Five things Jeff Bezos should do to reinvent the sinking ship that is the Washington Post

Gigaom

There’s been a metric ton or so of digital ink spilled over Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his acquisition of the venerable Washington Post since the deal was announced on Monday (we’ve collected some of the best responses and analysis for you), with dozens of different interpretations of his potential motivations for the $250-million purchase. As for what Bezos plans to do with the newspaper, that remains a closely guarded secret — but what follows are five things I think the Amazon founder should do to if he wants to re-energize the Post and help blaze a trail towards the newspaper of the future.

Shut down the printing presses: This may seem like a fairly radical step, but if anyone is going to do it, Bezos is the one. And why not? The main reason why more newspapers haven’t taken this step is that they still derive a large amount of revenue from their print advertising (although it is shrinking rapidly). But Bezos doesn’t need to worry about that, just as the Christian Science Monitor — which shut down its daily print edition way back in 2008 — didn’t have to worry about it, because profitability wasn’t the most important thing.

Don’t lots of people still subscribe to the Post in print? Sure they do — although that number has dropped by about 50 percent over the past decade to less than 500,000. And the print audience is declining almost as rapidly as the print-based advertising market is, as many of those readers either unsubscribe or die. Shutting down the print version would send a strong message that the Post was committed to a digital future. As venture investor Marc Andreessen said in 2010: “Newspapers need to burn the boats.”

Integrate the Post into the Kindle ecosystem: With the Kindle, Bezos has a dedicated mobile reading device that is used by millions, and it is connected to his own personal wireless network. What better way to broaden the Post‘s reach? Why not bundle it with every Kindle and then include free or discounted ebooks and Singles written by Post authors — both new ones and Singles made up of feature stories from the newspaper’s vast archive.

As David Auerbach has pointed out at Slate, Amazon could easily include the Post front page as an alternate home page for Kindle users, or add it to the special promotions that some versions of the Kindle come with. And Amazon also knows a lot about Kindle users and their preferences based on their usage of the device, which would be invaluable information for the Post.

Blow up the advertising model: The biggest financial problem for newspapers isn’t that circulation or subscriptions are declining — it’s that digital advertising doesn’t even come close to making up for the ongoing decline of print advertising, leaving most papers in a giant hole (even the New York Times is in a hole, although it is smaller thanks to its paywall). In part, advertisers have deserted newspapers because they prefer targeted ads they can get through online sites or through programmatic buying like Google AdSense, but it’s also because newspapers haven’t learned how to do it.

Since Bezos doesn’t have to worry about quarterly results or profits, he can afford to make bold moves with advertising as well as the content side — so he could reject the traditional banner and skyscraper ads, or those horrible skin-tightening and tooth-whitening network ads, and focus on giving advertisers something of value they are willing to pay for. Maybe it’s magazine-style ads, maybe it’s sponsored content, maybe it’s all of that plus the opportunity to advertise to every Kindle reader. And all of it driven by the reams of data that Amazon has on its users and their preferences.

Personalize everything, everywhere: Everyone likes to talk about personalized recommendations, but Amazon more or less invented the concept when it comes to e-commerce — which is why so many of the jokes about the Washington Post acquisition were of the “Shoppers who bought the Post also liked…” variety. What if Bezos applied that same data-driven knowledge to news and content recommendation through the Post? It might not drive huge numbers of new readers, but it would fill a large gap for smart, algorithm-driven curation that currently isn’t being served very well.

Newspapers have been largely unable to take advantage of true personalization — either for content or for advertising — because they don’t really know much about their readers on an individual basis, and so their recommendations are largely useless. That’s a problem Amazon was built to solve. And knowing more about Post readers and their likes and dislikes would help Bezos tweak the online retailer’s algorithms as well, so that he could appeal to customers who share that kind of demographic or interest profile.

Rebuild the Post website from the inside out: This may seem fairly boring, and in many ways it is, but one major problem many newspapers — including the Washington Post — have is that their content-management systems are relics of an earlier time, when print was the dominant format and the web was an afterthought. This can and does hold newspapers back from doing what is necessary to focus on digital (including easily linking to things online in the course of writing about a topic), and building something fast and digital-native would help.

If there’s one thing Amazon understands, it’s how to build a distributed platform that takes advantage of the cloud and can be scaled quickly — the development of Amazon Web Services and the Elastic Compute Cloud and Amazon’s other cloud features are arguably as groundbreaking and important as the company’s near-total disruption of the traditional retailing model for books and other content. A more nimble CMS would allow the Post to compete with online players like Politico and the Huffington Post more easily.

Whether Bezos decides to make any of these changes to the Post remains to be seen — but I for one hope that he tries to implement at least one or two of them, because it would make for a fascinating experiment in building a truly next-generation digital newspaper.

Images courtesy of Flickr users Zarko Drincic and George Kelly and Shutterstock / Everett Collection




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