Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post: Will Algorithms Decide the News?
Pondering the acquisition of one of America’s most storied papers by one of its most disruptive entrepreneurs.
As Calhoun Tubbs would say, “Like to hear it go:” In rides Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos on a white horse like a knight saving the day. The excitement in the air in Washington is as thick as swamp humidity, and the sounds of sucking-up journos kissing the ring of the newly crowned digital king. The narrative is a bit mixed, but this is now fairly routine: Pocket-full-of-cheddar billionaire tycoon buys up one of the nation’s more storied, but struggling, newspapers — if we even use that word anymore. Newspaper sounds so 20th century. Those rusting metal boxes we used to drop a quarter in have all but completely disappeared from your neighborhood corner. Feel old, yet?
With Bezos’ blockbuster $250 million private acquisition of the Washington Post, many of us act as if we’re just now noticing the mega-merging and rich-folks-take-all consumption of mass media. But, we really should be accustomed to this by now. Rich white guys do have all the fun — nostalgic hat tip to the late Reginald Lewis — and when they’re not yachting it up or embarking on crazy big-balls sky jumps or wearing hoodies, they’re snapping up media outlets like hors d’oeuvres. Why we’re tripping out over Bezos is beyond some, although we get the symbolism: Digital brand titan devours traditional brick-and-stone outlet.
More than likely, he’ll attempt to transform the aging ink antique into something interactively better — to the chagrin of old-school journos (including some in the Post) who’ll resist like Syrian rebels. A good guess — given the current state of infotainment — is that Bezos’ WashPo could end up basing coverage on what’s trending rather than what’s informative and crucial. Should Bezos decide to introduce an Amazon-style algorithm into the content mix, it gets a bit gray from there.
A little digital disuption is good, though, because it shakes up the normal equation. Some of us writing now wouldn’t be where we are without digital because geriatric publishers at one point long ago thought we didn’t fit. It snatches the baton from grumpy and arrogant media heads holding on to outdated models. But one has to question if there’s any real media independence anymore as we accept an increasingly cozy and audaciously open relationship between outlets entrusted with a sort of public trust and those with enough clout and bugger-off money. Bezos now has the Post; the infamous Koch Brothers are eyeing bids to snatch up the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times (described as an end-of-the world scenario by anxious progressives). As the Republican National Committee threatens to pull out of 2016 presidential primary debates should CNN and NBC move forward with Hillary Clinton documentaries and biopics (describing them as free political ads), one wonders about the coziness between those covering and those covered.
Honestly — and a bit cynically — it takes money to do what the news does these days. It’s no surprise that reporters, commentators and columnists casually grease elbows alongside the wealthy and powerful during conventions and correspondent dinners. They may call it sourcing or network-building as a justification for what really amounts to job-searching and survival in this business. It will be interesting to see how Bezos’ new venture works out and whether it will go the way of others or strike new ground. No one is really news hunting as much as they are branding, and we’re not completely certain of the ramifications for the larger public. Search engine optimization maximizes traffic, but there are times when the truth could find itself floating at the bottom of a sewage fatberg.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a weekly contributor to The Philly Post, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and UPTOWN Magazine. He is also the weekly Washington Insider for WDAS 105.3 FM (Philly) every Sunday at 9:50 am ET. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.