The Conversation

The Internet and the Decline of the Post's News Monopoly

Robert J. Samuelson is an excellent business writer and, by his own admission, a "dinosaur." He doesn't think much of the internet in general and finds Twitter to be "frivolous."

In the wake of the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, Samuelson is concerned about what the future holds. As he puts it, the Post no longer has a captive audience:

The physical newspaper, which is still the industry’s main revenue source, is headed for history’s dustbin or, if not that, to boutique status. Forbes puts Bezos’s net worth at $25 billion. Graham argues that only someone like Bezos has the wealth, patience, technological aptitude and regard for newspapers’ importance to guide The Post from its storied past to a successful future. I confess that this argument initially seemed weak until my 26-year-old son called to see how I was holding up. Though commiserating with me, his message was: Hey, this could be good for The Post.

For years, The Post enjoyed a quasi-monopoly of largely captive readers and advertisers. Now it faces the Internet’s Darwinian hyper-competition.

Samuelson is right about what the Post faces. As an economics writer one might expect him to be a little more conversant with the benefits of competition rather than just the potential down side for his brand. In order to survive, the Washington Post will need to change. As someone who grew up in the Post's region and was often frustrated by its parochial DC liberalism, that sounds like a good thing to me. Here's how I put it back in April when the topic was the possible sale of the LA Times:

Freed from the tether of a physical publication, newspaper's will become less dependent on their urban, left-leaning readers for support. The LA Times' online future, like that of the Washington Post, probably depends less on attitudes in LA and more on cultivating a mix of readers from around the country (and the rest of the English-speaking world). The progressive media market space is already pretty crowded. An increased awareness of what people living outside the big cities think about issues could help some of these papers diversify and, hopefully, survive.

I guess the blindingly obvious still needs to be said occasionally: The internet is a very good thing. The internet has certainly earned its terrible reputation for spreading rumors and nonsense. Perhaps it has not gotten enough credit for spreading accurate facts and knowledge. For every bogus story put out there is someone connected to the internet--a genuine expert--who is able to correct the record in record time. In fact when it comes to politics, many of the principles can now speak for themselves quickly and easily on something called Twitter.

For those not old enough to fully understand why the new way of sharing information is vastly better, let me explain. When I went to high school in Virginia the 1980s, writing a report meant scheduling an afternoon at the school library. Our library had a good selection. Still, you could expect to spend hours trying to find the 4 or 5 books which might be helpful and then even more time skimming those books to find the bits that were of interest. And if you needed a book at night or on the weekends the hours were very limited. It was very time consuming to gather even fairly basic information.

I'm sure someone will make the semi-Luddite case that things were better when you had to sweat it out in the library stacks, but most of us would rather not spend an hour to find out what year the Democratic Republic of Congo became known as Zaire*. It's much easier to simply tap a few keys from a home computer. The same applies to gathering news.

The internet is doing to newspapers what big box stores like Home Depot did to local hardware stores. Many will not survive. The ones that do will have to do things a bit differently. You can choose to see this as a net negative, but the market has already spoken about the direction we'll all be heading.

As for covering the cost of reporting, that hasn't been worked out yet but in a free and capitalist society that's an opportunity not a reason to despair. We may not know which brands will survive, but the work that needs to be done will still get done and probably better in some ways than it was done before.

*Zaire was the name for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Belgian Congo prior to 1960), between 1971 and 1997. And if I'm wrong someone will be quick to correct me.


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