Post finally has a paywall running, is to ramp up a mobile version of the Post. It's obvious from the Amazon side, too; e-book sales have been basically flat for a year or so, and a number of publishing analysts think that's more than a short-term issue. So, Bezos needs more "product" on those Kindles. Not a bit clueless.

Playtoy? Again, don't think so. This is a man who has serious long-term money sunk in a private spaceport. With that, and surely with the Post, he wants concrete returns.

So, now that I've dismissed the carpers, what about his claim? Is he right?

If we narrow his focus, both for the sake of argument and the assumption that he probably meant this anyway, and confine his comment to major metropolitan seven-day dailies, I think he's spot on. That's even more true for larger dailies that, unlike the New York Times, Post, and McClatchy chain, don't have good in-house non-AP news bureaus for national and international news.

Take a look at, say, a metro as big as the Dallas Morning News. Sorry, "The" ...

Belo doesn't have that much of a "bureau" between its three biggies in Dallas, Riverside, Calif., and Providence, R.I. The Snooze itself has greatly trimmed its DC bureau and cut back its one in Mexico City over the past decade.

So, most national news, all international news, and a fair chunk of state news outside the Metroplex area or Austin is off the wires. Half or more of hard news in the paper is wire. It's already dumped some things like sending its high school sports coverage to a third-party website. And, until Google, Yahoo, et al are forced by rates being high enough for AP and Reuters stuff to paywall their news sites, the need to look at a paper for most hard news coverage will continue to decline. Ditto for non-local sports, which isn't profitable from an ad perspective anyway, as sports pages in hardcopy continue to get looser, even with need for all that white space for agate.

Let's take a fairly busy weekday, say, Fridays, because you have local society news, local society event previews, etc. Even then, in Dallas, you could put your locally generated news, feature, opinion and sports content, with current ad inches, on a 16-page paper. Maybe less, if you kill some use, or overuse, of white space.

Will younger readers (or today's readers, cohorted up in age) pay $1 for that, or a buck, inflation-adjusted, in 20 years? Doubt it. So, today's print readership decline will only continue, as will print ad dollars. (This despite newspaper execs who talk about booming auto sales while not looking at their own industry to see still-slumping auto ad sales. And, if/as auto execs see sales boom even as they cut their print ads, well, they're not dumb.)

Anyway, Friday was generous. A Tuesday or Wednesday Snooze of the type I mentioned might only be an 12-pager, unless  you're storing up a bunch of enterprise stories. (I didn't take Monday as an example because of the extra sports volume then, at least during football, for pro stuff.)

Related to this is newspapers finding a niche in the Internet world. In what's a pretty good column, the Times' Ross Douthat notes how British newspapers had their niches pre-Net, and how the Post blew its, post-Net, by letting Politico get started.

Next big question:

How does a Bezos, or somebody else, get there?

Look at Advance. Whether or not one agrees with its methodology, or the brutality of its implementation, or the details of its judgment, it's making some Bezos-like assumption and deciding to act now.

My take: I'm not sure what methodology might be best, but its isn't totally right; Advance is too brutal; it's cutting in the wrong areas.

The methodology is wrong because of its "hybrid" ideas of printing every day, but just not doing home delivery every day, as Advance is doing in most, but not all, places where it's transitioning. If Advance is trying that "split" to hang on to ad dollars, soon enough, advertisers will start wanting discounts on non-delivery days, if Advance isn't already offering them.

Rather, if a seven-day daily would simply junk, say, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday entirely, it could focus future cuts on copy editors and pressmen. If you're cutting hardcopy product specific days, that's the "easy" cuts. Gives you a five-day work week for both, with Thursdays for designing, building and printing special sections and such.

That said, per a throwaway line in this Tech Crunch piece, if the Post under Bezos is like Amazon under Bezos, he will be Advance-level ruthless once he decides on a goal and a path. We all know the crap level of Amazon warehouses.

Now, smaller seven-day dailies, in older, often more white, smaller cities? They can probably hang on past the 20-year mark by going to six-day, or eventually, five-day operation but still remain daily.

Definitely so for the six-day dailies that, along with non-dailies, Warren Buffet likes. They can survive past Bezos' deadline, but part of the price will likely  be dropping another day of print.

The non-dailies? They'll stay around but diminish as the old, mainly white, less-computer owning, less-Internet using, rural and small town core reader cohort ages out to death. But, 20 years from now? A lot of triweeklies will be semiweeklies and a lot of semiweeklies will be weeklies.

And, arguably, papers big enough to run separate digital and hardcopy/legacy operations should do so. Beyond the production benefits alleged in this piece, it makes easier to continue the trims, or whacks, on the legacy side as or when they're perceived to be needed.

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