Jeff Bezos is the anti-unbundler or, can the founder of Amazon make us eat our greens?

All opinions are may own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

h/t to @Frank_S_David for tweeting the link.

People have wondered and speculated and analyzed why exactly Jeff Bezos decided to buy the Washington Post.  Late last week Timothy B. Lee of the Washington Post offered some clues.  He reported how Bezos, in remarks to the Post staff, described wanting to get back to “that glorious bundle that the paper did so well.”  What Bezos wants is to find a way to make the Post such a destination that people will choose to visit regularly and not just read individual articles but stay and scan through many, presumably in one sitting, as people used to do as their morning ritual.

Timothy Lee is skeptical and I’ll just briefly summarize his points and urge you to go read his great article for the details.  Lee points out that news distribution has become unbundled due to the influence of the internet.  (For some nice posts on the concept of unbundling see this one by Leigh Drogan and this one by Frank David).  People consume news in individual article-sized chunks, often following links provided by friends and colleagues and search engines, without much loyalty to specific outlets or writers.  Lee also points out that while the Post has excellent writers, they’re still a miniscule fraction of the writers on the internet and most of the best writers are not on the Post’s staff.  Lee uses this as a launching point to talk about the increasingly important skillset of attracting clicks, largely through evocative headlines.  You know, like the one I tried to write for this post.  Did it work?

Jeff Bezos’ ambition is quite interesting on a couple of different levels.  The first is the basic question of why Bezos thinks he can do this?

The answer, I believe, is that he already succeeded once.

Amazon is one of the strongest counter-examples of unbundling out there.  It actually went the opposite direction to most web business portals, going from more specialized to less so.  Amazon started off selling books and now sells everything.  Pretty much.  Well, not real estate, not yet anyway.  Amazon has managed to keep a dominant position in the market despite the unbundling of many other kinds of internet services and online products portals.  They’ve done it by being innovative, strategic, aggressive and lucky.  They’ve also shown a pretty savvy approach to pleasing customers.  One-click shopping?  Brilliant!  Selling groceries doesn’t quite cut it?  Okay, drop that approach for a while and wait for conditions to change and reintroduce.  Mining user data to figure out what else you might want to buy?  Of course.

Bezos has seen this work.  When he tells the Post staff that the newspaper can again be a one-stop shop for news, my interpretation is he believes this can happen because he’s seen it happen, and he feels the trend of unbundling news can be reversed.  And while I think he’s wrong, I wouldn’t bet against him.  When you own Amazon, there is a lot you can do that an ordinary newspaper owner couldn’t even conceive of, let alone try.

The second thing that’s really fascinating to me about this is I’m wondering if Bezos has come to this goal out of an entirely different motive than I’ve seen described elsewhere.  Is Bezos trying to heal American discourse?

Eat your greens.  They’re good for you!

Lee describes the balkanization of attention that the internet has enabled as one of the reasons why he believes bundling the Post will ultimately fail.  Many people have bemoaned how much of today’s population gets their news and opinions from very select, biased sources.  Sources that serve to reinforce existing beliefs.  Anyone who’s ever read the comment threads after, for example, an article about autism and vaccines can see how people are very quick to dismiss any views that don’t already agree with their own.  Because anyone can find articles online to reinforce what they already believe in, and will then link and tweet and share that article with like-minded individuals, the net result appears to be increasing polarization and intolerance for other views.

To those who say,”What about sites like Reddit or StumbleUpon that let people discover novel things?” I would counter that these sites don’t necessarily expose you to new and alternative thoughts and opinions. They start off by letting you set filters based on interests.  Reddit for example has a ton of subReddits that let you rapidly narrow your focus to posts of specific interest.  Headlines then let you do a lot of additional filtering on bias and content.  And if you do click on something you don’t like, there is essentially no cost to clicking yourself to more acceptable material and leaving the challenging stuff behind.

But here’s the thing:  if Jeff Bezos actually succeeds in getting a substantial fraction of the US population to read not just one or two articles, but several every day from the Washington Post, he will be helping recreate the shared culture that once existed when there were only three major televisions networks and everyone got a paper delivered every day.  This would be a monumental and amazing feat, largely because as I’ve described above, the internet makes the opposite path–unbundling–so, so easy.  In “Switch“, the great book by Dan and Chip Heath, (and while I’m mentioning them, let me also mention “Made to Stick” which is a great lesson in making ideas “sticky”), they describe how making change is greatly facilitated if you can make it easier in some way.  Jeff Bezos, in contrast, is out to make a change that seems really hard for the internet-surfing public to make.  Yes, we should eat our vegetables, yes we should be exposed to and consider ideas outside our comfort zone, but we don’t want to.

Should he succeed, though, one result of a greater shared culture would be a little more exposure to new ideas, a little more nuanced view of the world, a little more critical thinking, a little more civility. And man, we could use that these days.  He would be making us eat our vegetables, and hopefully see  us eventually liking them too.

So even though I’m not sure Jeff Bezos can pull it off, I’ll be rooting for him and seeing if he can pull off that Amazon magic one more time.

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