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Golis: A changing landscape for news

  • (LISA BENSON / Washington Post Writers Group)

The news industry didn't need to be reminded that technology is changing everything. But last week brought a new jolt of reality: The Washington Post, an icon of American journalism, was sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $250 million.

If that sounds like a lot of money, it isn't. A decade ago, the Post brand would have been worth several times that much. Bezos paid a price equal to 1 percent of the value of his Amazon stock.

The New York Times Co., a former owner of The Press Democrat, recently sold the Boston Globe for $70 million. In 1993, the Times bought the Globe for $1.1 billion.

Lessons have been learned the hard way. Without attribution (or any show of self-awareness or irony), a Times story predicted that Bezos would “push to upend the often ossified world of newspaper publishing.”

What some tried to deny is now conventional wisdom. And there could be no better example than an Internet billionaire, Bezos, buying the Washington Post and being welcomed as a savior. Never mind that Amazon's online businesses take customers from hometown retailers who advertise with hometown newspapers and websites.

Salon, the online magazine, served up a snarky headline: “The iceberg just rescued the Titanic.”

Meanwhile, family owners at the New York Times, also an icon of American journalism, felt obliged to announce that their newspaper isn't for sale.

For someone who has spent his life in newspapering, there are so many emotions here.

It's been clear for a while that the industry and people who work in the industry were slow to respond. As is true with many changes associated with the Internet and related technology, there was a generational disconnect.

There was hubris and complacency, too. The industry thought it knew what was best — as if that mattered in a world that was moving on to new ways of receiving information.

In defense of the industry, there was also the simple fact that the dead-wood product made a lot more money than any nascent digital offering. When you're trying to sustain a large business and pay the people who work there, it isn't easy to move away from the business that pays the bills to concentrate on an emerging business with smaller returns (or no returns). Newspapers often found themselves juggling competing demands for time and resources.

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