Jeff Bezos's Next Monopoly: The Press With his vast investment in The Washington Post's digital publishing technology, the Amazon founder could soon control the backbone of most large American newspapers.

AuthorFroomkin, Dan

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013, he quickly became aware of a longtime problem hobbling the entire news industry: The technology that news organizations employed to publish and make money from their content online was wildly inefficient and inadequate.

Bezos also found a chief information officer at the Post, Shailesh Prakash, with ambitions larger than his budget. Bezos solved Prakash's budget problems, and the Post built what has over time become a best-in-class platform, conveniently hosted on Amazon's own cloud computing servers. The Post started licensing its technology to other news organizations in 2016, and its digital publishing division, Arc XP, is now a booming business employing a staff of 300 that is continuously rolling out new functionalities. It powers more than 2,000 sites for media organizations and non-media brands that can afford its hefty price tag.

Together with its affiliated ad buying and ad rendering platform, Zeus Technology, Arc addresses the entire range of technology needs for digital publishers, from production to monetization. It is precisely the kind of infrastructure the industry needs to get back on its feet after two decades of losing every conceivable battle--and a staggering 80 percent of its advertising revenue--to Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and, yes, Amazon.

News organizations today have a wide variety of options when it comes to technology, and other companies--including Brightspot, Contentful, and RebelMouse--also offer cutting-edge solutions. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the biggest chains have built their own.

But nobody is devoting the resources that Bezos is to Arc, making it a dominant player particularly for legacy print publications transforming to digital first. "We looked at others," says Tom Shaw, vice president of Shaw Media, whose print and online publications in Illinois and Iowa switched to Arc in 2020. "We were seeing the companies we looked up to getting in on this," he told me. "Arc was the one that everyone was jumping in on. It seems like it's the one that's growing." Of the 20 largest American newspapers (by print publication), eight use Arc.

Bezos's control of Arc and Zeus give him significant power over the news industry. They both allow him to harvest vast amounts of cash from competitors, even as he makes them increasingly dependent on his technology. We know, based on past experience with Amazon and its Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing subsidiary, that being dependent on Bezos's technology comes with serious consequences--often including manipulation, predatory surveillance, and unfair practices. What initially appears to be a benign solution becomes exploitation of a trapped client base.

Bezos's outsized investment means that he could soon control the backbone of most of the large newspaper markets in America. Meanwhile, Arc's high cost creates a barrier to entry for new news organizations that can't afford it. It further accelerates the cleavage of the industry into haves and have-nots. The have-nots--including most small local and ethnic publishers--often struggle with inferior technology that stifles both editorial and revenue ambitions, at a time when local news is increasingly recognized as an essential and endangered public good.

Conversely, if Bezos were to suddenly drop the price of Arc XP and Zeus Prime, he could potentially drive other platform providers out of business, allowing him to take a cut of the entire industry's revenues right off the top.

"You look at Jeff Bezos and his history and his behavior and how he's gone about building total domination of e-commerce, and you realize: He could do the same thing to media as he's done to retail," says Daniel Williams, the CEO of BlueLena, a company that helps develop revenue models for news organizations. "And I think media is likely to become another instrument of the Amazon empire." There is an alternative scenario. Rather than continuing his every-person-for-themselves path to dominance, Bezos should make Arc XP his gift to the news community. Bezos says he bought The Washington Post because of his "support of American democracy." Having stepped down as Amazon CEO, he says he is now devoting himself to "improving civilization." He could live up to those words by turning Arc XP over to a mission-driven nonprofit entity that could make it open-source, accessible, and affordable to all qualifying news organizations.

Just as the 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie made a seminal contribution to the free exchange of information by building more than 1,600 public libraries across the United States, Bezos could turn Arc into public infrastructure for a public good.

For a news organization to thrive online these days, it needs to overcome massive technological barriers. Reporting, writing, editing, and then publishing to many platforms in an attractive, engaging, and efficient way is an enormous challenge. And that's just for starters. Sustainability also requires the ability to convert readers into subscribers, sell and serve targeted ads, optimize for search, market on social media, and create must-read email newsletters.

American newspapers mostly started publishing online in the late 1990s, often by cutting and pasting copy from their print production systems. For the next decade and a half, news organizations largely remained technological backwaters. Even the biggest publishers suffered from inflexible and unreliable content management and publishing systems. The corporate culture of print newsrooms had prioritized stability--in particular, avoiding a system crash on deadline--over new features. Publishers were slow to realize the need to invest in new technology, even as hot programmers at start-ups came up with ways to steal their readers and revenue with commodity news, free classified ads, search functions, and social networking.

News technology has improved dramatically over the past 10 years--particularly for the major players. But many small newsrooms still depend on wheezing, legacy production systems that are a major drain on resources even while producing terrible user experiences on the web and mobile apps--with poor visibility on search engines, and only token revenue from online subscriptions. Plummeting returns on web ads have forced some smaller publications to junk up their sites with so many ads, many of them intrusive and slow to load, that they are virtually unreadable. "I think the most messed-up part of the system, especially for the local publishers, is the user experience," Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute...

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