News broke yesterday that the Washington Post had been purchased for $250 million by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. According to the Washington Post, the newspaper has suffered a 44% decline in operating revenue over the last six years and a 7% circulation decline in the first half of 2013 alone.
The Washington Post enjoys a fairly strong digital presence, but the sale raises questions about the future of the print newspaper. In 2012, Bezos told a German newspaper that print would be dead in 20 years because no one would bother paying for news.
In a statement yesterday, however, Bezos said the Post is “an important institution” but added he does not have a “worked out plan” for the “unchartered territory” he has entered. He said the future of the Washington Post would require “experimentation.”
“So Bezos has just purchased the Washington Post,” Glenn said on radio this morning, “which I think is fantastic.”
“After saying that the print industry was dead just a couple of years ago,” Stu interjected. “I'm not arguing that necessarily. I'm just saying it's surprising that you'd spend $250 million on something [you think is dead].”
Glenn has made his opinions about the future of media well known, and, like Bezos, he believes that the print industry’s days are numbers. With that said, Glenn understands Bezos’ decision to purchase the paper.
“He is absolutely right about the print industry being dead and why he bought it. He spent $250 million to buy the logo, to buy the name, the Washington Post,” Glenn explained. “And he will fundamentally transform that and it will no longer be a newspaper probably in five years. It’s got to be his bet.”
The interesting thing, however, is how quickly the media landscape is changing. This year, digital usage has surpassed television usage for the first time in history. In 2010, people spent an average of 3 hours and 14 minutes using digital devices (i.e. online, mobile). In 2011 that average jumped to 3 hours 50 minutes. This year, digital consumption accounts for 5 hours and 9 minutes of a person’s day.
Television, meanwhile, has remained relatively steady going from an average of 4 hours and 24 minutes in 2010 to 4 hours and 31 minutes in 2013. Radio has witnessed a similar trend, dropping slightly from 4 hours and 36 minutes in 2010 to 4 hours and 26 minutes in 2013.
Bezos is clearly a very savvy businessman, but given the downward trajectory of the Washington Post in recent years and the tremendous culture shift toward digital media, Glenn questioned the value of the Washington Post brand in today’s world.
“I mean, you know, maybe he's right. He's much smarter than I am,” Glenn explained. “But he's looking at the name, which doesn't really mean anything to the next generation. The Washington Post means nothing. They don't care about Watergate. And what has the Washington Post done lately? The Washington Post – if they start to break real news – could be valuable, but the Washington Post doesn't mean anything. It means less to the American people than the New York Times does.”
Ultimately, Glenn believes the future lies in the value of the content, not the value of the brand.
“Here's a guy who's coming in. He's like, ‘I'm going to fix the media because I'm going to spend $250 million on this brand and I'm going to make sure that it's digitized.’ Well, who gives a flying crap if it's digitized, if it's digitized crap,” Glenn said. “I mean you don't get to be [someone like Bezos] without counting the money and caring about the money. If you have that kind of money, you have a profound responsibility to do something meaningful with that money. And Bezos is clearly so much smarter than, you know, any of the yahoos on this program and 10 times smarter than [me]. He knows what he's doing, but look at the content, not the delivery system.”