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About Merlyn on Media

Merlyn Reineke is Executive Director of Montgomery Community Media, which provides media training and community-based content by-and-for the residents of Montgomery County. Merlyn’s blog focuses on all-things media, with an emphasis on how community-based media can make our county a better place to live, work and play.... Read more

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Three Ways to Make The Washington Post Great Again

An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos, soon-to-be owner of The Washington Post

Dear Jeff (and may I call you Jeff?),

Welcome to the neighborhood! I think I speak for many residents of the DC area when I say we’re glad you’re coming to Washington (well, at least your money is). This town has needed an infusion of excitement for a long time, and with the lame-duck Obama Administration lacking in any second-term surprises and the NFL post-season months away, your arrival may be the jolt we need.

For me, the best part is you’ve rode into town to save an institution so venerable it has its own John Phillips Sousa march. Yes, The Washington Post of the past few years has been like a treasured uncle who is way past his prime. He’s fading and there’s not much that can be done about it, but you just can’t imagine the place without him. Sure, lots of things have been done to try and prop up the old fellow, but the end seemed as inevitable as a Lindsay Lohan moving violation.

So Jeff, here you are to save our beloved Post.

Now lots of people have wondered just what you have in mind to restore the paper’s glory. Of course, you really don’t know the first thing about running a sophisticated global newsgathering operation that maintains the highest journalistic standards. And there was that interview you gave in November where you weren’t exactly supportive of the newspaper business:

“About one thing I am certain: In 20 years there will be no more printed newspapers. If they do exist, they will be considered a luxury item for certain hotels to offer as an extravagant service for their guests. Printed newspapers will no longer be normal in 20 years.”

So if I were a Post employee, should I be looking for other opportunities?

Yes… and no.

The fact is Jeff, you spent $250M on the NEWSPAPER part of The Washington Post Company… not the TV stations or the Kaplan educational service (which are profitable). You bought the printers-ink-smeared part of the company filled with newspapers, reporters and printing presses. Yet, you wouldn’t throw money at something you intend to shut down. You’re not a gazzilionnaire for being dumb… or making bad business decisions.

You’ve got something in mind for the Post, haven’t you Jeff 😉

Well like a newspaper advice columnist from days of old, let me fill up a few column inches here Jeff with some thoughts that you can take or leave in your new venture:

“Three Ways to Make The Washington Post Great Again”

#1– Leverage that Legendary Amazon Customer Service Strategy
Now I realize that Amazon didn’t buy the Post, Jeff… your personal fortune did. Yet you created at Amazon one of the most remarkable customer service operations in the world. Through those sometimes-creepy ‘Recommendations’ lists as well as your awesome product return policies, you made the Amazon experience one that is the envy of the consumer industry. Sure, you crushed all those bricks-and-mortar businesses along the way (and you’re going to need those surviving retailers to drive local ad sales for the Post), but looking past those burning remains for a moment Jeff, you know how to interact with two key constituents for The Post’s future sustainability: the residents you reach and the businesses with whom you help connect them.
• What do RESIDENTS of the Washington region want in terms of news, information and entertainment that so far the Post and its sister newspapers (including the Gazette here in Montgomery County) have not delivered?
• In an age of numerous marketing and sales opportunities, what do BUSINESSES want from an organization like The Post to help drive customer transactions? These are fundamental questions that every news organization is facing today Jeff, it will be fascinating to see what you learn from your customer service experience.

#2– Dump the “I Wanna Be a Local CNN” stuff and focus on Hyperlocal
Yes Jeff, every business needs to have video as part of their content strategy… especially news organizations. But the way The Post has been approaching video is utterly flawed. Seriously Jeff, take a look at some of the things they have been attempting… boring expert/reporter interviews that can be seen on a half-dozen other national cable channels… and lame attempts to get Post reporters on camera. Why would the public want to watch this stuff? Jeff, your content needs to be unique and distinctive. Look instead at the local, even hyperlocal resources that you already have across the region. Here in Montgomery County, you still have a small number of reporters and editors (and yes, cutbacks have really decimated their ranks the last few years) who are doing good work and creating unique stories seen nowhere else. With a little help, you could leverage that content into constantly available on-demand video via your website and pushed out to the community through social media and old-fashioned emails. Permission marketing and audience engagement is the type of relationship-building that The Post desperately needs… and you understand intimately, Jeff.

#3—Don’t Dump the Presses Just Yet, but….
All this week Jeff, the rumors have been flying that you will want to turn off the presses, dump the printed version of The Post (and some of its other not-so-profitable newspapers) and move everything online… maybe even create some sort of Kindle version of The Post. Well, that would certainly be a huge shift from where things are today. A recent survey of national daily newspapers showed that The Post lags far behind others in the industry in establishing paid content online and other digital offerings. Long-ago, I ended my own weekly subscription to The Post, opting to just keep the weekend edition and grab whatever I need online. I see fewer and fewer newspaper bags at the end of my neighbors’ driveways these days, and the Gazette often just rots at the curb unopened. People’s news & information habits have altered dramatically in a short period of time, and mobile devices are increasingly able to handle video and electronic content so that printed sources are becoming obsolete (as you said yourself Jeff just last year). Yet the value of The Post brand is its newsgathering capability as well as its reputation for thoughtful reporting and commentary. In an age of mile-wide-and-inch-deep news coverage, The Post can find a sustainable economic model by leveraging quality journalism that can be found nowhere else in Washington DC… and delivering that when and how the consumer wants.

Jeff, I believe that our community deserves a world-class news organization like The Washington Post. Certainly, others will come onto an already crowded playing field, competing for those local eyeballs and ad sales dollars. There are others who will do a better job then you in specific story genres, or in super-serving individual communities. Still others will outmatch you in video, or create a better platform to facilitate local business. As hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said about his success: “I don’t go where the puck is, but where it’s going to be.” I hope you’ll leverage your experience to have the community tell you where they want you to be.

I’m glad you’re here, Jeff. Now strike up The Washington Post March and get to work.

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Merlyn Reineke

About Merlyn Reineke

Merlyn Reineke is Executive Director of Montgomery Community Media, which provides media training and community-based content by-and-for the residents of Montgomery County.


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