Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Will Bezos deliver a personalized paper?

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NEW YORK -- When it comes to the Washington Post, if you are not thinking about the Kindle, you are not thinking like Jeff Bezos.

With the Kindle, Amazon has an exclusive delivery mechanism for content, sold exclusively by it. It has the only wireless network that doesn't require customers to go through an extortionate telecom contract. Not even Apple or Google have that. Kindle's 3G is free, which means Bezos can use that network to reach you.

Or rather, Amazon can use it to reach you. Amazon didn't buy the Post; Bezos the private investor did. The Washington Post gives Bezos a news-generation operation -- and now he should hand that news-generation operation over to Amazon.

Think of the possibilities! The Post could show up as your browser start page; it can show up in the "special offers" that accompany the discounted Kindle. It can show up on Amazon product pages, alongside e-book libraries, you name it.

But wait! Is the Washington Post so universally interesting to merit such prominent placement? Well, maybe not. Parse Bezos' words:

"The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs... 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."

Bezos tips his hand here. The Post isn't known for its coverage of restaurant openings or scout troops. Yet Bezos seems to think the Post might return to its previous experiments in hyperlocal news.

One way this would be possible is if the news is personalized. And this is where the new Post could combine elements of Amazon and Facebook.

Let us hypothesize. If you are a Kindle owner, chances are Amazon already knows far more about you than Facebook, because it knows what you buy. That's the real information gold. Facebook has clumsily been trying to get at your purchase history for years with browser-spying gimmicks like Beacon. But Amazon doesn't need to violate your privacy. It knows all about you.

Your customer record tells Amazon where you live, what you buy, what you want to buy and a great deal more that it can infer from that information. Currently, it uses those data to make product recommendations -- sensible enough. But news stories tailored to your demographic and purchase history could be far more captivating than a simple product recommendation.

The news stories wouldn't have to be infomercials or puff pieces. If you've been reading Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, maybe reviews of his upcoming Bleeding Edge will start showing up on your Kindle. If you buy diapers, maybe articles on child-rearing will show up. But these articles, puff pieces or not, will often mention products and brands, and those can be conveniently hyperlinked to Amazon product pages.

Then there's the local angle. The existing Post team doesn't have the resources to cover local events around the country. So the Post banner will be extended to cover many more reporters, perhaps becoming a franchise. The Huffington Post is probably a reasonable model for what Bezos has in mind.

In effect, the Post can cease to be a newspaper by and for national elites and instead become a more amorphous entity that caters to all stripes of people on an individual basis. The existing Post team will form the backbone of national news coverage, but they will in no way be the core of the Post, because there will no longer be a core.

 

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2013 B8

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