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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 22, 2014 at 10:08 AM

Citizen Bezos faces his first crisis at the Post

When Amazon chief Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million last year, there was much speculation and — dare I say it in my besieged calling — hope — about what new ideas he might bring to the newspaper world.

His first test leaves big questions. Ezra Klein, the brains behind the Post’s Wonkblog, is leaving the paper to start his own Web venture. He had pitched the idea to his Post bosses, reportedly asking for eight-figures in startup seed money, and they took a pass. It is doubtful that they made this decision without consulting Bezos.

Wonkblog is nothing less than the most revolutionary content and approach to journalism to come along in many years. As Paul Krugman put it:

Here’s the problem: When you’re covering policy, the usual tools of journalism — cultivating sources, pounding the pavement, pulling out the Rolodex — just won’t cut it. You have to have people who actually understand the policy issues — people who can pound a spreadsheet, or whose Rolodex includes academic experts as well as DC flacks.

Otherwise what you get at best is he-said-she-said reporting — what I mocked many years ago as responding to claims that the earth is flat with the headline “Views differ on shape of planet.” Or, even worse, you rely on people who seem like authority figures because of their style or their official position, but are in reality just guys with an agenda, and often completely untrustworthy…

What Ezra and company brought was a combination of sophistication about policy issues and skepticism toward the Very Serious People. Ezra and Sarah Kliff really understood health policy, and knew that if you needed to know more, you called Gruber or Cutler, not Senator Bomfog. Others on the team actually understood macroeconomic policy, and knew that you shouldn’t treat the hacks at Heritage as if they were symmetrical with, say, the careful wonks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Wonkblog has generally come off as liberal-leaning, but that’s just because the facts have a well-known liberal bias.

I have to say, I wonder — based on nothing at all — whether there wasn’t some hostility to Wonkblog among older-line journalists at the Post. Just a feeling, based on extrapolation from some other cases I know about.

It would be interesting to know Bezos’ calculus in all this. The Post owns the Wonkblog name and will no doubt continue it with new journalists. Perhaps that is enough. Bezos is a master of assessing new ventures and perhaps what Klein had in mind didn’t promise to return the necessary investment. We will find out.

On the other hand, Bezos is in the ongoing conundrum that faces the newspaper industry and media in general: How do you measure the intellectual property value brought by journalists and the investment necessary to hire and retain the best? It’s easy to count ad revenue, the cost of presses and software, etc. A Wonkblog and the journalists that made it special, harder. Historically, the news didn’t pay for itself; advertising did. This was an exercise that wasn’t needed. The newsroom was a “cost center.”

I don’t have the answer. I hope Citizen Bezos does.

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Today’s Econ Haiku:

China’s feared weapon

A new aircraft carrier?

Or shadow banking?

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