Bezos has what The Washington Post needs: imagination and patience

The front page of today’s Washington Post print edition was dominated by coverage of the paper’s sale to Jeff Bezos. But a small story squeezed onto the bottom of the page, about the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, also gave some insight into what’s ahead for the legendary paper — and perhaps the rest of the news business.

The story recounted the taste test of the first lab-burger, which was described as “surprisingly crunchy.” The story noted who bankrolled the newfangled beef: Google’s Sergey Brin.

The Post — like the hamburger — will now be owned by a rich guy with a spirit of experimentation. Using just a tiny fraction of his tremendous wealth to buy the paper, Bezos made clear that he wants to tinker with the Post and explore the future of journalism.

“We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment,” he wrote in a letter to Post employees. “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about — government local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports — and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.”

It has been difficult for newspaper editors to do much inventing in the past few years because they have been too busy cutting. It’s hard to dream up new forms of journalism when you’re not sure you have enough reporters to cover the school board.

Just as Brin is paying to reimagine fast food (the beef-free beef burger holds lots of promise for the environment), Bezos has the resources to help reinvent the news business. He is well-suited for this because he isn’t a product of its ink-and-paper past.

The emergence of wealthy tinkerers such as Bezos is a promising trend because they can give the news business some stability and a fresh perspective. As the Post notes in its profile of Bezos, he has remarkable patience: He launched Amazon in 1994, but it didn’t turn a profit until 2001.

And Bezos has shown he has great imagination. His other investments include a company that will send people into space (the company, Blue Origin, says “accomplishing this mission will take time, and we’re working on it methodically”) and a clock that will tick for 10,000 years. Likewise, he’s grown Amazon into a behemoth by relentlessly trying new products and services.

After getting a foothold in books, clothing, e-books and many other consumer products, he’s venturing into groceries and even streaming video. (Last week, I caught up with the first episodes of “Under the Dome” by watching them on Amazon.)

We need more investors like Bezos. He’ll bring fresh thinking to a company that is still largely dependent on an ink-on-paper business model. (Even better: Maybe Brin will develop the same interest in papers that he has in beef! Consumers can read the news while they munch on their  lab-grown double cheeseburgers!)

Chris Taylor, a former writer for Time magazine who has covered Bezos, wrote in Mashable that he is “the best thing to happen to old-school journalism in a long time. He understands its values. He has no agenda, other than making sure customers are happy with the product. He is used to businesses that operate at razor-thin profit margins. He gets new media in a way the Grahams never could, and opens up new distribution channels they hadn’t even considered.”

A hallmark of our digital era has been the speed of progress. But Bezos has been a successful pioneer because he’s got imagination, deep pockets and is willing to give things a chance to grow.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor for the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He also serves an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and is a contributing editor for PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times.

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