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Making Sense of The Washington Post Comeback

Oct 12, 2014

Credit npr.org

Reports of The Washington Post's death are apparently greatly exaggerated.         

Since the purchase of the venerable newspaper by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos last summer, The Washington Post has seen print sales stabilize and website page views increase by 63 per cent.

And that's good news for the media business because the health of The Washington Post is important to a healthy Fourth Estate, according to Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project.

"You know newspapers still have more investigative power than any other organization, including online newsrooms," McBride explained. "You kind of want a powerful check on power -- moored in the nation's capitol -- at a newspaper."

So what does Jeff Bezos know about the newspaper business in the digital age that others don't that helped put The Washington Post on the road to recovery?

Well, first, the newspaper wasn't exactly dying in the first place.

"It certainly wasn't in a very good place. They had been in years and years of economic downturn. They had been laying people off quite a bit. But it's not fair to say it was dying," McBride said. "They were still doing substantial work. They did great investigations into Walter Reed in the middle of all that which won a Pulitzer Prize. But, the momentum was definitely going in a negative direction."

And Bezos has turned that around.

"Mostly he gave them the financial stability they needed. They've hired more than a hundred journalists in the last year. They did that, in part, by cutting pensions and medical benefits for retirees so it's not like it was just a sugar daddy infusion of cash," said McBride. "But, that turnaround has led to some really substantial reporting. All of the stuff that we know about the debacle at the Secret Service comes first from  The Washington Post. So they are doing a lot of really good journalism and when you talk to people in the Post, they feel the difference. They feel like they are going in a positive direction."

And, it turns out, when there are good stories, people want to read them.

"That growth in web traffic is directly related to the quality of the product," McBride said. "People want to read it. And, also, people want to read it outside of Washington. The internet has made that possible and Bezos apparently has some plans for the future.  An internal committee is working on a special project that would make The Washington Post available for people who buy the newer, bigger Kindle Fire.  And it really makes sense because it's what Bezos did with Amazon, right? They don't make anything at Amazon, they just change the deliver system. And that seems to be what Bezos is banking on here as the way he's going to make money off The Washington Post."