Customizing the News

Many of the articles speculating about what changes Jeff Bezos will make to the newspaper business now that he’s bought The Washington Post have suggested that he’ll customize the news. Just as Amazon’s success has been driven by its tracking of, and meeting, customer preferences, a slew of business commentators have commented, so a newspaper’s contents can be segmented into readers’ areas of interest and delivered to them accordingly.

To a certain degree, I suspect that’s how my section of the Post—the op-ed page—already works. Regular weekly or twice-weekly opinion columnists have regular followings, readers who love us and hate us. (Why the ones who hate us continue to read us is one of life’s enduring mysteries, but the Comments posted under our columns make it unmistakably clear that they do. I could write a piece on the Dodgers’ failure to hit when Clayton Kershaw is pitching and be attacked as a socialist who withholds the information proving that President Obama is a Muslim.) Op-ed columnists already have a substantial number of customized readers, though columns that touch a nerve get a wider readership as well. In a sense, we inhabit a world that already is structured along Amazon lines, though I don’t doubt there are still uncharted paths through which we can reach more readers.

And that’s fine. Readers like to have their opinions confirmed, bolstered or, in some cases, challenged. Based on the responses in the Comments section, some even will endure having their opinions mocked if they can write an indignant response.

But slicing and dicing the news pages so that articles on a particular topic reach more readers with an interest in that particular topic—a practice that’s been around for some time through rss feeds and the like—raises questions even as it holds promise for increasing readership. The particular benefit of looking at a newspaper whole—which can be done both in print and online—is that you can come across stories that you’d never see if you relied on feeds that fed only your pre-existing interests. A great newspaper, or even a fair-to-middling one on a good day, enables you to learn not just about your known unknowns but your unknown unknowns—realities and ideas that you’d not thought about but interest you now that you know about them. It broadens your mental universe. Nothing wrong with marketing depth—may Jeff Bezos enable the Post to reach more readers through some variant of the Amazon model—but his even more serious challenge is to find a new way to market breadth.

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