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OPINION - Meet the new boss

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The sale of The Washington Post is big news in the world of journalism. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire-founder of Amazon is the buyer.

I’m surprised at the reaction of the newspaper’s staff. “Sad” and “shocked” are among of the reported quotes. Columnist Gene Weingarten even wrote an open letter to the new owner , which was published on the front page.    

(This is unusual. If somehow this radio station was ever sold – I wouldn’t introduce myself my boss with an on-air editorial about how to run their new business.)

Granted, change is unsettling. But there’s something more than that going on here. The Washington Post is a legendary newspaper. It’s an institution. But the mindset of the staff and their reaction to sudden, surprising news is strange. It’s as if they think they own the place. You can almost imagine them saying ‘WE are the Post… our words, our reporting, our work made this place.’ Well, no, you’re employees. And don’t get me wrong, good journalism produced by good journalists are key ingredients to a successful media company. But they’re paid for their work, and the owners decide how to market and use that work.

I’m part of the Washington Post’s problem. Ever since I’ve had easy access to the internet, I’ve been a Post reader. On a typical day during my lunch break, you’ll find me at my desk eating my meal and reading the Post via their very good web site. I never pick up their actual newsprint… I’ve never seen all the ads in the actual paper that keep the whole enterprise afloat. And two months ago, the Post wanted to start charging me for web access. And even though I’ve been a daily visitor for years, I won’t pay for it. I use up my 20 free articles in two or three days. Then I spend my lunch reading others peoples’ news web sites for free.

This, in a nutshell, is the failed newspaper model. The actual printing part of the business is a drain that publishers pour money into. It’s beyond saving. A large chunk of the on-line audience has been conditioned to expect the product for free. Make us pay for it and web traffic declines. The fundamental issue is how to attach sufficient revenue to the costs of quality journalism. The Washington Post is blessed to have a new owner who might have some new thoughts on the issue. And, to boot, he’ll take the company private and won’t have to manager to the quarter-by-quarter whims of Wall Street.

I don’t understand why there would be angst that Jeff Bezos bought a money-losing enterprise. Why isn’t it directed the sellers, the Graham family, which racked up $56-million in losses last year? Are staffers so entrenched in the old ways that they’d rather dig their graves than try something new?

Chris Conley
8.06.13