Jeff Bezos could be journalism’s shot in the arm

Even Carl Bernstein believes there is great possibility in the future of the ‘Washington Post’ under the Amazon founder’s ownership

Reporters Bob Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post on May 7th, 1973. Photograph: File/AP

Reporters Bob Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post on May 7th, 1973. Photograph: File/AP

 

I grew up with Watergate continuously in the background of my teen years.

First there was the scandal itself – revealed in the now famous stories by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that began to appear in the Washington Post in 1972. In my politically minded, Democrat-voting and Nixon-detesting family, those events and stories provided constant conversation at home.

Then there was the 1974 Woodward and Bernstein-authored book about the breaking and development of the story, All the President’s Men, and the 1976 film.

They were the twin inspirations for my high-school journalism class, which faithfully produced a tabloid-sized newspaper, the Hub, every two weeks, overseen by our determined journalism teacher, Mrs Hallberg.

She taught other English classes but journalism was her obvious passion. She demanded professionalism from us, as she taught us libel law, how to structure and write a story, to self-edit, to write good headlines and to constructively criticise each others’ writing.

We all entered work in annual journalism competitions and the year the national high-school journalism convention was held in San Francisco we all attended and competed in the spot-writing events.

Her lessons, the only formal journalism training I ever had, have stood me in good stead for decades now.

And, thanks to Woodward and Bernstein, Mrs Hallberg’s classes and journalism were exciting and real to us all. We understood the pen could change the world.


A responsible calling
Journalism was a responsible calling, a beacon to many of us (though few would go into it as a career).

We were young and idealistic and wanted a different world to the one we grew up in – of assassinations, cold war, presidential scandals, the Vietnam war, discrimination.

I don’t know if the book and the film created the same excitement and wave of interest in journalism over here, but suddenly every student in the United States seemed to want to be a journalist like Woodward and Bernstein, to be dogged and tough and wily, to hammer at the foundations of power and of oppression, to expose corruption and cruelty and wrong.

Of course, that is not what journalism is about all the time. But it is how so many of us saw it at the time. And still do.

And it is surely how the founding fathers of the US saw it too, as they drafted the US constitution and its amendments.


Freedom of the press
The quite revolutionary concept of freedom of the press was guaranteed in the first amendment, adopted in 1791, a risky commitment that officially endorsed and protected an enduring thorn in the side of all US governments to come.

There were a number of other journalist heroes in the 1960s and 1970s, but for my generation it was Woodward and Bernstein and their work at the Washington Post that brought home the importance of that first amendment protection and promise.


Shock
Thus the recent news that a much-reduced and straitened Washington Post had been sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos came as a shock. The Post was synonymous with Graham family ownership. The Post was not about becoming a tech billionaire plaything.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea.

Why not Bezos?

He’s smart and sharp and iconoclastic and determined. He knows how to ride the ups and downs of business.

He has been a creative businessman and has understood how to move an initial idea – selling books online – into new areas that keep the business fresh.

He also was critical to the success of the ebook, perhaps the biggest publishing shift for a very old print format since the printing press. The newspaper faces a similar digital transition.

Bezos also doesn’t seem to have bought the Post as a personal political mouthpiece but simply because he respects what it has been, and would like to see it continue to be, in whatever format that might take.

I think he might do some truly exciting things in publishing, not least because he has real knowledge of the online world as well as doing successful business in it (not the waffle that I have heard from far too many “consultants” in online media, weak in knowledge of media or of business or of both).

I was delighted to come across an interview last week in the Wall Street Journal Speakeasy blog with Bernstein that indicated he too thought there was great possibility in the future of the Post under Bezos’s ownership, saying he thought it allowed “ a renaissance of an economic model” for producing journalism.

He was quoted as saying: “Bezos is going to understand that dynamic push to find a way to make the connection between the business model, technological model and the enduring reportorial notions of what is the best obtainable version [of the] truth.”

It’s a great read, if too brief. And he’s still wonderfully inspiring about journalism, investigative work and publishing.

Read his take on those topics and the Bezos sale here: iti.ms/16KLXjB