America

Dark Money Behind the Washington Post

By Andrej Mrevlje |

For the last year or so, the Washington Post has been a rare piece of the news. While many papers shut down or struggled to survive the digital era, the Post has made it. The paper is profitable and hiring. I’m not familiar with the printed edition, but its digital copy comes in a sleek and very fast-loading app. Well-reported and continually updated pieces are delivered with several newsletters per day, the model of assault journalism.

Adapting to the political chaos and circus-like media din since the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House, the Washington Post scans and writes them all, adding many investigative and opinion pieces to bolster its effectiveness. The paper is not an aggregate of coincidently written pieces thrown together, as occasionally happens with the New York Times because of the desk infighting, generating multiple articles on the same topic. At the Post, with the newsroom fusion of print and digital, they’ve created Websked, a newsroom tool, a sort of central command where the editors can see what’s being worked on across the newsroom—in video and photography and blogs. To my mind this oversight helps create a product similar to an instant book.

While it produces more content with a smaller army of reporters and journalists than the New York Times and has expanded its wings to cover the national and international territory, the Post still lags behind the Grey Lady in the quality of writing, investigative reporting, and international coverage. But as the Columbia Journalism Review reports,

It has also raised the profile of the paper’s tech team, who have become stars in their right on the digital media conference circuit. If a paper like the Post can right itself digitally, perhaps there’s hope for everyone else.

There most certainly could be, if everyone else were owned by a billionaire who sees today’s media game as analogous to the internet circa 1999, essentially a land grab open to whomever can spend the most money and move the fastest to grab the biggest market share. That is the story of the rise of Amazon.com, and Bezos is applying many of those same lessons to the Post. (Along with an obsession with Web traffic and engagement metrics, which are much more important internally than whether the paper makes any money.)

The Post, working with Google, also has moved aggressively to make its mobile site load stories faster, on the assumption (anathema to reporters) that readers will choose news outlets based in part on how fast they are. Another tool at the company, for Web scheduling, automatically hounds reporters missing their deadlines.

Three years after Bezos bought the paper, the Post has become so successful in the digital game that it now licenses its content management system to other news outlets. That business could generate $ 100 million a year, CJR writes. After Bezos signed the check for $250 million and bought himself one of the jewels of the world’s journalism, he immediately changed the conservative habits of the paper. One of them was cutting the costs whenever the revenue of the publication would slow down. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer, explains it: “When Jeff bought us, within about six months, he threw that out. Now there are three other criteria. It’s basically: How fast do you move? It’s very subjective. The second one is that there are no sacred cows, to push experimentation. The third thing is a debate but commit. So you can argue all you want, but once we agree, then there’s no undermining. Those are the three things that now very subjectively drive the compensation.”

It’s the Amazon model, and journalism is now considered just a part of what the Post makes. “It’s journalism but also the features on the product. Can you save a story for later, is it on the platforms, the speed, the crash rate. All of these are parts of the product that ultimately have to go hand in hand with the journalism,” Prakash explains.

Bezos managed to transplant the Silicon Valley mentality to the paper, and it looks like the journalists absorbed it, and well. “People just understand what’s expected. It’s in the air. It’s in the water,” adds Prakash, underlining the importance of an editor like Marty Baron, a staunch and recognized editor who manages to balance aggressive tech methods with old school journalism.

 

An endlessly rich and opened minded owner, willing to experiment and invest to find the right business model for a brilliant product, is a gift for the journalists of the Post but also for us, the readers. I confront my daily political reality by reading several publications, the Post being one of them. It’s handy and very adept at the Trump era. Will it last? Perhaps till the end of Trump, since the Post is after his head and could die with him. Then we will see if Bezos’ publication model was just luck, or a sustained success in less combative, slower times.

There is a darker side, though, to Bezos. As the man with an estimated net worth of US $78.4 billion, Bezos is also the founder and manufacturer of Blue Origin (founded in 2000), which test flights to space beginning in 2015 and has plans for commercial suborbital human spaceflight starting in 2018. But besides the space games of rich kids like him and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Bezos’s biggest impact on postmodern society is Amazon.com with its 341,000 employees and $136 billion annual revenue.

Amazon is changing our way of life. I am no longer a big consumer, but in the last two years, I did make a radical step towards shopping online, mostly with Amazon Prime delivery. The majority of my online orders are still for books– almost exclusively printed. But recently, Amazon and some other online sales companies are delivering me my favorite tea, tennis shoes, shaving gear, almost all Christmas presents, films and so on. While I am trying to save, I also seek products that try to compete with bigger monopolies. The best example is my shaving gear, which I was finally able to replace. The brand that I use now can only be ordered online. It’s better than Gillette (the long-holding monopoly on overpriced products) and at least 50 percent cheaper. I also no longer pay $500 or more for a pair of glasses. I order them online, they look better than Armani and are five times cheaper.

Amazon and its Prime delivery service have spoiled us in many ways, but the most crucial has been in saving time. By avoiding crowded shops and placing an order online, I can receive my product in two days with no additional shipping cost. And I can set up an ongoing pantry subscription so that paper towels and potato chips arrive on my doorstep just as I’m about to run out. But am I serving a new monopoly?

There are the consequences of our choices. We are making Bezos richer every day, and perhaps one day we may even fly with him to the planet Mars. So for the time being, Bezos for us is home delivery and a better paper, but to other people, who we don’t know or even think about because they live in the hinterland where online business is pushing them to the existential crisis, are seeing their jobs taken away. According to the WSWS.org, “In the first three months of this year, 2,880 store closures were announced, compared to 1,153 in the same period in 2008. If the current pace of retail bloodletting continues, total store closures could top 11,000 by the end of the year, an unprecedented number. Along with mounting store closures, retailers eliminated 30,000 jobs in March, with a similar number cut in February, making it the worst two-month period for workers in the retail sector since 2008, when the economy was in the depths of the recession caused by the bursting of the housing bubble and stock market crash.”

As said, most of this is because of Bezos’s Amazon. That $136 billion revenue is starting to have a dramatic impact. How could it be different? Let’s look on the other side of the ocean for a second. The GDP of my native country, Slovenia, in 2015 was $42.77 billion. With an 830,000-large workforce and $23,778 per capita, Slovenia is still considered a better place than many other member-states of the EU. But the shopping malls in Slovenia are still full and profitable, while the ones on the outskirts of great American cities are starting to look like cathedrals in the desert.
Where will this end? Recently the New York Times had a piece that described how retail stores might look in the future. Describing the high-tech stores that no longer deserve the “retail” name because there is hardly any merchandise in them, the article explains how experiments on the futuristic shops are similar to the spirit of the experiments Bezos used for the relaunch of the Washington Post. As these experimental, chic stores might be appropriate for wealthier areas like Chelsea, in Manhattan, it seems to me entirely legitimate to ask the following question: Will the Washington Post report on the riots that the present, apparently uneven distribution of wealth–accelerated by a gilded Trump regime–will lead to?

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