Do We Dare to Hope?

Has Amazon’s Jeff Bezos developed a workable business model for real journalism? According to Politico and other sources, the Washington Post–which Bezos bought three years ago–plans to add sixty reporters in the first quarter of 2017.

That’s not a typo–the Post really is hiring sixty new reporters.

The Post newsroom will grow by more than 60 jobs — or 8 percent — an astounding number in this day and age. Such contrarian additions, of course, come at a time when newsroom staff reductions are the rule across daily journalism.

The Post newsroom will number more than 750, third among the national newspaper-based press and moving it closer to the Times, with which it increasingly competes for high-end talent. The Times complement stands at about 1,307, the company says. USA Today’s newsroom stands at about 450, while the Journal, after its recent buyouts, tells me it employs 1,500.

Furthermore, subscriptions are evidently up at the Times, Journal and USA Today.

According to the story, Bezos believes that old-fashioned journalism — increasingly delivered via a variety of digital platforms from smartphone apps to the Kindle to Facebook — sells.

The Post has seen a 75 percent increase in new subscribers since the first of the year and says it has doubled digital subscription revenue over the year. Many of those new subscribers prove out Bezos’ theory that a mass market of low-price (generally around $36 a year for the national edition, after up to six months of “free trial”) subscription sales will form the leading revenue source for the Post in the years ahead.

In a time of journalistic business desperation worldwide, that’s a hugely important lesson being retaught to all news publishers by both the Post and the Times this year.

This is an incredibly important development. It is not an exaggeration to say that the displacement of genuine journalism by today’s fragmented and inadequate media bears much of the blame for today’s toxic and broken politics. Increasingly, as legitimate journalism has ceded its place to less-than-credible outlets, people don’t know whether they can trust what they read and so they read–and believe–what confirms their pre-existing biases.

As formerly reputable newspapers have competed online for eyeballs and “clicks,” far too many have eliminated sound reporting and substituted “infotainment,” celebrity news, the “bar beat” and sports. They have fired reporters and reduced substantive news coverage (which is more expensive to produce) in an effort to protect their bottom lines. It hasn’t worked.

The Post’s experience vindicates those of us who have insisted that any successful business plan would necessarily begin with a return to quality content–to what used to be called the journalism of verification.

Dare we hope that this “discovery” by national news outlets–their renewed recognition that the public wants substantive content and a return to journalism’s “watchdog” role–might encourage a similar trend locally?

As promising as this news is–and it is–it only addresses the deficit in national news. In Indianapolis and similar communities, we are still without anything approximating adequate coverage of local and state government. Gannett is still chasing those eyeballs by telling us more than most of us want to know about Colts’ games and bar openings.

Fingers crossed; maybe even Gannett will figure out that success in the news business requires…what was that they used to provide? Oh, yeah…news.