Washington Post building

With the news that the iconic Graham family is selling one of the nation’s leading dailies, uncertainties about traditional ‘mainstream’ news media move to a new level. How might a paper that helps set the agenda for national coverage of issues such as climate change be affected?

It was just over a week ago that The Washington Post announced that its longtime owner, the Graham family, had agreed to sell the paper to Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire CEO and major shareholder of Amazon.com.

Most commentators have responded positively to this news: If Jeff Bezos could graft his marketing savvy onto the Post’s distinguished journalistic tradition, then the paper stood a better chance of surviving and even thriving in the age of the internet. Others, however, perceived in the qualities that enabled Bezos to succeed with Amazon.com a threat to the journalistic integrity the Post’s patrons most want to preserve.

NYT and googlezon

For a few media watchers, news that the Post would be sold to Amazon.com’s Bezos also evoked memories of another online news-marketing mashup: “Googlezon.” In EPIC 2014, the flashmovie fictional “documentary” posted on the Web in November 2004 by media critic Robin Sloan and voice actor Matt Thompson, Google and Amazon.com partner to create a personalized news service that ultimately drives The New York Times off the Web entirely. “In a feeble protest to Googlezon’s hegemony,” Thompson intones in the final frames of EPIC 2014, “the Times [became] a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

Clearly this was an intentionally provocative exaggeration — but perhaps still instructive. To follow up on these tantalizing recollections of a past forecast, The Yale Forum systematically compared Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post in August 2013 with Amazon’s fictional role in EPIC 2014.

EPIC 2014 and the Museum of Media History

EPIC 2014, which purports to be a documentary produced, in 2014, by a Florida-based Museum of Media History, begins with a nod to Dickens:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. In the year 2014, people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the press as you know it has ceased to exist.

In the 8 minutes that follow, the narrator recounts the sequence of events that led to this state of affairs.

Because the flashmovie was created in 2004, the events chronicled up until that point are recognizable:

  • Tim Burners Lee invents the World-Wide-Web (1989);
  • Jeff Bezos founds Amazon.com (1994);
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin launch Google (1998);
  • Tivo changes TV viewing habits, and Blogger offers writing space on the Web to anyone who wants it (1999);
  • Friendster is launched and Google offers GoogleNews (2002);
  • Google buys Blogger (2004); and
  • Google offers Gmail—and then goes public (2004).

The events after 2004, however, are ones Sloan and Thompson merely imagine:

  • Google combines all its services into the “GoogleGrid” (2006);
  • Google and Amazon.com merge to form Googlezon (2008);
  • The New York Times sues Googlezon, on the grounds that its automated newswriting programs violate copyright laws, but ultimately loses the case (2011);
  • Googlezon “unleashes” EPIC — its Evolving Personalized Information Construct (Sunday, March 14, 2014).

EPIC,” the narrator explains, “produces a custom content packet for each user.” That packet consists of material provided by other users, material that is then edited by still other users. The end user selects the edited material he or she likes best. Traditional news agencies play no role in the process.

The result?

At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything available before. At its worst, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, and all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational. But EPIC is what we wanted; it’s what we chose. And its commercial success preempted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics.

Learning from a Future

Through its provocatively dystopic* look at the American media landscape, EPIC 2014 posed some fundamental questions about the social role and meaning of the news.

Jeffrey Bezos photo
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, soon the new owner of The Washington Post.

But the ongoing online presence of The New York Times — it will certainly still be on the Web in 2014 — suggests that some of these questions may be based on false premises. The prediction that news could be completely “personalized,” for example, conflicts with the social and public dimensions of personhood. Rather than each person living in his or her own news world, research indicates that Americans are becoming more “tribal” in their news consuming habits — conservatives watch Fox News, liberals watch MSNBC. In short, there’s something inherently communal about “the news.”

In EPIC 2014, Sloan and Thompson rightly highlight how quickly Amazon and Google rose to become major players in the World Wide Web. Indeed, it’s almost shocking to be reminded that the WWW, now such a significant part of daily life, is less than 25 years old. The pace of change is even more striking when one realizes what’s not in EPIC 2014: Wikipedia, Facebook, I-Pod, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Smart Phones. The New York Times and The Washington Post have thus already survived an even greater onslaught of personal social media than Sloan and Thompson imagined. In part, this is because people use these personal media to comment on events they learn about through the mass media.

