Earlier this week it was announced that Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Can the Amazon CEO transform the future of newspapers for the better?
The paradox of 21st Century so far has been that as things seem to improve, they become harder to make money from. And so it is with news reporting. We live in a time of great reporting from a variety of perspectives, opinions, and styles. And yet as their product has become better most newspapers have struggled to make money. Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post this week is not just another sign of how desperate for money newspapers have become, but of how their future is now becoming emblematic of 21st Century economics as a whole.
In 2012, when Bezos predicted that there wouldn't be printed newspapers in 20 years time he made a caveat to include Kindle's success selling newspaper subscriptions. "In the near future every household will have multiple tablets. That's going to be the default and will provide momentum for newspapers too," he told the Berliner-Zeitung.
Amazon has slowly been working to replace as much human labor with automation as possible, making itself central to every consumerist act in our culture, and it has taken that role through eroding or displacing many of the old industries that formed an imperfect but very human network.
Bezos's purchase of the Post is, in that light, a not especially dramatic continuation of a movement that has long been underway in the West, migrating the value of physical objects into digital versions that can be reproduced for a fraction of the cost, but which generate only a fraction of the revenue. And it is this transformation that's draining the value from news, even while the end product seems to be vastly improved over its generational predecessors.
What gave a newspaper value in pre-Internet times was not the end product of ink pressed into pieces of paper that would soon become kindling or fishwrappers. Buying a paper was a form of social participation, the giving of alms to a vast network of interrelated industries and professions needed to make that smeary bundle of stories—from the operators of the printing press and the delivery truck drivers to the guys manning the newsstands on the street corner and the suburban kids getting up at 5 a.m. to hurl the things at people's doorsteps. Buying a newspaper was a daily offering made to the growing scale and optimism of the industrial world.
Digital newspapers, like so many other things distributed as packets of computer code reassembled in simulacra on a screen, are a disavowal of that old optimism and scale. It leaves room only for the story jockeys sweating in the newsroom and their biz dev overseers trying to scrap the resin of value from the words themselves, loosed from delivery drivers, paper boys, and printing press operators.
In this world we are discovering that even the very best of words were still the least valuable part of the news, and now that all of that underlying work has been deferred to servers and factory workers in far-flung countries, the act of consuming news has been isolated into its most potent and least meaningful form. World events have not become any less serious, but the format makes our relationship to them begin to seem more recognizable as artifice.
The endpoint of Bezos's strategy is to isolate objects of consumption from the communal interdependencies that created them, a goal that will ultimately put stress on every industry it encompasses. Amazon doesn't just sell products in a central marketplace, it controls consumerism itself—it is becoming synonymous with the idea that when you need something you should pay for it. Why leave the house and talk to other people when you can just Amazon something?
The company has long been willing to operate with the smallest sliver of profit margin, selling products at a loss just to build up the muscle memory in consumers' brains that whenever they have the impulse to buy—be it toilet paper or a laptop—that impulse leads them to Amazon. This strategy has led them to control an increasingly large part of the data infrastructure that supports commerce, so that even if you're not directly buying from Amazon, the company you are buying from likely depends on them for server space or payment system.
The newspaper industry's struggle to justify the cost of its own production has been long and public, often framed as an object lesson about the existential worth of news. But underwriting this decline is an epochal degradation of human relationships defined through the kinds of labor we depend on one another for.
Amazon has slowly been working to replace as much human labor with automation as possible, making itself central to every consumerist act in our culture, and it has taken that role through eroding or displacing many of the old industries that formed an imperfect but very human network. In its place is a massive computer network with only human endpoints, whose primary role is to browse, shop, and click on the next story, living in a perpetual state of distraction, surrounded by random trinkets that seem to have appeared as if from nowhere.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.