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Media & Marketing Opinion

Why Bezos Should Buy the L.A. Times

Jeff Bezos via Niall Kennedy.

Photo by Niall Kennedy

In the wake of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post, he would do the journalism business a big favor by cutting a similar deal for The Los Angeles Times. And while he’s at it, the Amazon multi-billionaire should snap up the seven other newspapers owned by the Times’ parent, the Tribune Company. They include The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant, and The Orlando Sentinel. Since the Tribune Company emerged from bankruptcy last December 31, it has signaled its plans to either spin off or sell the newspaper part of its media empire. Bezos could quickly flesh out his news and information universe.

For many of the same reasons Bezos is the right guy at the right time to take over the Washington Post, he is well positioned to take other venerable brands and give them a renewed lease on quality and profitability. Why not?  He just spent $250 million on The Post, and the Tribune newspapers could be had for less than a billion of his estimated $25 billion net worth. News organizations, now more than ever, need management that takes the long view over quarterly returns and that have a well-honed mindset of serving consumers as well as advertisers. Bezos understands how the digital age creates opportunities to use technology to serve niche markets as well as mass ones.

Buying the Post, Bezos has already shown that he sees value in legacy news brands. Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Steven Waldman, who authored an FCC report on the state of local news, suggested in The New Republic that Bezos has the mentality to “efficiently” deliver news and information that is relevant to specific audiences and make money doing so. A newspaper, they point out, for example, typically gives all of its readers a series on local schools, instead of allowing individual readers to tailor whatever information is relevant to them. But if the paper listens to the distinct communities within the larger community, allowing audiences to tailor their news so the information is most valuable to them, a news organization grows its engagement and audience. “One database,” Genachowski and Waldman write, “creates a thousand stories.”

Newspapers must be willing to invest and exploit technology to build your customers, if they are to thrive. They must also understand how to amass users by accruing niche audiences, as Amazon has done. Los Angeles is a city as culturally diverse and rich as any in the nation. Applying the Bezos/Amazon ethos to the L.A. Times, the newspaper might find new revenues by going hyperlocal with coverage of high school sports, community politics, and real estate, to name just a few areas where serving niche audiences could play in the long term into big profits.

Whatever the particular industry of a city — in Los Angeles, it’s entertainment — Bezos likely also has the skill set and deep pockets to develop business-to-business news platforms that to date have been ceded to trade publications. Bezos understands something that is too often anathema to old-line news organizations: building a brand means creating new information-based services, so that the next Craigslist, AutoTrader, LinkedIn, or Politico isn’t started by an upstart that steals relevance and revenues.

Likewise, Bezos, based on what Amazon has accomplished, seems to understand how to target news to diverse ethnic communities. Among the Tribune holdings is Hoy, which operates in L.A. and Chicago, the nation’s second-largest Spanish-language daily newspaper. The group also includes The Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel, based in Ft. Lauderdale. Think about the possibilities of building off those Hispanic communities and super-serving all the niches within that rapidly growing demographic.

Names bandied about to buy the L.A. Times and/or the entire Tribune group have included a passel of billionaires. Among them are Charles and David Koch, respectively CEO and executive vice president of Koch Industries, who have scant experience in the biz and are thought to want the Tribune group as a platform for their conservative political agenda. Fellow conservative and consummate media disrupter Rupert Murdoch has kicked the tires of the L.A. Times, but owning that crown jewel of the group would mean he’d need FCC waivers or be forced to shed his lucrative TV station in that market. Los Angeles-based billionaires and big bucks Democratic Party contributors Eli Broad and Ron Burkle have also eyed the L.A. Times, but not the other papers, presumably to keep their hometown rag afloat and out of the wrong hands.

Clearly, anyone with the wherewithal to scoop up the Tribune franchises, including Bezos, comes with baggage. But of all of the others mentioned, none are positioned to revitalize and revolutionize a la Bezos. Since Bezos bought The Post, much has been written about Amazon’s keeping the press at bay, the hundreds of millions of dollars of business Amazon Web Services does with the government, and its fights against local governments wanting to tax e-commerce. All are rightful reasons to keep a watchful eye on Bezos the publisher.

Still, Bezos’s track record at Amazon shows he can take the long view. He also has shown a willingness to invest in and exploit technology to build a customer base as well as an understanding of how to amass users by accruing niche audiences. Those are traits that news organizations need if they are to survive and thrive. The Amazon billionaire is the guy most suited for such an Amazonian task.

You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.

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