Putting readers first

Jeff Bezos has said very little publicly since announcing his planned acquisition of The Washington Post last month so there has naturally been a lot of parsing of what did say in an interview he gave to his new newspaper that was published on Tuesday. Among the most widely parsed comment was Bezos’ vow to put readers first.

“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient,” Bezos told the paper. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post, too.”

What would it mean to “put readers first”? Some critics worried it will mean more click-bait masquerading as news. But as my colleague Matthew Ingram points out, it could also mean a business strategy focused more on reader needs than advertiser needs, which could be a very good thing. Matt points to Bezos’ comment that  he is “skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece.”

Here’s something else I hope it means: Recognizing and respecting the value users (neé readers) create as content gets accessed, shared, linked, blogged and re-purposed online.

Bezos is quite right that it’s hard to make a living simply by pumping out news content, particularly when your stock-in-trade is long-form, fact-checked, investigative journalism. Even with a paywall, Bezos noted, other web sites “can summarize your work and make it available for free. From a reader point of view, the reader has to ask, ‘Why should I pay you for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free’ from another site?”

Content gets used in many other ways online, however, many of which add value or create new value around content. Right now, publishers lack the tools and business models to capture any meaningful portion of that value for themselves. But main values Bezos said he wants to bring to the Post, apart from putting readers first, are patience and experimentation.

The long-term survival of traditional news-gathering organizations such as the post depends on figuring out how content originators can participate financially in the value exchanges that occur around their content once it is released into the wild. How to do that cries out for patient experimentation.