‘Work with the world as you find it, not as you would have it be’
Speaking at the Future of Newspapers Conference in Turin, Italy, Jeff Bezos had some advice for the newspaper industry. “When you're writing, be riveting, be right, and ask people to pay." Focus on readers first, not advertisers, he stressed. While responding to a question about the similarities between running Amazon and the Washington Post, Bezos made it sound all so simple. “We run Amazon and The Washington Post in a very similar way in terms of the basic approach. We attempt to be customer-centric, which in the case of the Post means reader-centric. I think you can get confused, you can be advertiser-centric — and what advertisers want, of course, is readers — and so you should be simple-minded about that and you should be focused on readers. If you can focus on readers advertisers will come.” What Bezos means is that the reader is the boss. Wasn’t it always the case?
Bezos also made another pertinent point – that the Post should be run as a profit-making business and that news organisations shouldn't hold out for rich patrons who are willing to lose money indefinitely. “This is not a philanthropic endeavour. For me, I really believe, a healthy newspaper that has an independent newsroom should be self-sustaining. And I think it's achievable. And we've achieved it.” Reminds me of what we were taught in journalism class 25 years ago – that a successful newspaper is a commercially well-run newspaper. Bezos also said whining about the Internet and the death of the old business models won't help. “One of the first rules of business is complaining is not a strategy. You have to work with the world as you find it, not as you would have it be.”
The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) has today focused on what it calls “an unlikely player in the digital media”. While referring to 39 of the staffers laid off from HuffPost last week (their union contract guaranteed severance pay and health benefits), CJR provides “a snapshot of an evolving landscape for digital media labour”, in which the NewsGuild and Writers Guild of America play a growing role. News unions “never really went away,” Gary Weiss writes for CJR, “but for the first time in memory they are proactive rather than on the defensive. They are strong on promoting diversity and editorial independence, and often provide impressive raises, but tend to skimp on traditional worker protections — overtime pay and even just-cause firing — because they aren’t seen as that important to the new generation of newspeople.”
According to CJR, since 2015, staffs of several online news operations have opted for union representation: Vice, Gawker, The Guardian US, Slate, and others. CJR cautions that amid a digital advertising market increasingly controlled by the dual-headed monster of Facebook and Google looms a fearful prospect that a broader digital media bloodbath may be approaching and that those old-school worker protections (unions) may yet have an important role to play. Something news publishers here in India might have not thought about yet.
Journalism.co.uk, published by Mousetrap Media, an independent online publishing company, says this year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, just published, is full of the usual concerns about fake news, failing business models, and the growing power of platforms. “In many ways, the headline figures around news have got even worse in the last 12 months, with low trust and high levels of news avoidance, combined with staff cutbacks in commercial and public service media, which suggest we may be locked into a destructive and downward spiral of confidence in the news.”
Lying behind these bleak quotes and statistics is a growing recognition from publishers, platforms and consumers that something ‘must be done’ to restore trust, confidence and fortune. Many news organisations have been refocusing their business on high quality unique journalism that people would be prepared to pay for, as well as ways to demonstrate the transparency, fairness, and accountability of their journalism (fact-checking etc).” Honesty, accuracy, fairness, balance – the fundamentals of good journalism can never change. Sad they are in such short supply today.