It turns out Silicon Valley does give a damn about Washington. With Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post and the efforts of Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, the Internet’s enormous riches are showing up on the doorstep of Washington’s elites.
For most beltway insiders, the new arrivals are perplexing. The logic of Silicon Valley couldn’t be more different than Washington’s: start small, think big, and above all, don’t be afraid to break things.
All of which begs the question of Bezos: Why bother? Is he acting out of simple vanity or is there some business insight that he has that others don’t? (The same questions have been asked of me since I bought The New Republic.)
While no one has found the formula that will bring old media into a profitable future, I’m guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history—their stories track the American story. In many cases, they have made that very history through their reporting. No owner can brush aside these powerful legacies, regardless of his or her start-up bona fides. In fact, brands matter more now than when Don Graham’s grandfather bought the Post nearly a hundred years ago, particularly when they have established themselves so securely as the Post has.
We read differently today than 20 years ago or even two years ago. Tablets, phones, blogs, print—we find content everywhere, but expect different things from it depending on the context. But the one constant, the one thing that matters when readers think about paying or advertisers think about buying, is the power of the brand. Casual web readers may pass by and barely glimpse at the name in the top-left corner of a web page, but the most valuable readers—what advertisers lustily describe as “influencers”—look to the brand to signal what kind of journalism they are reading. These brands stand for integrity, thorough analysis, trustworthy journalism, and (hopefully) a willingness to evolve with the times.
If you were to believe the superficial logic of many Internet media companies, you would only look at a site’s unique visitors and volume to determine the level of fidelity of the reader. But when it comes to the audiences that most advertisers in The Washington Post and the New Republic have always sought, these individuals check Twitter first thing in the morning, but turn to these traditional institutions in the afternoon, in the evening, and on the weekend. That fidelity merits the value that these institutions garner in private transactions.
This is not to say that there is not a desperate need for more innovation in media. New entrants in Washington in the past few years—Politico, most prominently—have challenged existing news outlets while also carving out a niche for a certain kind of insider, gossipy style. But these institutions can also flourish side-by-side with the traditional outlets. My bet is that the traditional outlets will assimilate some of the business style of their new owners, but the substance of their journalism will remain grounded in their best traditions. Some values and traditions are, after all, beyond innovation.