Washington Post sale a sign respected brands will matter, even online

The purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is seen as a 'logical step' in the rise of digital media. 'Even digital pioneers know that a good name is priceless,' says one analyst.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
The Washington Post sign is seen on its building in Washington. On Monday the Washington Post announced the paper has been sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

As big names in the old media game are being bought by even bigger names in the new media world, media watchers are hoping for signs of what’s next for journalism in the Internet age, both in terms of how the news "product" is packaged and delivered, and especially how the future business could prosper.

Just in the past four days, The Washington Post was snapped up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Newsweek changed hands (again), moving into the International Business Times (IBT) portfolio of digital products, and The New York Times sold The Boston Globe to the owner of the local baseball franchise, the Red Sox.

This follows last year's moves when Newsweek itself dropped its print edition and partnered with online publication The Daily Beast, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought Washington magazine, The New Republic.

These moves are inevitable, says Paul Levinson, author of "New New media." "Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post is a logical step in the growing predominance of digital media in all sectors of communication previously in the province of traditional mass media," he says via e-mail.

"It's not that the printed paper is immediately going out of business or leaving the field. It's rather that its future resides online," he says, adding that nothing could be more appropriate than for the owner of one of the most successful online retailers to give The Post the support it needs as it struggles to find its future.

It was this struggle that led the Post’s longtime owners, the Graham family, to begin looking for a buyer after the paper’s seventh year of losing money. The losses were mounting despite the paper's efforts to implement digital strategies.

Having companies that not only understand – but have already succeeded in generating – preferred digital "product" will have a better chance in succeeding with these legacy media companies, says Derek Arnold, communication professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

"After all," he adds via e-mail, "the 'products' companies like the Washington Post are producing are still highly in demand: News and the immediate access to it are only getting more important in today’s society."

If nothing else, these moves underline the importance of recognizable brand names, points out Ben Bogardus, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University. "Even digital pioneers know that a good name is priceless," he adds.

But while a parade of new owners seem determined to capitalize on these legacy brands in a brave new cyberuniverse of 24/7 online and mobile communication, precisely how they are going to translate prestige into revenues is not clear at all, says Professor Bogardus.

"Nobody really knows what that [business] model is," he points out. The important advantage someone like Mr. Bezos has is the wealth to take his time. "He can afford to take the long view and experiment," Bogardus says.

In a Monday letter to the Post employees, Bezos emphasized this approach while at the same time, attempting to reassure the staff. "The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes.

"When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely," he writes.

Further down in the letter, however, he sets the tone for the future.

"There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years," says Bezos, adding that this is essential and would have happened with or without new ownership.

The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business, he points out – shortening news cycles and eroding long-reliable revenue sources.

"There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," he concludes, adding that the paper will need to invent, which means it will need to experiment.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of fellow tech entrepreneur Chris Hughes with the New Republic may be a cautionary tale for Amazon billionaire Bezos.

In June, as reported online by PandoDaily, Mr. Hughes sent a letter to his readers trumpeting his successes, such as hitting record numbers for web traffic and passing the 50,000 mark for subscribers.

But, he acknowledges that this number will not allow him to hit his goal of being profitable by 2014 and the letter ends on a plaintive note – one that may sound familiar to many other print publications struggling to stay profitable in the digital transition.

"There are still many of you who are waiting on the sidelines to subscribe," he writes, and in what may seem quite an old school tactic, he urges them to subscribe.

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