The case for turning WaPo into an online mall

The author argues that Jeff Bezos should stick to what he does best and use the newspaper to sell stuff

Topics: The Tyee, Jeff Bezos, Washington Post, Amazon.com, newspapers, online shopping, ,

This piece originally appeared on The Tyee.

The TyeeEveryone is making wishful-thinking predictions about what Amazon’s Jeff Bezos will do with his newly acquired Washington Post, so here’s mine. The Amazon founder will take the online marketplace he knows so well and replace the old-fashioned notion of newspaper advertising with an actual shop.

He’ll have WaPo return to the kind of citizen-serving journalism that attracted readers in the mid-20th century and use the newspaper as a portal to an e-commerce mall.

I say this because, like every other pundit, I’m predicting what Bezos will do based on what I’d do if I were in his shoes.

Marrying quality newspapers to online malls is the obvious evolution of digital news, not least because it solves many of the problems retailers have when it comes to reaching their customers. As newspapers and other media lose their audience, so do merchants — there are now entire demographics of the marketplace that are unreachable because so many of us have stopped reading newspapers and magazines, listening to commercial radio or watching advertiser-supported television. Online we’re using ad blockers with vengeance.

But it also appears that old-fashioned advertising has had its day. Ads are only a stand-in for the product. They serve as a sort of messenger telling us to get in a car and drive to the store. But today, just being online means that we’re already in the digital store, ready to buy.

So why are online publications using ads to send us elsewhere, when the paper could profit from its longstanding ability to pull readers and sell them things?

A simple click to buy

That e-commerce should replace advertising struck me about five years ago when I was reading a consumer article on a new crop of superior earbuds. I was convinced I needed to try a particular set, but surprisingly there was no link to them. So I searched online and turned up the usual crap and clutter as I tried to find the make and model I wanted. I found a few sites with the headphones, but then I began dealing with the standard online shopping hassles, including foreign sites that sell only to locals, sold-out product and clunky e-commerce software.

Why-oh-why didn’t the publication just link readers to a market for the dozen or so products they were recommending, I muttered, while cursing a frozen digital shopping cart.

And that’s when it dawned on me: the old newspaper business model of selling eyeballs to advertisers would work just fine if papers would offer merchants a spot in an online shop rather than a display ad. Using smart copy to attract the right audience works well online — better than in print — but the trick is in figuring out how to profit from attracting that attention.

The obvious answer is to sell a marketer access to your audience. But you don’t want that audience leaving your site to buy some thingamajig elsewhere after you’ve done all the work of pulling them in.

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The problem with finding anything online is that you often have to know what you don’t know. In the physical world, I can wander into a shop and find things I wasn’t looking for — they find me, as much as anything. That’s not true online. I would never find Amazon at all if I weren’t searching to buy something in particular, prompting the site to turn up in the results.

Once you’re there, forget the serendipity of tripping over something you would adore if only you knew it existed. Search engines are literal-minded things that don’t realize that my hunt for a particular ukulele also betrays a fondness for Nellie McKay’s tunes, screwball comedies from the prewar era, and 1920s novels.

But an article about the revival of a Cole Porter musical with a well-tweaked algorithm in the attached e-shop might well deduce these overlapping interests, since they’re actually quite logical. A smart newspaper shop would show me McKay’s latest album or a remastered version of Bringing Up Baby and let me buy the stuff without leaving the site.

That’s how newspapers got rich in the first place, more or less. They evolved and profited in lock step with that newfangled business, the department store. So I’ve been waiting for someone to see the obvious parallels between online malls and online newspapers and strike up some sort of mutually beneficial partnership.

And who better to do that than the guy who figured out we’d all prefer to have our special order books delivered in 48 hours rather than six weeks?

Use credibility to sell

Buying the Washington Post is also a good strategy for appeasing the well-educated, affluent and socially conscious book-buyers who were among those gasping in shock at Bezos buying the paper of Woodward and Bernstein. Although it was a private purchase, and he is now the sole owner of the newspaper, Amazon is seen as a villain in the marketplace. Its well-documented abuses of warehouse workers in the company’s “fulfillment centers” — how’s that for an Orwellian name? — have sparked a PR backlash.

Amazon’s predatory business tactics have also led to some indie booksellers (who are universally thought to be on the side of the angels) launching a class action lawsuit for restraint of trade against Amazon and the five major international book publishers.

Although $250 million seems like a bargain price for a paper like the Washington Post (and some smaller outlets), pundits have pointed out that the libertarian Bezos could have built a non-union news site for a fraction of the cost. But that wouldn’t work if he is, as I predict, planning to remarry newspapers to retail.

He needs a paper with credibility and a deep talent pool, particularly in the arts and features sections that have always lured the same readers who buy books and pretty much everything else. WaPo’s list of Pulitzer Prize winners includes dance critic Sarah Kaufman who, in 2010, became the fourth member of their current arts writing staff to win the prize. What’s notable about that is that hardly any publication even has a full-time dance critic. Not even in cultural centres like New York and London. Last month the Independent, one of Britain’s quality papers, made news internationally when it announced it was cutting more than two dozen arts critics.

But no one knows better than Bezos that crowd-sourcing content like reviews has been a dismal failure. Amazon’s collection of amateur assessments by self-promoting authors is a running joke, as are the badly written reviews by PR companies that run online shilling services that offer Amazon, Yelp, and iTunes endorsements.

WaPo’s journalism still means quality, and the integrity of online content has become so valuable that this month Yelp, which is notorious for fake reviewers, now flags the likely shills with their Consumer Alerts Program. In effect, they’ve become just the sort of judgment-passing gatekeeper that crowd-sourcing was supposed to replace.

“We’ve seen some pretty extreme chicanery in connection with these businesses,” the Yelpers volunteered on their blog. “Including people buying fake reviews, offering rewards or discounts for reviews or having a large number of reviews submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address (a clue that someone may be trying to artificially inflate their rating). A Consumer Alert message with hyperlinked evidence will be posted on these businesses’ Yelp listings for 90 days.”

What they’re admitting is something any journalist who entered the trade before 1995 could have told them: no one writes for free. The only question is who is paying the writer.

Most savvy media consumers learned quickly enough to avoid the self-promoters’ platforms like The Huffington Post and now the “content” produced by outlets like the Globe and Mail. Since 2011 Google has helped us avoid the tsunami of crap coming from the content farms with names like Suite 101, Examiner, or Demand Media as its search engines bypass the sites, despite the sites’ tricks to boost themselves in the rankings.

In short, the novelty of anyone being able to publish anything has worn off and most of us are searching for something decent to read.

The Washington Post has always been pretty good at providing that, and I have a hunch that’s why Bezos, a guy known for libertarian views and discount retailing, would spring for the most mythologized newspaper in North America. No matter what you’re selling, online or off, you still have to reach your buyers. And it’s growing increasingly clear you can’t attract an audience with the self-serving babble of content providers and shills.

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