All Hail Jeff Bezos?

Our national what-will-Jeff-Bezos-do-with-WaPo watch continues, this time as PBS’ Media Shift blog imagines—as so many others have already done–what an Amazoned newspaper might look like.

You can dissect their thoughts for yourself, but it has to do with Amazon’s suggestion algorithms—the bits of code that tell you since you bought books X, Y and Z you’re going to love books A, B and C—and how those ideas can translate to customized news products for every reader.

The thing is, what Amazon and many other websites such as Netflix or Facebook or Google do in terms of surfacing relevant content aren’t new ideas. We’ve known how to statistically measure the strength of correlation between two things (saying, for example, if you like this then you’ll probably also like that) since at least as early as the 1880s, when Pearson’s correlation coefficient was developed. Though Amazon and Google and Facebook and all the others have expanded on the concept since then with troves of data Pearson probably never imagined, super fast computer, elaborate, custom code and newer formulas, the basic ideas are the same as they’ve always been. They’re not magic. They’re just math.

But then, therein lies the point. Amazon has spent the last two decades tapping into a wealth of available data science and leveraging the information it collected on its customer’s habits to its advantages. Most newspapers, on the other hand, spent that time avoiding the Internet and digging in their heels on an outdated product and even more dated business model. Media Shift puts it quite well:

“The business of aggregating audiences and selling them to advertisers is essentially over. Others (Google) sell advertising more efficiently, target audiences more effectively and offer better measurement of advertising’s impact. (News companies aren’t even at the table when it comes to mobile ads.) The proliferation of platforms from YouTube to Twitter allows advertisers to disintermediate the press and go straight to their customers. This is confirmed by the red tide of year-on-year advertising declines across almost all news organizations.”

That brings us to the point where we kind of get it, why Bezos’ WaPo purchase is being hailed as some kind of seismic shift despite no one knowing exactly what his plans are. It’s not because he can do anything for the news industry that the industry could not or still can’t do for itself—it’s that what the industry has really wanted for so long is not a new business model or a new, innovative product, but  a savior.

They mythos of and Bezos in particular, while it deflates a lot for anyone who’s taken a basic statistics or research methods class and can therefore see a bit of the magic behind the curtain, fits the messiah archetype almost too perfect—especially for an industry in crisis. The problem with messiahs is that we sometimes hang them on a cross when they don’t live up to our expectations.

Will Bezos save WaPo? Maybe. But the big secret is that if Amazon is the model to strive for, WaPo could’ve just as easily saved itself.