Journalism needs a business model. Can Jeff Bezos find one?

We have a new owner. Can he make the media business work?

We have a new owner. Can he make the media business work? (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

My grandfather worked for the Graham family. His last daily newspaper job was at the Post, in the late 1940s, writing features about the liquor board and the rent-control board and all sorts of obscure government agencies with big impacts on people’s lives. The Grahams ran several of those stories on their front page. My Grandpa Jim quit reporting when he wanted to start a family, because, he reasoned, he needed a more stable, fatherhood-friendly job. When he left the Post he moved to Seattle.

Today the Grahams announced they sold the paper, to a Seattle guy, the Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. No one in the newsroom really knows what to think of the sale. The last time I was at a paper that a very rich man purchased – the Chicago Tribune, Sam Zell – the whole thing ended in bankruptcy. The optimist in me hopes that this sale will be better. The realist in me knows that the news industry needs that to be so.

The economics of news reporting have been turned upside-down in the last decade. The internet has given journalists a larger audience than ever before for their work. It has also blown up the advertising monopolies that made newspapers a cash cow for decades. We don’t sell classifieds much anymore. We don’t fill page after page with department-store display advertising. The ads on our websites deliver far less revenue, per reader, than print.

That sea-change has swamped or even capsized several great newspapers. I worked for a few of them: The Rocky Mountain News folded. The Tribune only recently emerged from bankruptcy. The Oregonian has cut its news staff deeply in the past decade and will cut its home delivery – including to my parents’ house – to four days a week starting in October. New Orleans, Cleveland, Newark, Baltimore… it’s a long and depressing list.

This isn’t a story confined to newspapers – a huge swath of the American economy has been roiled by technology, for better and worse. Millions and millions of American workers have lost the careers they thought would sustain them until retirement and struggled to find the harbor of a job, any job. Economics reporters like me write about those workers all the time. What we sometimes forget, when we aren’t talking about our own turbulent industry, is how much those displaced workers often feel like they lose a part of themselves when their industries vanish out from under them. Jobs aren’t just paychecks. Work gives us, often, a sense of self.

I know that’s how I feel about journalism. Not about print newspapers, per se, but about the type of reporting and writing that my grandfather did, and that I’ve done in various iterations since I was 15 years old. It’s dated and romantic to wax about the importance of a free press in a democracy; to extol the power of storytelling to connect people to one another in a community; to truly believe the best use of your education is to help a wide, wide audience – and not just lobbyists or bond traders – understand complex issues, so they can act on them. That’s what I worry about losing if the type of journalism the Grahams have championed for decades goes away.

And that is my hope for the Post under the new owner from Seattle: that we will figure out a way to turn a profit on the type of journalism that everyone here believes in. I don’t know a single reporter who got into journalism for the money. I do know a lot of really talented young reporters who worry there won’t be money in journalism for much longer. I’d like to prove them wrong. I’d like to be a part of the place that figures out the business model without sacrificing the things that drew me into the business in the first place.

“The values of The Post do not need changing,” Bezos wrote in his letter to the staff this afternoon.

I hope he’s serious about that, and I hope that he is right. I hope that the values can remain and support a profitable business model. I’m sure my grandfather would have agreed with that; I’d like my grandkids to agree with it someday, too.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Chicago Tribune remained in bankruptcy; in fact it emerged from bankruptcy on Dec. 31, 2012. It also incorrectly said the Oregonian cut its home delivery to three days a week; the newspaper will reduce home delivery to four days per week starting in October.

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