When the great Washington restaurant Le Pavillion closed in the 1980’s, chef Yannick Cam theorized that like great art, great food needed a patron, someone who would support, nurture and ultimately pay for the quality that the market would not. Cam was obsessed with quality and paid whatever the cost to have the ultimate mushroom or the freshest sea urchins; he charged a lot, but not enough to cover his artistry. I thought of him when I read the news that The Post was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. With great news organizations folding or being sold at a fraction of what they were once worth, we have entered a new era: A great news organization now needs people willing to support it beyond its means to support itself.
We live in a world where the economics of the news business have been revolutionized; information wants “to be free” is the smug phrase. The aggregators of news content are worth more than the institutions which create it, as we saw recently with the sale of another former Post property, Newsweek. But as the New York Times media critic David Carr demonstrated in a great scene from “Page One,” a 2011 documentary on the Times, where would those aggregators be without the Times, The Post, the Economist, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, to mention a few of a dwindling number of institutions that actually do the hard and expensive work of reporting? At a forum, Carr holds up the front page of a favorite news aggregation site riddled with holes of where the content of the Times has been excised to demonstrate how reliant this flashy web property is on the work of others. This is the central challenge for a serious journalistic enterprise: How to get people to pay for the work. No one has figured it out, and a lot of very smart people have tried.
For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? Yesterday, he said, reassuringly, that “the values” of The Post don’t need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication’s “touchstone” as will “understanding what they care about.” This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought yesterday, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.