A Minute With...

Brant Houston, expert on journalism

8/13/2013  8:00 am

On Aug. 5 came the news that the Washington Post was being sold to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. In an online column the next day for The Conversation website, journalism professor Brant Houston called the sale “perhaps the proverbial tipping point in U.S. print journalism,” and possibly a signal of turnaround in the news industry. Others, however, have questioned Bezos’ motives and raised concerns about the direction he might impose on the paper. Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at Illinois, and has closely followed the digital transition – and digital missteps – of the news business. He talked with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Why do you see this as such a potentially promising development? What does Bezos bring to this that could alter the downward trend seen at the Post – as well as other papers – in staff, subscribers and profits?

image of professor brant houstonAs a billionaire, Bezos could bring a much-needed infusion of cash that could ensure the Post could adapt more thoroughly to the digital media world. He also has shown he is willing to take the long view, taking years to develop and carry out a business strategy. And he now has years of successfully selling and distributing meaningful content to the public.

Newspapers have often been portrayed as victims of new media. But you suggest that this sale might get newspapers to “fully accept (that) it fought technology and technology has thankfully won.” What do you mean?

Newspapers – both on the editorial and the business sides – were not only slow to recognize the value of the Web, digital tools and data analysis, but the old guard also saw the new digital world as irrelevant, threatening and bothersome. The owners refused to put any significant money in training their staffs to use the technology. In fact, they continue to include some of the digital staff in ongoing layoffs.

With this purchase by Bezos, it would be hard to deny that the digital world has won and that this is the only way that newsrooms as we have known them can be saved or salvaged in any way after the wholesale staff cuts in the industry. Nearly a third of the 56,000 editorial jobs in the U.S have been eliminated in the past decade and the cuts continue, with hundreds laid off in just the past two weeks.

Does embracing technology mean giving up on print entirely? Has any news organization figured out how to be profitable online only, or integrating both online and print?

History has shown that most media are not completely replaced by the latest media, but that previous versions take on a much lesser role. What is interesting about the Web, however, is that it can incorporate all the basic pieces of news content – text, audio, video and photographs – in a dynamic way, unlike other media before. Bezos has said he can't see a newspaper, in hardcopy form, existing in 20 years.

Some newspapers are still making a profit, although not the 40 percent of some in their heyday. Some would be making a profit if they weren't carrying heavy debt acquired when purchased, or if they weren't beholden to investors obsessed with quarterly earnings. And some are making a profit with both online and print.

But the readers who grew up reading newspapers only in print are disappearing with each passing year while the digital platforms seem only to increase for the younger generation. There is something to be said at present for still having a medium such as a newspaper that doesn't require you to log on or find a good Wi-Fi connection, but its days of dominance have passed.

The sale of the Post to Bezos is also the most recent in a line of actual and rumored newspaper sales to wealthy individuals who made their money outside the news business. Some of those also have been actively involved, for business or other reasons, in supporting political causes. Should we be concerned?

It does feel like a return to the past when ownership starts belonging to wealthy individuals again, some of whom are not shy about pushing their politics. But as long as there are a variety of voices in the industry, we can still have balance and a robust democracy. At the same time, the cost of publishing, if you don't have a printing press, is a lot cheaper. So non-wealthy individuals can participate too.

Furthermore, the previous and current owners have not, despite some very sincere efforts and hard work, been able to find a new business model that works. That means that we have been facing a possible future with few voices, or no voices at all, that can provide credible news and analysis, hold government and businesses accountable, and look out for citizens who don't dwell in the houses of power. We have already been losing that kind of news over the past two decades. The new direction in ownership at least could buy journalists and society some time to figure out the new business model.

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