What newspapers can learn from Amazon

With news this week that Jeff Bezos is allegedly in talks to buy CNN, after buying The Washington Post in 2013, it seems the Amazon founder is expanding his media empire. What lessons does the Amazon story have for newspapers, as they adapt to digital disruptors as well? Today we’re digging into what Jeff Bezos can teach legacy news organisations.

Becoming digital-first through organisational transformation

When it was first suggested to Jeff Bezos to buy The Washington Post, he replied he had no knowledge of newspapers. However Donald Graham, son of The Washington Post’s legendary publisher Katharine Graham, explained that he had something even more important: mastery of the internet. As the Graham family looked to the future of The Washington Post, they saw over and over again that their lack of technological know-how would be a disadvantage. They turned to tech leaders such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, asking how they would adapt a newspaper to the digital age. But it was the conversation with Jeff Bezos that fully convinced the Graham family, long-time owners of The Washington Post, to sell.

It seemed to us that ownership by somebody who had immense knowledge of the future, of technology, of ways to deliver information to readers brought a big plus with it.

Donald Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post

This decision turned out well. In the first three years of owning the newspaper, Jeff Bezos was able to double web traffic and become profitable. He has hired ‘masses of technological talent‘ and ensured the newspaper is active on emerging platforms such as Reddit and Tiktok. Jarrod Dicker, VP of Commerical at The Post, even calls the organisation “100% a technology company“.

As a technology entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos brings decades of experience and knowledge to The Washington Post. At Amazon, everything is measured and optimised, with a focus on leveraging high-performing technology. In recent years, some legacy news organisations have adopted the same approach, but not all. For example at the 2018 GEN Summit, Greg Barber, Director of Newsroom Product at The Washington Post, asked the audience who was happy with their newsroom technology. Nearly no one raised their hand. Successful publishers in 2020 and beyond will be the ones that embody digital in everything they do. To help transform the culture to be digital first, we can look to the example of regional publisher Ouest-France, which uses their digital-only edition L’édition du Soir as an innovation lab for the whole company.

Day 2 is not an option

In the early days of any startup, the founders run everything. As the organisation grows, complexity grows as well and it risks turning into a large organisation characterised by slowness and rigidity. To explain this, Jeff Bezos coined the model of “Day 1 vs. Day 2”. For Amazon to succeed, it must remain always Day 1.

Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder

This is something we see in media as well, with some legacy print organisations slow to adapt to today’s digital environment while new digital media startups reinvent the game. The newspapers that succeeded early in the digital transition were ones that kept a Day 1 mentality. Even with legacy obligations, they were able to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. The New York Times is one such newspaper that stands out. But just having deep pockets and a recognisable name alone do not explain the success. In 2012, when Mark Thompson joined as CEO he was given the green light to enact radical, fundamental change. He started changing the organisation right away: instead of crafting the print newspaper and then updating the website with those stories, he flipped the flow upside down. Rather than defining the organisation around its delivery method, print, he worked to define The New York Times around its values and mission. This is similar to how The Telegraph works: at the core is journalism, what they have done successfully for over 160 years. Neither newspaper defines themselves by how their journalism is distributed.

But what does it actually mean for news organisations to keep a Day 1 mentality? We will be discussing this in our next virtual event, a CEO roundtable. Join us live on December 1st to hear from leading news executives how they are tacking organisation transformation and building a philosophy of continuous innovation.

Happy customers will pay

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos is not satisfied with meeting customer expectations. Instead he wants to “wow” them, with innovation a step ahead of expectations. This customer obsession is essential for a Day 1 mentality.

The number one thing that has made us successful by far is obsessive compulsive focus on the customer.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder

Now, focusing on audience is not a new principle for newspapers, but Jeff Bezos brings this to the next level at Amazon. He even shares his email address, inviting customers to write directly to him with their concerns. He reads these emails and will forward the message to the relevant team member along with a single “?”. At Amazon it is understood that if you receive a “?” from Jeff Bezos, you must drop everything and develop a solution that will permanently fix the issue.

This is a lesson Jeff Bezos brought to The Washington Post as well. To delight readers, it is key to understand where they are spending their time and match those digital product experiences. Many readers have grown up in a digital world, so they expect their technology will work without a lag. They believe they should be able to access news conveniently and without any friction. Watching movies on Netflix, streaming music on Spotify, getting updates from friends on social media: these are the most common online activities of young people and there is no reason why reading news should provide a different experience. A quality digital product experience will result in happy readers, which Jeff Bezos believes will result in paying subscribers. He emphasizes the importance of directly asking readers to pay for subscriptions.

This industry spent 20 years teaching everyone in the world that news should be free. The truth is, readers are smarter than that. They know high-quality journalism is expensive to produce, and they are willing to pay for it, but you have to ask them. We’ve tightened our paywall, and every time we’ve tightened our paywall, subscriptions go up.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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