Billionaire Jeff Bezos says he won’t get directly involved in running his newest acquisition — the Washington Post. But, as founder and CEO of online retailer Amazon, he has already made a material contribution to the paper’s shrunken power in the huge metro D.C. market.
Amazon sells many, many millions of dollars’ worth of books, electronic devices, and hundreds of other categories of products in metro Washington annually. Until not so long ago, most of those sales would have been rung up at the cash registers of brick-and-mortar businesses, many of which were regular advertisers in the Post. Think Best Buy; Barnes & Noble; Bed, Bath & Beyond; and the mid-price department stores. Many of these retailers, especially the department stores, used to run frequent full-page ads in the Post. Those days are over as Amazon keeps adding more products that, in many cases, it can deliver to you the next day.
Amazon, of course, doesn’t have to spend any money at all on local advertising. Once customers sign up, they get a steady flow of emailed promotions that cost Amazon next to nothing. Local retailers are trying to fight back with same-day delivery and other services spelled out in Street Fight deputy editor Steven Jacobs’ recent Local Stack series.
Donald Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co., who engineered the sale of the company’s flagship publication to longtime friend and business colleague Bezos, has for years proudly called the Post a “local” newspaper. But where the print paper once reached nearly two-thirds of metro households, now it reaches about half that number. The Post Co. has tried to make up for this steady shrinkage by acquiring weeklies in the surrounding suburban communities. Its Gazettes in Maryland are, for the most part, middling-to-strong print and digital publications, but the Post has only one print-digital operation in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, the biggest suburb in the metro area, and it has, so far, done little extend that product’s weak reach or improve its editorial content.
Several years ago, the Post tried to go hyperlocal with an ambitious online prototype in Loudoun County — a fast-growing Northern Virginia suburb — but after much fanfare it was soon folded. The WashingtonPost.com website tries to offer a wide-ranging menu of news from the metro region, but it can’t wrap its editorial arms around the 80 diverse communities in its coverage area, which extend from the Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains.
In search of new revenue to replace fast-falling ad and circulation dollars on the print side, the Post is starting a digital subscription program. The pay wall probably rules out any new digital venture at the neighborhood level. AOL’s Patch has been happy to fill the vacuum in Northern Virginia, where it has 29 community sites. Patch also has about 30 sites in suburban Maryland, where the Post has its Gazette and Southern Maryland Newspapers community weeklies. Meanwhile, independent hyperlocal upstart Scott Brodbeck has established hyperlocal operations in two major metro Washington communities — Arlington in Northern Virginia and Bethesda in Maryland’s Montgomery County.
The Post built its now-shrunken publishing might by providing a marketing medium for the bricks-and-mortar stores in the D.C area that the paper’s new owner — and other online retailers — have spent the past couple of decades steadily grinding into dust. One has to wonder whether those businesses that remain will really want to give their precious marketing dollars to the same man who is eating away at their market share at his “day job.”
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.