Jeff Bezos Just Might Save Local Journalism

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When it was announced that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com ( AMZN) founder and CEO, had bought the The Washington Post Company ( WPO) newspapers for $250 million cash, most people trotted out obituaries for American journalism.

I don't understand that. I work for at least three profitable journalism enterprises right now, and came to financial journalism from another one, C|Net's ZDNet. The key to making money online was turned long ago.

Here it is. Know your market. Prove to advertisers that you reach their market. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The trouble is local journalism long ago lost the local market share that justified print ad expenses to local advertisers. Paywalls then made the whole business circle the drain, because charging for online content kills online reach. You're left with overpaid columnists whining that the world owes them a living.

This is no more true than at The Washington Post, which saw itself as the house organ of the political establishment. But it lost that title to sites like Politico long ago. Tell me again what a genius publisher Donald Graham was, Rocco.

Personally I think the key to the future here is price. Bezos paid $250 million for a franchise that cost John Henry $70 million with The Boston Globe. That's a fair price, because while Boston buys you New England, Washington could, and should, buy you the country.

There are many ways to monetize what the Post presently does. You can put it on Kindles. You can turn it into TV, into radio, and podcast it. It's a national franchise for politics and an international franchise for policy, not just something to wrap Maryland crabs in.

Bezos will move slowly with this. He will experiment. He will try things. He reminds of the line from Citizen Kane, where Kane is told how much his new paper lost and replies "at that rate I may have to sell it in 60 years." (I found that quote at IMDb, which is owned by Amazon.com.) Bezos put just 1% of his personal fortune into this venture, so he can afford to be patient.

Once you have a national franchise, how do you make money with a local product? How do you gather enough share of a local market, enough share of local mind, that you can prove to local advertisers that you are their only choice?

Newspapers once did that routinely. They even called themselves monopolies, although even 35 years ago, when I got into the business, they were losing niches in business, entertainmnent and neighborhood news to smaller publishers who could aggregate those audiences and undercut the newspapers on price, even with a higher cost per thousand or CPM.

There's another change that has to take place in journalism, what to those of us who make our livings online seems an obvious change.

Get off your high horse. Journalists have to stop pretending we're a sage on a stage. Like they say at Kaplan University, which will probably be the new name of The Washington Post Company within weeks, "in with the guide at the side."

A column is a bit like a nightclub act. It takes just a few minutes of your time. If I'm to earn more of that time, I have to interact with you, have a drink with you, and listen to you. (Maybe show a little leg.) Your continuing approval, or the willing fandom of some portion of you, is essential to my staying in business. The paper is just the nightclub.

On the Web, that nightclub can be vast. It can include every interactive trick of which technology is capable, most of them still foreign to The Washington Post staff. My hope is that Bezos will, over the next several years, introduce the journalists there to all the ways in which they can connect with their audience, becoming vital to their daily lives, and thus justify premium ad rates.

As he does that for Washington, a valuable market with national pretensions, he'll also be showing those tricks to people in every other local market. As his techniques spread, I hope, local journalism may be reborn.

Help us, Obi Wan JeffBezos. You're our only hope.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned here

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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