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Will Jeff Bezos turn the Washington Post into a marketing test lab?

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REUTERS/Gus Ruelas
If I had to identify one overriding goal, I’d say that Bezos is buying a marketing test lab.

The biggest story in the media world last week was also the biggest story in the marketing world. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, spent 1 percent of his personal fortune — a mere $250 million — to buy the Washington Post.

Nobody other than Bezos and his confidantes really know why he bought the Post. But that didn’t stem a torrent of speculation, which decimated a small forest and countless innocent bytes. The main theories fell roughly into three areas.

  • Bezos is following the path of such Gilded Age philanthropists as Carnegie and Rockefeller. He bought the Post to keep it alive as a community good.
  • Bezos sought — and acquired — a mouthpiece to push his business agenda in the nation’s capital.
  • Bezos is the visionary that the newspaper business has sought for a decade — a digital thinker who will drag the tired old medium into the 21st Century and show the way for others.

Steve Alexander had a smart take in the Star Tribune. The Post already has national impact by virtue of its coverage of government. Alexander suggested that the Post could become a truly national news organization by combining that backbone of D.C. coverage with local news fed from bureaus and correspondents in major U.S. cities. He calls that model “USA Tomorrow”; you could also call it “The National Post.”

And maybe Bezos can make it work. But last week also sounded a cautionary note on that front, as AOL’s Patch, the only hyperlocal news organization with a national scale, announced that it would close down as many as 300 of its money-losing local news sites.

My own view is that the answer is a mix of all these notions.

But if I had to identify one overriding goal, I’d say that Bezos is buying a marketing test lab. The factors that drive Amazon’s success — intense targeting of consumers, data mining to reveal consumption preferences and patterns, building an ongoing relationship — will now become part of the Post’s DNA. And that will increase the attractiveness of the Post to companies that want to reach its audience with targeted, relevant messages. If successful, those moves will yield a powerful secret sauce that Bezos can bottle and sell to others.

The main themes running through coverage of the Bezos-Post marriage were amazed surprise, followed by cautious optimism. The newspaper business has undergone such a sustained battering over the last decade that everyone is thrilled to finally have something to feel hopeful about.

And there’s a lot at stake. Lost in the fuss over the Post sale was news that otherwise might have gotten more attention in the industry. Nashville’s City Paper, a free weekly, published its final issue. The staff said farewell with a powerful editorial, urging their readers to support Nashville’s remaining newspaper and reminding them why that’s so important:

“At a fundamental level, the transaction between a newspaper and its readers is — to paraphrase media critic Jay Rosen — ‘We were there, you weren’t, let us tell you about it,’ ” the City Paper staff wrote. “Of course, in the digital age, information is never lacking for those who seek it. The proliferation of self-publishing means anyone can be a correspondent, adding to an ever-growing stream of opinion and observations about anything happening anywhere. …

”It’s hard to argue that this development has not resulted in a net gain for anyone who wants to know more about the world we live in. But if this new reality has left citizens trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose, newspapers seek to offer a steady pour.”

A steady pour — it’s a nice thought. But if you’re going to apply a drinking analogy to the 21st Century news media, a better one would be “Shaken, not stirred.”

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Comments (3)

I've got one amendment

In hindsight, I don't think Bezos is likely to bottle and sell any secret sauce he develops. He'll keep it in his own bottle and smother his competitors in it. And that's said with no malice -- just a sense that any competitive intelligence Bezos gains from owning the Post is probably not something he'll share, even if it could help save other struggling media organizations.

Post

What is unusual about the Post that has not been talked about is that it is used as a lobbying tool with full page ads by various special interest groups and corporations. If Bezos looses that angle he will loose a significant amount of ad dollars. The Post also covers every angle of government from important debates to all the various sex/personal scandals. Not sure if most of the country is really interested in that much detail.

Bezos, the Post and Amazon

On thing to keep in mind about Bezos is his commitment to technology. Amazon has made a huge investment over the years in Amazon Web Services (AWS) -- basically "cloud" web servers and software that pretty much anybody can rent for a day, a week, a year, etc. to run a web-based business.

If he were to next build "Post Web Services" for the news publishing industry, some interesting things might happen....