Bezos Says Newspapers Should Put Customers—Not Advertisers—First

The headquarters of the Washington Post newspaper in downtown Washington, D.C.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no surprise that Jeff Bezos granted his first post-Washington Post purchase interview to the Washington Post and it’s also no surprise that the interview contains few surprises. I did think this last bit at the very end is provocative at least:

Asked how he saw The Post — as a local, national or international news organization — Bezos demurred. “That’s a question that needs to be answered in concert with the leadership team of The Post. Is it local? Or national? Is it something new?” Whatever the mission, he said, The Post will have “readers at its centerpiece. I’m skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece. Whatever the mission is, it has news at its heart.”

Bezos is alluding to a distinction here that people often elide, but in the traditional periodical business the customers are the ad buyers. The reporters think the news is the product and the subscribers think they’re the customers, but actually the subscribers are the product and the product is being sold to the advertisers.

In my experience, a surprising number of journalists are actually quite happy with that arrangement. The way the traditional magazine business worked was that servicey features in the front of the book would reel in subscribers, then the subscribers would be used to reel in advertisers, and then the ad sales people would tell the editor how many pages of features he needed to pad out the advertising. But even though in a business sense these longform features are just filler, they’re considered extremely prestigious inside the profession. By the same token, newspaper people are always very proud that papers produce things like earnest reports on school board meetings that appear on page B-6 and nobody reads.

The idea of reader-focused journalism seems threatening to a lot of people, since it turns out that readers aren’t always interested in the subjects that writers want to write about or in the formats that writers want to write. But as someone who’s never actually been a huge fan of traditional media, it sounds like a great idea to me.