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Bezos, Heraclitus and the Hybrid Future of Journalism

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One of the first people who came to mind when I heard the news last week that Jeff Bezos was buying the Washington Post was a fellow countryman, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who around 2,500 years ago said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." Or, as James Fallows put it, the sale was "one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences." But as it encapsulates one era that has passed, it also has the potential to expand the era we are in. This combining of the best of traditional media with the boundless potential of digital media represents an amazing opportunity.

First, it's an opportunity to further move the conversation away from the future of newspapers to the future of journalism -- in whatever form it's delivered. After all, despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are in something of a golden age of journalism for news consumers. There's no shortage of great journalism being done, and there's no shortage of people hungering for it. And there are many different business models being tried to connect the former with the latter -- and Jeff Bezos will no doubt come up with another.

The future will definitely be a hybrid one, combining the best practices of traditional journalism -- fairness, accuracy, storytelling, deep investigations -- with the best tools available to the digital world -- speed, transparency, and, above all, engagement.

Though the distinction between new media and old has become largely meaningless, for too long the reaction of much of the old media to the fast-growing digital world was something like the proverbial old man yelling at the new media kids to get off his lawn. Many years were wasted erecting barriers that were never going to stand.

According to AllThingsD's Kara Swisher, who once worked at the Washington Post, this did not include Don Graham, whom she calls "one of my personal heroes, for both his honorable ethics and his stalwart decency." She recalls covering the early days of AOL and seeing the "stubborn resistance by old media" to adapting to the changes. But, "[t]o be fair," she writes, "of all the many media types I met, Graham tried hardest to keep up, and was always looking at the latest trend in the Internet space."

However, Graham's (comparatively) small company didn't have the answer to losses of $54 million in 2012, or $21 million in 2011. And though Bezos can obviously cover those losses more easily, the significance of having the Amazon founder as an owner isn't just found in his much deeper pockets -- though that of course will give the Post more time to find answers -- but in the sort of thinking that led to those deeper pockets. Just as the members of the Graham family weren't ordinary old media owners, Bezos isn't an ordinary new media mogul.

Appearing on Meet the Press, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius remarked that once the shock of the sale wore off, Post staffers began to feel some excitement themselves:

And when we picked ourselves off the floor and began thinking about this, it began to dawn on people that having someone with $25 billion of net worth acquire your paper, and also to have that person be a proven disrupter of technologies, somebody who made it easy to read print, to read print content (books, magazines, newspapers) on the Kindle, which I think really preceded the tablet as a new way of reading, that's pretty exciting. So by the end of the week, people were thinking, "How do we go on the offensive? How does this dynamic new owner take us into a space where we're going to be more exciting?"

Nobody really knows what Bezos' plans are for the Post -- including, most likely, Bezos himself -- but he has a combination of qualities that make him uniquely positioned to seize the opportunities available in journalism's hybrid future.

First, he's somebody who has already been successful in a business with low margins. Though Amazon is a retail giant with an equally giant valuation of $140 billion, Bezos started out selling books -- not exactly an easy business from which to grow a retail giant.

That foundation also speaks to his respect for reading and the written word. He has famously banned PowerPoint presentations in meetings of his senior "S-Team" at Amazon. Instead, those with presentations to make write six-page memos. Meetings open with 30 or so minutes of silence in which people read and digest the memos, called "narratives." Then the discussion begins.

He's also a man who loves to experiment. In the early days of Amazon, since there was no model for what they were doing, they would just try something and make adjustments later. It's a strategy that came to be called "ready, fire, steer." To Bezos, putting too much thought into aiming might mean you never fire. And to encourage that spirit, one of Amazon's in-house awards is called the "Just Do It," given to employees who create something good for the company without asking their boss first.

As he made clear in his initial statement to Post employees, that spirit of experimentation will continue at the paper. "There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," he wrote. "We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."

Luckily, of course, he's got the money to finance that experimentation. But there's a difference between covering the losses of a declining business model and covering losses from experiments in coming up with a new business model.

Another essential quality Bezos possesses is his understanding of the power of engagement. In Amazon, he has created the most responsive retail experience online (or off-line, for that matter). This is especially important as the media moves from a model of presentation to one focused on participation. News is now an ongoing two-way conversation. And, as with any conversation, listening is as important as talking, and Amazon is a monument to the power of listening. Bezos seems to always be innovating new ways for Amazon to listen to its customers and create new ways for them to be involved in -- and have control over -- their shopping experience. If the purpose of journalism is to give people information about their world and thus more power to control it, Bezos' commitment to engagement has obvious potential for journalism.

And because nobody believes reviving the Post will be an easy process, another quality that will surely be useful is patience. Bezos is legendary for his preference for long-term, sustainable growth over the quick rewards of Wall-Street-pleasing short-term profits. Though Amazon was founded in 1994, it didn't make a full-year profit until 2003. "Take a deep breath and be patient," he told AllThingsD's Tricia Duryee when asked last year about his slow road to profitability. "Deep yoga breaths, people!" And, of course, this long-term view helps foster the atmosphere for experimentation. "We like to invent and do new things," Bezos told Harvard Business Review editor Adi Ignatius, "and I know for sure that long-term orientation is essential for invention because you're going to have a lot of failures along the way."

