J-Bey: “Don’t be boring”

September 6, 2013

Big week at the paper: The new owner came to town, got everyone pumped up. Jeff Bezos was engaging,relaxed, self-deprecating and direct. I thought he said all the right things, and left the staff feeling optimistic about the future. Here are a few of my favorites lines from J-Bey:

“The number one rule has to be, Don’t Be Boring.”

“Complaining is not a strategy….It can’t be the 1980s again.”

“All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s.”

Bezos is a realist about the business: The newspaper industry is in crisis due to secular changes in the way people consume news, and there’s no obvious or easy fix. If there was, someone out there would have found it by now (“In the news arena, I think everybody is stymied. I don’t see anybody doing high fives,” Bezos said). This is particularly a problem for metropolitan dailies such as The Post, traditionally focused on the local readership. But Bezos is a self-described congenital optimist, and honestly believes that there’s another Golden Age ahead (an opinion backed up by the $250 million he spent to buy the place). When asked if he thinks he’ll make money with the Post, or would be content with simply stabilizing the business, he emphatically said he expects to make money, through growing revenue.

“You can be profitable and shrinking. That’s a survival strategy but it ultimately leads to irrelevancy,” he said during a morning meeting with reporters and editors.

He talked about the importance of creating a “daily ritual bundle” of news. I am not sure if he came up with that phrase on the spot or if it’s something he’s been tossing around for a while. But I’ve had the phrase stuck in my head all week.

The DRB traditionally landed with a thwop on the driveway. Or maybe you’d buy the DRB from a news box at the entrance to the Metro. Bezos believes that tablets might give us a way to recreate the DRB in a way that matches the satisfying package of the print paper. He praised print newspapers as evolved products in their design, contrasting them with news on the Web or mobile devices: “The information hierarchy is more visible. You can tell what’s more important.”

So why would a tablet be the magic platform, better than the Web or the mobile app? Seriously, I’m asking you. Smart people read this blog and we could use some help here. Discuss!

A problem with the Web, for me, is that it’s the great distraction machine, offering endless digressions, indeed encouraging them. The whole thing is pocked with wormholes.This is why, when I find a good, long-form story on the Web, I will often print it out and go down to McPherson Square to read it on a bench (gosh I hate to give away these proprietary lifestyle tips).

When I think of the DRB, I wonder about each of the three parts. Does it really need to be “daily”? I like that idea, because you can imagine recreating the morning-coffee, paper-on-kitchen-table ritual in the morning, but it’s possible that in the digital age a person might want his or her DRB to arrive at lunchtime or in the evening. Or more than once.

As for the “ritual” part, there probably does need to be a Ta-Dum! moment in which the bundle reveals itself, in which the presentation is sublime and carries embedded, intuitive value about the information hierarchy (when you start to speak the jargon it’s really hard to stop!). Bezos asked us: “What can we do with the tablet that will actually be better than the physical paper?” Discuss.

Now, what exactly should be bundled? Just WaPo material? The new boss says it might well contain material from other sources, in the same way that newspapers carry syndicated material. It seems to me that one model here is cable television, where, for more than a generation, people have been trained to pay for content. People have been willing to pay for HBO and other premium channels that don’t rely on advertising at all. Those channels produce excellent content. Let’s hope the path to the future includes a relentless commitment to quality and excellence.

Now that the buzz of the Bezos visit has worn off, I find myself with the same concerns and doubts about the future. I remember chasing Miami Herald readers up the coast when we were Big On Palm Beach, an experiment that failed. I remember when Knight Ridder started a venture called Viewtron, in which people would pay a large sum of money for a contraption that would let them read the text of newspaper articles on their television screen. Absurd.

Ideally we’ll catch a wave here; Bezos has shown he knows how to do that. And he’s famously patient.

We need to retain our innate journalistic skepticism about anything that smacks of a magical fix for the industry. Still, it’s all pretty dang exciting. Just for starters, I’m gonna go buy one of these “tablet” thingamajigs.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read National
Next Story
Joel Achenbach · September 3, 2013