Journalists who are busy responding to the announcement Monday that the Washington Post has been purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have all been acknowledging in various ways that this is a watershed moment in the history of “remediation,” to use Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s term for the refashioning of old media by new media. The theory of remediation basically says that new media begins by using metaphors from old media. Those metaphors, once they reach a certain point of cultural saturation, cease being metaphors and become the new reality.
The classic example is the desktop, a metaphor first used by Xerox and popularized by Apple to help people understand how information is organized on computers. At some point, say in the mid-1990s, the term desktop stopped being a metaphor and simply became the screen on your computer. Today, the term desktop is so entrenched that it can itself be used as a figure of speech for a non-portable computer.
The company Jeff Bezos founded in 1994 at the dawning of the World Wide Web is one of the major engines of remediation in contemporary culture, helping to redefine the terms shopping cart, marketplace, store, and book. So when Bezos buys a major newspaper, it’s understandable that we would not take it lightly. He may not have redefined the term newspaper simply by the act of buying the Washington Post, but he has certainly proven that he has the vision to do just that.
Sure, you could take the position that Bezos is just pursuing another eccentric pastime, like space travel or a clock designed to run for ten thousand years. Yet as Matt Buchanan pointed out in a smart New Yorker piece this week, even those seemingly far-fetched notions are quite consistent with the slow build and grand vision of the Amazon business plan, now largely acknowledged to be something akin to a work of genius.
So it seems more likely that the Washington Post acquisition represents a new iteration of Bezos’s vision for the future of media. TechCrunch has reported on an interview Bezos gave to the German Berliner-Zeitung last year in which he claimed that print newspapers would be gone in twenty years and opined, “On the Web, people don’t pay for news and it’s too late for that to change.” The Washington Post, which happens to have the lowest ratio of digital subscribers of any major newspaper, and which just last year started charging readers for full access to online content, will very likely see a dramatic change in strategy with Bezos at the helm, and may well become the blueprint for a new phase in the digitization of traditional media.
But I think the implications are larger than that and will take some time to fully emerge. That’s why I’m writing about the Bezos purchase in a column usually reserved for commentary about the local search industry. It occurs to me that the Washington Post, and especially its local properties such as The Gazette Newspapers, Southern Maryland Newspapers, and the Fairfax County Times, represent a digital footprint that is geographically localized. Amazon has always been a virtual marketplace, where the location of the buyer has very little to do with a transaction. Bringing the Bezos vision to bear on a community-oriented portal could mean any number of things, but it certainly means the potential for services that bear some resemblance to traditional journalism but are remediated into a form that takes advantage of digital commerce and social media, while maintaining a sense of local community. That very idea has been missing rather conspicuously from the digital space – the idea that our online interactions are tied in a meaningful way to the community to which we belong.
Buchanan reminds us of Amazon’s mission statement: “We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.” It’s intriguing to imagine that mission applied to a new kind of newspaper, one that might do an end-run around clumsy attempts thus far by newspapers to treat their readers as digital consumers. For me, it would be especially interesting to see Bezos attempt to bring Amazon’s consumer-centric vision to the local level.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.