Friday, August 9, 2013

Feeling Buoyed About News

There's a special feeling around our offices today that we don't normally experience every Friday. Whether that's because of friends we know that are celebrating the end of Ramadan, or friends we know celebrating the beginning of the Iowa State Fair, or just because it's been a very long week for us, we don't know.

We do know we've all got a hopeful feeing today, especially regarding a topic near and dear to our hearts - the future of media in America, and specifically, the future of newspapers like the Washington Post.

Like many of our professional colleagues, when Jeff Bezos bought the Post earlier this week, we were a bit apprehensive. With more than fifty years of combined experience in professional paid journalism between our staff members - much of it in the field of print and newspapers - we've seen many changes in the media, and more than a handful have not been good.

After a few days and a bit more digging, we're not only feeling cautiously optimistic about Mr. Bezos. We think Jeff Bezos may just be able to provide journalism a life raft for the 21st Century.

Our web producer is the most excited about that possibility, chattering excitedly about legitimate profits from digital journalism at major newspapers, and technological innovations like "customer targeting" - something in which Mr. Bezos' company, Amazon, is a world leader. In short, "customer targeting" like that at Amazon is finding out what customers are most likely to buy - and then successfully convincing them to buy those things. Amazon and its competitors have become masters of this technique, spending comparatively little to gain a comparatively large return on their investment in advertising and promotions.

Compare that with most media advertising, which is still far too often of the "spray n' pray" variety. That's where media organizations try to hit the largest number of potential readers, listeners, and viewers in a given geographic area - then pray enough of those potential customers follow through to buy the products and services of their advertisers.

It would be fantastic if all media advertising would be as efficient and effective as Amazon and its competitors are. If it was, media organizations might be able to charge significantly more for their advertising, which could fuel significantly more great journalism. Small media organizations might even be able to license top-notch targeting tools from larger organizations like The Washington Post, allowing them to find ways to make digital journalism work in their small, local area.

Technological tools like these are exactly the kinds of advances in media our web producer has been raving about for more than a decade now.

Frankly, we don't know if Bezos' plan for the Washington Post looks anything like what we've suggested here. We're not 100% sure if he or anyone can bring to the news industry the kinds of social and technical innovation necessary for high-quality, profitable news media. We're not even sure if the idea of "super targeting" like we described above will work for smaller local media outlets. The crucial jobs of covering stories like your local city council meetings and high school sports events might still end up falling to some dedicated blogger, if there isn't enough money in it.

What we are certain of is that Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post - along with other major technological shifts going on in the industry right now - have given us all the hope for a better media landscape in the relatively near future. Quality journalism might even become a reliable source for an honest wage once again, a trend that's not just good for us, but good for America too.

If that kind of hope isn't a reason to feel yourself lifted up, even just a little, we're not sure what is.

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