Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Washington Post Post

The big news in medialand was that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos decided to buy The Washington Post for a cool $250 million, or about one percent of his net worth. It's probably a good thing for WaPo in the end. And even if it's not, throwing around huge chunks of money to keep newspapers running is a pretty good use for all our billionaires when all's said and done.

The Post, like basically all other newspapers, has been slowly dying since the 90s as publishing has gone through two technological revolutions. First it's gone from a delivery model where if you wanted to know about what's going on in the world you basically had to get a piece of a tree delivered to your door step every day to being able to read almost you want at any time on your computer. It's hard to understand if you are under 40, but it used to be if you wanted to read an out of town newspaper you had to spend a bunch of money or trek down to the library. At the same time add revenue dropped as the once all mighty classified section became increasing obsolete in an era of craig's list and other web posting boards. Compounding these trends were foolish decisions made by all sorts of papers and cuts in staff in coverage that in turn made the product worse and made paying for the piece of a tree make even less sense.

Now this sucks if you made a career out of working for companies steeped in the piece of a tree model, but then again a lot of paper boys went out of work when they invented the news paper vending machine. That's just the way of technological progress. For the rest of us, it's amazing the amount of content that is really out there just a Google search away.

Meanwhile the way content was created changed drastically. In order to pontificate on what you thought was going on if the world with any real megaphone as recently as the 80's or early 90's you had to get past a number of very few gatekeepers who made a living in no small part by not having to compete with people who might point out what they got wrong.To write about politics or Washington until quite recently you had to be a person that followed a very rigid career path starting with majoring in journalism and often writing for your college paper way back when. If you didn't do that getting to be able to put your ideas out there was next to impossible outside of publishing your own zine in your basement. Now it's possible to go from being an obscure political scientist, or amateur blogger or sandwich delivery guy to being a force in opinion writing. These careers are of course not typical, but they were basically impossible until fairly recently.

Throughout the 90's the gatekeeper effect was a huge part of why pundits and newspapers got thing so wrong. Back during the Healthcare Reform Wars under Clinton Andrew Sullivan, then editor at The New Republic, published a controversial article called "No Exit" filled with outright lies and distortions about the Clinton Plan. The piece won a National Magazine Award and was celebrated in Washington as the piece that torpedoed Hillary's dreaded bill (in my view journalists tend to heavily overestimate their impact in these matter). Some people pushed back at Sullivan and the piece's author, conservative activist Elizabeth McCaughey, ironically quite a bit in The New Republic itself. But the piece, while containing the lie that the Clinton Plan would make it illegal to pay out of pocket for health care, was never really discredited until a decade and a half latter after a lot of bloggers like Ezra Klein began hammering Sullivan with his past misconduct. In 2009 Sullivan, who had defended the article to hilt for 15 years, wrote:
But its premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried...I was the editor; I threatened to quit on another occasion; it was my call; and I took credit for its impact; and did not criticize her (and praised her tenacity) subsequently. No one else is responsible. In retrospect, it was not my finest hour.
The one time editor of "the inflight magazine of Air Force One" begs forgiveness for his sins 15 years after publishing an article. There was a time when this was unthinkable.

The changing nature of journalism aside, Bezos's decision to buy a newspaper seems like a good idea for the rest of us. Finding something to do with the large number of hyper-rich millionaires and billionaires being produced by our global economy and rising inequality is actually and interesting question for our society. Once you've become that rich finding something to do with the rest of your life probably becomes a major concern, as the kings of our "meritocracy" are not very good and lounging around or organizing shooting parties in the country like they did 100 years ago. These tycoons can become like the Koch brothers and spend their fortune trying to advance their classes' own interests to the detriment of the the rest of us. Or they can spend their days just trying to make more money for no other reason than make more money, like Steve Jobs. Ideally the hyper-rich would spend their days giving it away to forgotten billions in the developing world Bill Gates style, but if they don't want to do that, having them play newspaperman and pump some money into legacy newspapers is better than the more negative alternatives. Besides it's not like anyone is going to start using Amazon because of a George Will column. If he wants this toy, I say no harm in letting him have it as long as he is interested in supporting the newspaper. If not, well then that's another question. But WaPo was basically headed for bankruptcy anyway, so what have we got to lose?

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