Good News from Death Valley

Could there still be hope in the media industry? Two years ago, I was less than certain about that. (see the post I wrote after the death of my former newspaper, Financial Times Deutschland). Things have become more refreshing lately, for several reasons.

New money. When I visited the Washington Post for the October issue of Capital magazine (currently on the newsstands in Germany), I was pleasantly surprised. Alomst a year after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had invested $ 250 million of his personal wealth to buy the old lady from the Graham family, the newsroom was filled with fresh energy.

Washington Post Promotional Image - Washington, DC

Post executive editor Marty Baron (right) with CIO Shailesh Prakash @Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

In an interview for my article, the Post’s executive editor Marty Baron sounded exuberant: “There are new ideas and new capital, and I our industry is showing the spirit of innovation that it needs.”

The Post has hired about 100 new staff under Bezos and the competitor New York Times reported that the Washington based institution has “regained its place at the table”, i.e. that the decline in quality  in recent years had been stopped.

Bezos is only one example in a club of billionaires who are pouring money into the media industry. In Boston, John Henry, owner of the Red Sox football team, purchased the Boston Globe. Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar is building his own media empire, First Look Media, for which he hired Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who helped Edward Snowden leak the secret NSA files.

Industry insiders welcome this trend, as long as the investors refrain from interfering with the content. It seems that so far, both Bezos and Henry have been cautious not to offend their reporters’ integrity.

Investing into the news is more than a new pass-time for philantrophists. “Journalism and news media have never attracted as much venture capital as in the past years,” media expert Gabriel Kahn told me.

It is a trend that crosses borders: German publisher Axel Springer (Bild, Die Welt) just announced a $20 million investment into the American online magazine Ozy. It also plans to team up with Politico to create a European version of the Washington, D.C. based online news organization. And in its endeavor to build a multimedia empire in the German speaking market, the company purchased the TV station N24 for whom I report from DC (see my blog post about my new life on TV).

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Symbol of the past: Linopress printing machine in Washington Post foyer

Digital experiments. A big portion of the new hires at the Washington Post joined its growing technology team – and within the newsroom hires, many came from digital media. “We are transforming ourselves to become a truly digital organization,” Baron told me. Almost 40 million unique visitors used the Post’s digital offers in July 2014 – up from 24 million a year before.

I also spoke with Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer, who said that the paper had embarked on a “journey of experimentation”. His team works on new multimedia solutions and on “big data” models to tailor news to the needs of individual readers. An expert on a topic would be served more in-depth information than someone who had just started reading up on it.

“We want to bring you the news you care about in the depth you want to read about it,” said Prakash. It is hard not to think of the customized buying recommendations on Amazon when you hear this, but curated content is the future.

Make no mistake: Well paid secure jobs in journalism continue to disappear on both sides of the Atlantic as revered institutions try to find new business models. In Germany, the flagships Gruner + Jahr (owner of Capital and former owner of Financial Times Deutschland) wants to cut 400 more jobs across its magazines, and the revered Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung plans to reduce its staff by 200.

Even in the case of the currently well funded Washington Post, some are more skeptical that the Bezos approach will work. As this report in Mashable points out, rising digital revenue still can’t keep up with the revenue decline in print.

Which is why the Post’s future may be more closely tied to Amazon’s fortunes as its executives may want to admit. As Bloomberg Businessweek has just revealed, a secret team inside the Post with the code name “Project Rainbow” has been working on an app that will be pre-installed (for free) on Amazon’s updated Kindle Fire tablet. So I guess we should stay tuned for similar co-productions.

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2 Responses to Good News from Death Valley

  1. Glad the WashPost is doing well. It’s a great paper & helped me understand American politics when I moved to DC from Germany. There will always be a place for excellent journalism. And it doesn’t really matter if that’s on printed paper or a digital screen.

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