Bezos, The Post, and the business we’re really in

I was tearing through drawers in my office this week, looking for one of the 99 pieces of “signed by a parent” paperwork my kids need for back to school, when I ran smack-dab into myself, back when I was “the face of new journalism.”

There I was, on the cover of the April 1996 “Presstime,” posed with cameras, a calculator, a giant phone handset and lots and lots of newspapers. Because how can you have the face of new journalism without a whole bunch of newspapers in the picture? (I also note that my then 6-months-pregnant stomach is carefully concealed — we wouldn’t want anyone thinking a woman could run a newsroom and gestate at the same time, now would we?)

It’s funny to find this relic of my change-agent past this week, when I’ve been obsessively reading about the latest spasms in the newspaper business. Like most of those in my social media feeds, I was already following the latest from Cleveland and Boston when the news that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post crashed through and overwhelmed all other discussion.

In truth, the conversation among journalism folks is all connected — the much maligned efforts of Advance to remake their newspapers into digitally focused enterprises by sacrificing both paper and the existing people, the realization that Boston — once one of the case studies for a newspaper mapping the digital future — is worth less than a second baseman, and the hopes/fears/drama of the “ultimate disrupter” buying a newspaper. Underlying all the posts and tweets and gnashing of teeth I can still discern the same old questions lurking about: Do we really have to change? Can newspapers, as we know them, survive? Please?

These are the wrong questions, and have been ever since I was the cover girl for journalism’s new face. For journalists, the questions all along should have been: Where do we start to do this different, better, faster and deeper than we’ve ever been able to do journalism before? How quickly can we shed all this old clunky process stuff and be freed to connect directly with our communities in ways that let us have an actual conversation?

Framed at its core, the question is this: What business are we really in?

I’ve read a fair amount of analysis about how Bezos can use the technology of Amazon to transform newspapers, and I agree that there is some powerful mojo there. But my favorite pieces have focused not on the gizmos but on the thinking — the fact that Bezos understands the value of user experience and customization, two things that the news business has been slow to grasp.

That slow turning isn’t just because newspapers haven’t invested deeply in technology and R&D — it’s because it requires a fundamental shift in the thinking about what journalism is. It’s a war that’s been underway since my first days on a masthead, and I still see it being fought today, although I think my side may finally be gaining ground: The war between the journalist as professor/preacher and journalist as listener/responder.

At core, that’s what Amazon’s model does — it listens, and it responds. In doing so, it anticipates what you need and helps you make connections you might not make on your own. In journalism, we’re so used to telling you “this is how it is, and you’ll like it, damn it,” that we don’t even realize we’re doing it anymore.

I’ve loved the writing of Gene Weingarten since I was a baby journalist reading “Tropic” magazine in the Miami Herald every week, but I found his open letter to Bezos to be more a sad commentary on a journalism mindset than the rallying cry for what journalism really means.  I know the message was intended to be a statement of newsroom independence, a declaration that “no publisher should ever push the newsroom around.” But it came across to me this way: We journalists decide what is interesting and what fits our definition of ourselves, and nobody — not publisher, not community — can make us change that.

I’m not arguing that journalists should just sell out and do puff pieces. And I’m not saying that we don’t need a heaping infusion of smart technology that can open new paths to audiences and, potentially, to revenue streams.

I am saying this: I’ve spent the better part of 20 years fighting uphill to get journalists to see themselves as a piece of a larger whole instead of standing apart from the world around them like they’ve taken some strange religious vow. Perhaps having the ultimate disrupter disrupt that kind of thinking, to help us make the final break with the “we know better” past can be the real innovation that invigorates our view of journalism’s future.

In the “Presstime” article that accompanied my lovely cover photo, I talked about the need for journalists who were “quick change artists,” people who could develop deep and useful knowledge of subject matter instead of deep and arcane knowledge of the specialized task of putting out a newspaper. I still believe that to be true. And the most important piece of that deep and useful knowledge is an understanding of who you are serving and how best to meet their needs, instead of how best to maintain your membership in the journalist’s club.

Building that knowledge — in real quantifiable and actionable ways, not just mouthing it as platitudes — is fundamental to the business journalists are really in.

My ending Presstime quote, uttered when the child that I will send off to his senior year in high school this month was still in my belly, remains just as true:

“A lot of newsrooms have gotten a big, heaping dose of financial reality. It’s been heart-wrenching and sad. We’ve kept our heads in the sand for a long time, saying we’re just not going to know anything about our business and what drives it.

“When you think about it, it’s really insane.”