That long-term orientation is symbolized in the 10,000 Year Clock he's helping to build in west Texas. Meant to encourage long-term thinking, the clock would tick once a year, a "century hand" would move only once every 100 years, and every millennium a cuckoo would appear. "As I see it, humans are now technologically advanced enough that we can create not only extraordinary wonders but also civilization-scale problems," he writes on the clock's website. "We're likely to need more long-term thinking."

Another of his projects is an effort to rescue parts of the Apollo 11 rocket from the bottom of the sea. "We want this hardware to tell its true story," he said to the Los Angeles Times. Resurrecting a shared part of our history while investing in the exploration of new horizons and new space travel (as he's currently doing) -- that description could just as easily apply to the Washington Post purchase.

Of course, if you're trying to think outside the box, it's a whole lot easier to do it from space. As Bezos shows, a combination of big vision and attention to small detail is a pretty effective recipe for innovation.

Bezos' philanthropic work through his Bezos Family Foundation, established with his parents, focuses mainly on education and seems also to embrace an experiment-to-see-what-works ethos while focusing on education and "new approaches to old problems."

New approaches to old problems -- exactly what newspapers need. And one thing a new approach should include is a commitment to widen the discussion. Much of the debate about potential new business models for newspapers has been about preserving journalism. But we need to do more than just preserve journalism. In this time of disruption and change, how about a discussion of how to improve journalism, of what's missing, of what can be strengthened in this new hybrid model?

Among the benefits the Internet brings is the ability to relentlessly stay on a story long after a lot of the big, traditional outlets have moved on. The participation enabled by the Web allows people to engage with the story, contribute, develop it in small ways, take it deeper and keep at it until it gets the attention it deserves. We've had too many autopsies, but not enough biopsies (most notoriously over the invasion of Iraq and the financial meltdown), and we need to change that.

In the debate over new media vs. old media, the lament is often heard that one of the things we're in danger of losing from the heyday of old media is muckraking, crusading journalism. But by enabling participation, new media can actually help fuel stories that lead to real change.

While Bezos has not been explicitly political, he has, as David Weigel writes, "earned a reputation as a libertarian with a targeted style of giving." In addition to contributing $2.5 million to the referendum effort that successfully legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state, Bezos has also donated to the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason magazine. So while we're dreaming, allow me to hope that one of the causes that the Washington Post under Bezos will engage the public in is the war on drugs, which is one of Reason's big issues. As Reason's Matt Welch wrote Monday, "[T]he attorney general of the United States today is declaring America's drug-war-led over-incarceration a moral failure, and announcing new federal rules to deliberately evade mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses." Of course, this is but a baby step toward ending the insanely destructive -- and increasingly unpopular on both ends of the political spectrum -- war on drugs.

The Washington Post could be in a position to mobilize the public on these beyond-left-and-right issues by bringing the innovative tools of engagement and participation Bezos created at Amazon to the news arena. By enlisting readers, the Post can decide to take on issues like this and make it impossible for the D.C. establishment to ignore.

Another thing that's often missing from traditional journalism is news about what's working. Yes, it's important to know about what's broken and what's gone wrong, but if that's all we get, we won't have a true picture of what's really going on in our lives and our communities.

Too often news about things that are actually working is looked down on by traditional media or saved only for Thanksgiving or the last five, feel-good minutes of a local newscast. The reason most often given? Because news about what's working isn't popular. But I can definitely say this is not true. At HuffPost, we've made a commitment to report on what's working, in our communities and all over the world. And our experience shows that people are in fact hungry for these kinds of stories -- they are always among our most shared, and we found out that advertisers love them too.

This kind of reporting is especially important at a time when our government is so dysfunctional and the expectation of real solutions coming out of Washington is so low. By shining a light on individuals, nonprofits, entrepreneurs and local officials who have found a way to make a difference, we can encourage others to build on these successful efforts and have an even larger impact. Profile a civic-minded entrepreneur who's created two jobs and the attention can help scale that idea up and create a dozen jobs.

It's about expanding our definition of what is news. Bezos has already changed the definition of what retail is; our definition of what constitutes news could use the same level of rethinking.

Of course, this is all speculation. But it's also a real opportunity -- not just for the Washington Post, but for all of us to think about how we can make the most of this new hybrid future. "What technology has taken away, technology can return," Bezos said in a speech 13 years ago. And as Heraclitus made clear, it won't return it in the same way. But that's not a bad thing. It will be different, and it can also be better. Debates over business models for the news media are going to continue for a long time, and there will never be a single answer. But it's a very good thing to have Jeff Bezos as part of that conversation. The Washington Post has a great history. I have no doubt that now it will have a great future as well.