Bezos brings culture of experimentation to journalism

When Jeff Bezos announced his purchase of the Washington Post, the entire news industry turned its gaze to the Amazon founder with both uncertainty and excitement. It’s clear that the CEOs of today’s big tech companies are the closest thing this century has to the magnates of the industrial age, and their wealth represents one way to restore a robust news ecology.

The $250 million that Bezos spent on the Washington Post is less than 1% of his personal fortune so he can afford to fail repeatedly if success and sustainability don’t come immediately with Bezos at the helm.

Although Bezos and most of his very wealthy peers in the tech community may be new to the newspaper business, their experience in the tech industry may prove to be the most valuable asset in restoring the health of our news industry.

In the tech world, entrepreneurs are encouraged to feel comfortable with failure, as long as they learn from their mistakes. Nearly every successful tech company can point to numerous failures that preceded its success, and most of them can even point to new initiatives that have no chance.

That culture of risk and innovation is what has fueled inspiring new products and incredible fortunes. And while it’s clear that there are numerous failed examples for every success, there is usually no expectation to get it right the first time. Every product is gradually improved and refined, whether it be through software updates or the release of new hardware based on previous models.

The culture of journalism is historically governed by different values and expectations. Although the Web has made it possible to change a story after it has been published — whether to inject new information or to fix a mistake — a printing press is not quite so forgiving and neither are many readers or advertisers.

When reporting, it is absolutely critical to get every fact correct and to make certain that every quote is accurate and every name is spelled correctly. Any mistake — no matter how trivial — will undermine the integrity of the report and leave consumers questioning the report’s veracity. And while I haven’t worked on the business side of any news outlet, it seems that the drive to get it right the first time often carries beyond the editorial content.

Bezos isn’t afraid to take risks, and he can afford to make many mistakes on the way. The new owner visited the news room last week and told the staff that he conducted numerous experiments at Amazon before finding a profitable formula for the company. He will be conducting similar experiments at The Post, according to Len Downie, the vice president at large of the Washington Post, who appeared this week on CNN’s Reliable Sources.

Downie explained that Bezos wants to re-bundle the newspaper. The newspaper used to be how people found out what time a movie was playing, what was on sale at Macy’s and even where to apply for work or to identify an available apartment. Now the only thing a newspaper effectively delivers is news and commentary, which may not have been what newspaper subscribers were actually paying for. Bezos sees the tablet as the technology that can be leveraged to restore that role, said Downie.

Bezos isn’t the only tech millionaire to invest in journalism, although he certainly seems to have created the largest splash. Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder, launched the Honolulu Civil Beat in 2010. Seattle start-up veteran Jonathan Sposato partnered with two established tech reporters to launch GeekWire.

Craig Newmark of Craigslist has also invested his time and money into restoring a healthy news ecology. Last year he partnered with Poynter to host a symposium on journalism ethics, and the mission of his Web site CraigConnects is “using technology to give the voiceless a real voice and the powerless real power.”

I’m sure there are other successful people from the tech community who have invested in creating a sustainable future for journalism. If you know of any examples please share them in the comments below.