I have been a journalist all my life. From the time I was 13 and had my letter-to-the-editor published in the New York Times (about Joseph Conrad's novel, Nigger of the 'Narcissus'), I was hooked. I was the editor of my Midwood High School newspaper, The Argus, where Woody Allen wrote jokes. I went to Korea during that unfortunate, ferocious war in 1952-53 and edited a newspaper, The Hialean, and had Leonard Lyons and Earl Wilson writing special columns for that soldier's newspaper, which won three Army Commendation medals as the best paper in the war zone (beating out the powerful Stars and Stripes.)
When I returned to Manhattan and became a successful publicist, I wrote a widely-circulated syndicated column,"The Sidetalks of New York," which appeared in 150 newspapers around the country. When I arrived in California in 1970 to produce Lady Sings the Blues, I so missed writing regularly that I began sending letters to all my foodie friends recommending various restaurants I liked, starting with Mon Kee atop the Beverly Center. When I was producing W.C. Fields and Me at Universal, a fellow producer, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., in the next trailer to me, read my eight-page mimeographed sheet and asked if he could advertise in it, since his family had just bought a company called Seagram's.
For the next 17 years, they took two ads a month for Absolute Vodka in Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter and it grew into today's behemoth of a monthly 12-page glossy magazine read all over the world. Some three years ago a woman named Willow Bay called me and said she read my newsletter sent to her husband, Bob Iger, Chairman of Disney, and would I like to write occasionally for the Los Angeles branch of The Huffington Post, which she was editing. That was some 350-400 articles ago. So I guess, yes, you could say I am a lifelong journalist.
Which is why I feel compelled to write in favor of Jeff Bezos' purchase this week of the 136-year old Washington Post for $250 million. (Reuters reported today that he may have vastly overpaid; it was probably worth about $60 million, but he is worth some $28 billion.) I am a close friend with a woman who had been an editor for many years with Tina Brown's various publications, so we always have a lot to talk about. This week was no exception from Tina being excoriated in the New York Times for the sale of Newsweek to the sale of the Graham family's paper to Bezos. I made the point that I thought Jeff Bezos was a brilliant 'advance radical thinker' who would somehow rethink the sinking situation for print journalism today and find a remarkable solution. It's called 'thinking outside of the box,' and that's what he has been doing all of his life. I have been following him and his crazy laugh from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 with a $300,000. investment from his parents and his own bank account. He scrambled to raise an additional one million from 20 local Seattle investors (lucky people all!) My initial skepticism grew into intense admiration. I now buy almost everything I need on Amazon, from books to cologne to shoes, and will even soon be trying their same-day grocery shopping/delivery service just to see how it works.
My friend Bob Lefsetz, author a popular daily blog about the music business, wrote that "what Bezos bought was an army of newsgatherers, and knowledge is power. He knows you invest and reap profits way down the line, when you've eliminated the competition." Bezos said in a letter to the paper's employees that he promised "experimentation" in the future. "Our touchstone will be the readers, understanding what they care about. I'm excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention." In a wide-ranging interview with a German paper last year, Bezos said that no one would bother paying for news online, and print would be dead in 20 years! Interesting, that. Yes, I suspect that down the line he will encourage his newspapers to abandon their print versions in favor of expanded on-line versions. He will be figuring how to eliminate the printing presses, the trucks, the distribution systems... but it won't happen quickly. He did say: "The problem is that many readers still prefer the printed version, and there will be a significant transition period where publishers will need both digital and print." Bezos noted that "we (Amazon) realized that people are willing to pay for newspaper subscriptions on tablets.....in the near future every household will have multiple tablets. That's going to be the default and will provide momentum for newspapers too."
I'm kind of glad I won't be around to see the demise of print. I want to feel my New York Times in my hand every morning when I awake, and then check out the paper edition of the Wall Street Journal and the diminishing Los Angeles Times. Only then do I go online to the Drudge Report and head for the Reliable Source gossip section of the Washington Post, go on to check their daily edition for any interesting stories I want to read. So I am excited and curious and interested in seeing how Jeff Bezos will be applying his brilliant intellect to the newly-purchased paper. It will be a wild ride, you can be sure. And we all will be reading about it.
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