Hearst, Pulitzer, and now Bezos?

Of the most enduring images of the turn of the previous century, few are as romanticized as the clash between powerful media barons – men of ingenuity, cunning and vision competing for the hearts and minds of the American public through the ink-stained pages of their daily papers. These papers would go on to sculpt and define American culture throughout the 20th century – from the Rockwellian paperboy on the city street corner, to the incorruptible and square-jawed reporters who inspired the creation of Superman’s Clark Kent, and the real life journalistic heroism of Woodward and Bernstein.

Another word for all of this Americana is history – the newspaper as another relic. But this week’s news of Jeff Bezos and John Henry making their plays for major broadsheets gives these relics a new shine. What does the Washington Post mean to Jeff Bezos, whose entire success has been built upon disrupting and superseding old, worn out business models? Why did data and analytics maven (and Boston Red Sox owner) John Henry purchase the Boston Globe, despite every indication that the newspaper industry might be in its death throes? Are these venerable papers simply trophies, or is there something more promising and more powerful at work here?

Perhaps it’s that these two see what their Gilded Age predecessors did, that they have acquired immeasurably important soapboxes? Even as circulation numbers and ad revenues fall, few can argue that there’s no power behind the Washington Post and Boston Globe mastheads. They provide quite a platform.

But beyond that, perhaps there’s a less cynical reason to take over these old institutions? It is very possible that that romanticized image – the newspaper as the servant of civil society – is something that the new owners see as a public good that should be maintained, regardless of profit margins. Both Bezos and Henry have the financial ability to allow these papers to continue their work without having to meet the financial demands of a publicly held company. There is a strong argument to be made for the philanthropic maintenance of these papers that allows them to continue their mission and disregard the financial realities of the 21st century.

And then, especially for Bezos, there’s the appeal these papers hold for the disruptor. Clearly, there’s no lack of thirst for news and information, and even as these papers floundered financially, they maintained their status as a driving force behind political, business and cultural conversations. Who better than the person who has spent the better part of two decades redefining how we purchase and consume the written word to try his hand at revitalizing the newspaper industry? Is the answer in digital distribution? Hyperlocal journalism? An increased crossover between social media and traditional reporting?

For both Henry and Bezos, these acquisitions mark the next step in their campaigns to make their mark on the future of the media industry. Bezos completely changed the way consumers access and purchase media, while Henry integrated his sports TV network into an media ecosystem that helped support the Boston Red Sox, while also operating as an independent media outlet. Perhaps both see, in newspapers, not the flagging sales numbers of an aging print medium, but the flagship property in a more complete influencer-based media model that provides consumers with timely, personalized and thought provoking information in new and exciting ways, from a name they can trust. While the ink is barely dry on the sales of these two long-standing media institutions, it is no question that these new owners can be trusted to bring a fresh eye to the news industry and will not hesitate to challenge and disrupt long held norms and accepted ways of thinking. It may be awhile before we can truly say if this new era of the entrepreneur-turned-newspaper-baron is merely a passing fad or the dawn of a new chapter for the media industry, but it’s an exciting turn of events that will no doubt change the way that those who work in and around the media do business and consume information.

This post originally appeared on State of Engagement.

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