Here Sloan and Thompson seem willfully to overlook one fact about the news that has not changed since 2004: most Americans still get their news from television. The delivery systems for these more traditional news media are changing — more people, especially young people, now view TV news on the Web — but these media have not disappeared. The very real challenges faced by newspapers — the challenges that persuaded the Grahams to sell the Post to Bezos — do not inevitably lead to the end of professional journalism.

Citizen Bezos?

The radical changes chronicled in EPIC 2014 are surprisingly impersonal. After the early inventors and founders have been named, the only actors are corporations. Google and Amazon make choices, not their CEOs or shareholders.

Washington Post building
Photo credit: MediaBistro.com.

But it is Bezos himself who is buying the Post, not Amazon.com.

This has led some to recall another movie about the news business: Citizen Kane. On the surface, the analogy works. Rich man takes on failing paper and turns it around, acquiring great power (and amassing greater wealth) in the process. In theory, Bezos could amass even more money than he already has by applying his marketing expertise to the Post’s online news operation. And as described by J.J. McCorvey in his flattering September 2013 cover story for Fast Company, Bezos also has an expansive (i.e. Kane-like or Orson-Wellesian) personality: “Bezos … instantly commands the space with his explosive voice, boisterous manner, and a look of total confidence.”

So should Americans fear the rise of another media mogul intent on meddling in national politics?

Probably not. Jeff Bezos already has a very large soapbox and more than enough money to meddle. (His personal fortune is estimated at $25 billion.) What should concern Americans is the contrast between the behavior Bezos exhibits as a businessman and the behavior he promotes in his customers.

Buying (into) Climate Change

According to McCorvey, Bezos presumes that his customers’ choices are decided largely by price and speed: “In Bezos’s world, the goal of the coming decade is a lot like the goal of the past two: Be cheap. Be fast. That’s how you win.”

Katharine Graham
Post publisher, the late Katherine Graham (Photo credit: The Washington Post)

But the business strategy Bezos has devised for Amazon.com, as described by McCorvey, is surprisingly long-term and accepts “paper-thin profits” in the interim. Bezos seems to have the ability to see the bigger picture and the patience to put long-term progress over short-term profits and pleasures. And in pursuit of his goals, Bezos values unvarnished data about how well Amazon’s complex systems are operating.

Bezos the business strategist thus seems capable of rationally assessing and responding to a complex, long-term, and world-wide collective problem like climate change. His actual business strategy, however, is wholly devoted to meeting the simple material, short-term, and individual preferences of Amazon.com’s customers. That behavior, imaginatively writ large by Sloan and Thomas, does not bode well for collective national action on climate change.

The question, then, is whether Bezos will use his business acumen to help the Post’s reporters achieve their public mission as journalists, or will he use it to speed the personal commodification of the news.

One point in favor of supporting journalists instead of replacing them is that the human mind can do things computer algorithms cannot. It was the media commentators and analysts who recalled EPIC 2014 when they heard about Bezos’s purchase of the Post. They could leap from “Bezos,” “The Post,” and “purchase” to “merger,” “Googlezon” and “The Times.” Amazon’s and Google’s algorithms can make these kinds of connections only if humans make them, many times over, first.

Looking Back on EPIC 2014 from August 2013

Although his flashmovie has been mentioned in several posts over the past two weeks, Robin Sloan himself has not been quoted. Contacted by The Yale Forum to comment on his nearly decade-old prognostications, Sloan first explained that “[he doesn’t] follow the news industry that closely anymore” and then framed his work in EPIC 2014 in this somewhat unexpected way:

Science fiction is always as much about the present as the future, as much about our world as any other. So really, EPIC 2014 was mostly a statement about the news industry in 2004: what Matt and I saw, what we hoped for. If there are some predictions in the piece that seem spookily accurate today, there are others that have been proven truly goofy. (“Newsbotster”?) I guess I’m just happy that things have changed so much in the last nine years. The thing that bothered me most back then was the sense of complacency — of an industry standing in place. You can bet that nobody’s complacent now.

Has Sloan himself moved beyond EPIC 2014 and Amazon.com? Yes and no. His most recent work, a book published in October 2012, is a novel — about a brick and mortar bookstore, with a mysterious business plan.

*dystopic — Think of a dystopic place as being the opposite of a Utopian one. A definition from Merriam Webster online: “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.”

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