Jeff Bezos is both right and wrong about why newspapers are like horses

Amazon (s amzn) CEO Jeff Bezos hasn’t talked a lot about what he thinks of the newspaper business since he agreed to buy the struggling Washington Post for $250 million earlier this year, but he said something interesting during an otherwise unremarkable interview with the Today show about Amazon’s new Kindles: Bezos said he sees a time coming when newspapers are like horses — in other words, a luxury item for a small proportion of the population, rather than a mainstream transportation method. As he put it:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

While newspaper executives may not like the implications of this particular analogy — especially since horses that are sick or no longer useful are often dispatched by ranchers with a bullet through the head — it has some truth to it. Not that long ago, when newspapers were just getting their start as a method of mainstream news delivery, riding on horseback was a fairly common means of transportation. Then Henry Ford and his competitors showed people the automobile, and soon horses were seen as slow, cumbersome and backward.

A sentimental bond to an earlier time

Even as that transition was under way, however, there were large groups of people who felt that horse-drawn carriages and horses themselves had many advantages over the automobile: some of it was based on a sentimental attachment to an earlier way of life, but some was about the dangers of these newfangled vehicles, as well as their impersonal nature, the smell, the effect on society as a whole as it was becoming more industrialized, and so on.

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Many similar criticisms have been made about the shift from newspapers to digital platforms and crowdsourced journalism tools such as Twitter or Reddit: yes, they are faster, but they are also prone to mistakes, and in some cases those mistakes can spread misinformation much farther than it would otherwise have gone. There are complaints about a lack of professionalism that newspapers used to bring, and criticisms that boil down to an emotional attachment to a slower time, when things were (seemingly at least) easier to understand.

What’s particularly interesting about the horse analogy is that — as former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz pointed out in a comment on Twitter — Bezos used the exact same comparison in 2008 when he talked about printed books, the industry that Amazon has subsequently either forced to adapt or helped to kill, depending on your point of view. He said: “We’re not going to keep riding our horse to work just because we love our horse.”

The flaw in the horse analogy


The more I thought about the analogy of newspapers and horses, however, the more I thought that the transition in media from print to digital — and more specifically, the move from centralized platforms to dis-aggregated and personal methods of both consuming and producing news and information — is actually more like the move from cars back to horses than it is the reverse.

It’s true that digital is faster, and possibly more dangerous, in the same way that cars were to horses. But if you accept the argument (made by Economist writer Tom Standage, among others) that media in many ways is becoming more personal and social — in much the same way it was in the 1800s, before newspapers were born, when coffee shops and gossip were the primary method of news delivery — then what we have is a lot more like horses than it is like cars.

Whether that’s ultimately good or bad is difficult to say, but the implications of it are fairly profound, and they affect a lot more than just newspapers. It will be interesting to see how Bezos adapts his new acquisition to this new reality.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Dawid Lech