There is only one way to measure the twin shocks that hit the United States newspaper industry in the past week: How much would you have bet someone who told you that in a 96-hour period one great American newspaper would have been sold to the man who owns the contract of second baseman Dustin Pedroia and another even more storied newspaper would be sold to a man whose fortune was made by offering free shipping if your Internet book order surpassed $25?
Would you have bet $70-million (the amount Red Sox owner John Henry bid for The Boston Globe)? Would you have bet $250-million (the amount Amazon wunderkind Jeff Bezos paid for The Washington Post)?
I thought not. In fact, this may have been the most significant week, and surely the most surprising one, in the history of American newspapering since the week, in 1896, that Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times. And perhaps there is a message in that; the newspaper that Ochs purchased was struggling – for revenue, for prospects, for identity. That pretty much sums up the state – in August 2013 – of the Globe, Post, and almost every newspaper in the United States.
We now know, of course, that the golden age of the printed newspaper was in the future, not the past – a notion that many of us ink-stained wretches, dreaming of a new golden age, would love to believe, though revenues, circulation and morale are sinking. The phrase “existential threat” nearly tumbles from the lips in any conversation on this topic, which of course is the preoccupation of journalists even if it may not be of others. (You must please excuse this indulgence on the part of the typing class. It was the pioneering American war correspondent Richard Harding Davis, a reporter covering the Spanish-American and Boer Wars before going on to witness the First World War, who said that journalists think “the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read” the morning newspaper.)
So what was the message behind the two earthquakes that rumbled across the U.S. media landscape in recent days?
First, let’s stipulate what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the great eureka moment that journalists have been hoping for in a riot of mixed metaphors: the panacea, the silver bullet, the elusive formula that would bring newspapering back into health and solve the advertising crisis, the circulation crisis, the demographic crisis, the leisure-time crisis, the speed crisis, the paper-disposal crisis, the pension crisis, and the lack-of-coolness crisis. Neither Mr. Henry nor Mr. Bezos spoke of any plans, only of plans to make plans. In an age of instant gratification, these seemed ungratifying opening gambits.
That said, both men are innovators, darers, risk takers – and, it must be added, newspaper readers. They know what they bought (in Mr. Henry’s case) for the annual salaries of six of his Red Sox players and (in Mr. Bezos’s case) for about 1 per cent of his net worth. They bought the chance to innovate, the room to dare, the need to take risks, and the hope that newspaper readers who regard their daily dose as an indispensable part of their morning ritual might be able to continue to do so, even as the newspaper industry itself turns a page.
For turn a page it must. The newspaper business above all needs a new business model. Years of watching circulation decline and revenues seep away while giving away content for free have proven that.
A week ago Mr. Henry and Mr. Bezos were at work at what the latter playfully described in his introduction to his new Post colleagues as his “day job.” Now both have a new job: finding a way to preserve the daily routine of millions even as they reposition the business to catch an even more important group: those millions who don’t read a newspaper, or even a Web report. That is challenge enough for both of them, and reason enough for all of us to hope they might succeed.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.