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Matthew Sanders: Will Amazon's Bezos make the Washington Post relevant?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 8 2013 12:35 p.m. MDT

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, is illuminated by a display screen at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Reed Saxon, ASSOCIATED PRESS

What happens in Washington, D.C., matters, a lot.

While working as a researcher at the National Archives one summer, I remember thinking, “all the world comes here for money!” On a recent business trip I ran around the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, the Capitol, and then out around the Mall. I reflected that, “all the world looks to this place for our ongoing experiment in liberty and self-governance.” While both may be true, it is clear that Washington means much to the world.

Freedom of the press has been fundamental to the upholding liberty and keeping a wary eye on those wielding power. First newspapers, then radio, TV and now web have been vehicles for reporting on key stories and information coming out of the national capital. But news media, especially newspapers, have hit on hard times.

With revenue from classifieds and other advertising eroding daily, newspapers are struggling to maintain economic viability. According to Pew Research Center, from 2006 to 2012 print advertising revenue dropped by 46 percent.

But the challenges don’t end there. According to Gallup's trend polling, only 23 percent of people express confidence in newspapers.

Among those 50 to 64 years old, a key group of potential subscribers, confidence only reaches 17 percent.

Among all Americans, newspapers as an institution top only big business, labor unions, HMOs and Congress (which is last at 10 percent) in trustworthiness. The military, small business, police and churches represent the institutions Americans trust most.

Enter the recent purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos for $250 million of his personal cash. According to Bloomberg, he paid 17 times adjusted profit, or 3 to 4 times more than what the market would likely justify, particularly in a market as hard hit as newspapers.

Bezos built Amazon into a behemoth online market for goods from books to bikes to binoculars. Through individual search and purchase history, and associated, accumulated data from other individuals, Amazon does a remarkable job of targeting purchase ideas for each user. It labels the suggestions, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” In other words, it peddles relevance.

It is well known that newspapers tailor voice and message to audience — with the New York Times and Washington Post known for their liberal posture and the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times for conservative leanings. But it turns out people want less slant and more unvarnished information when it comes to news about politics and government. According to Pew, more than two-thirds of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, prefer news without a political point of view.

As the king of relevance in commerce, the question is whether Bezos will position the Washington Post to be more relevant to more of its potential audience. Or, will it continue to lean liberal?

Will Bezos seek to strengthen the Post’s voice in favor of business and the tech sector? Is he looking for a return on investment for the premium he obviously paid, or is the acquisition to be a pulpit to promote his own political ideals?

Recent national and international scandals like the IRS targeting, Benghazi embassy attacks, and NSA snooping erode public trust in key institutions. Such declines in confidence typically lead to increased cynicism and less civic engagement, not more. When the public perceives media and government to be complicit, trust evaporates.

The nation, irrespective of parties or creeds, needs more unclouded visibility into its federal government. We should hope Jeff Bezos will use his talent for digital relevance to deliver insightful, relevant journalistic inquiry into our government in a way that serves the needs of all Americans.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. Email him at msanders@deseretnews.com, follow him on Twitter @Sanders_Matt or subscribe to the Reframing the Debate email feed.

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