Jeff Bezos, the Apollo-11-adoring e-commerce magnate, just bought The Washington Post, one of the nation's most prestigious newspapers, for $250 million. The internet is obviously enjoying itself, pointing out what a meager sum that is, when you think about it. It's worth about 770 lab-burgers, for instance.
This shortly after the Times Co. sold the Boston Globe for a pittance—$70 million for a paper it paid $1.1 billion to scoop up just over a decade ago. It also seems particularly embarrassing because Instagram and Tumblr, two newish social media sites with small staffs, were recently sold for $1 billion; four times the sticker price of shaggy old WaPo.
But so what?
Comparing WaPo's price to Tumblr & Instagram is stupid. Guess what? Great journalism is a worse business than social networking! Who cares?— Andrew Golis (@agolis) August 5, 2013
I do. Maybe because I'm a journalist, but maybe because it's proof that companies that gather useful information and share it with the public are worth a fraction of those that aggregate and disseminate that information and omit vowels from their names.
It's not a new point—that without traditional journalism, social media itself would lose much of its value—but here, it tracks. I wouldn't use Tumblr if it didn't contain links to news items. The Washington Post certainly isn't the only supplier of all of that information, but it is one of the last remaining substantive purveyors of such journalism—even if its editorial board is a disaster, and its opinion pages are currently loaded with hacks.
Comparing the Post to Tumblr outright is kind of stupid—they're entirely different businesses; the fact that the former has fewer than 500,000 weekly subscribers while the other has 80 million active users isn't really useful. Neither is the fact that Instagram hasn't earned a penny since its inception operating, and has sunk some $2.7 million in operating costs.
Still, the disparity is striking, and it's a reminder of what the market values at the moment. Investors (and consumers) want shiny toys from Silicon Valley, and something as faddish and niche as Instagram can sate that demand because it's both aesthetically slick and demonstrably popular right now. Same goes with Tumblr. Social media is a boomtown, and the locus of an indisputably inflated bubble industry. Never mind if there's no more of a way to make money by sharing filtered pics or reblogs than there is selling ads on reportage—social media is innovative.
Newspaper reporting is boring and dusty and old-fashioned. Unless they spruce up their websites and whip up disruptive apps like Slate (which, interestingly, was part of the Washington Post Media Group but not part of the Bezos sale) or the Atlantic have, imbuing their mission with a bluster of TEDdish thought leadership, they are bound to be sold off to eccentric billionaires before they have a chance to pack up their typewriters.
But we shouldn't be particularly alarmed that Jeff Bezos will be at the helm. Some think he'll excel. There's a storied tradition of wealth benefactors propping up newspapers, and it's probably a win for the paper in the long run—if, ironically, because it will infuse the Post with some of that entrepreneurial 2.0 spirit the corporate folk love to drool over.
This isn't about how the Post was undervalued, either—it's been desiccating for years now. It's about how overvalued those bloated toast-of-the-town social media sites are, and how we're so easily fooled by the appearance of platforms that transmit our information. There's just no way that the information that the Washington Post and the Boston Globe generates combined is worth just one third of an app that tints your iPhone pics. But that's just how things are right now.