One of the first people who came to mind when I heard the news last week that Jeff Bezos was buying the Washington Post was a fellow countryman, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who around 2,500 years ago said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." Or, as James Fallows put it, the sale was "one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences." But as it encapsulates one era that has passed, it also has the potential to expand the era we are in. This combining of the best of traditional media with the boundless potential of digital media represents an amazing opportunity.
First, it's an opportunity to further move the conversation away from the future of newspapers to the future of journalism -- in whatever form it's delivered. After all, despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are in something of a golden age of journalism for news consumers.
As Bezos made clear in his initial statement to Post employees, the spirit of experimentation that he's practiced at Amazon will continue at the paper. "There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," he wrote. "We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."
Luckily, of course, he's got the money to finance that experimentation. But there's a difference between covering the losses of a declining business model and covering losses from experiments in coming up with a new business model.
An essential quality Bezos possesses is his understanding of the power of engagement. In Amazon, he has created the most responsive retail experience online (or off-line, for that matter). This is especially important as the media moves from a model of presentation to one focused on participation. News is now an ongoing two-way conversation. And, as with any conversation, listening is as important as talking, and Amazon is a monument to the power of listening.
And because nobody believes reviving the Post will be an easy process, another quality that will surely be useful is patience. Bezos is legendary for his preference for long-term, sustainable growth over the quick rewards of Wall-Street-pleasing short-term profits. Though Amazon was founded in 1994, it didn't make a full-year profit until 2003. "We like to invent and do new things," Bezos told Harvard Business Review editor Adi Ignatius, "and I know for sure that long-term orientation is essential for invention because you're going to have a lot of failures along the way."
New approaches to old problems -- exactly what newspapers need. And one thing a new approach should include is a commitment to widen the discussion. Much of the debate about potential new business models for newspapers has been about preserving journalism. But in this time of disruption and change, how about a discussion of how to improve journalism, of what's missing, of what can be strengthened in this new hybrid model?
In the debate over new media vs. old media, the lament is often heard that one of the things we're in danger of losing from the heyday of old media is muckraking, crusading journalism. But by enabling participation, new media can actually help fuel stories that lead to real change.
While Bezos has not been explicitly political, he has, as David Weigel writes, "earned a reputation as a libertarian with a targeted style of giving." In addition to contributing $2.5 million to the referendum effort that successfully legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state, Bezos has also donated to the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason magazine. So while we're dreaming, allow me to hope that one of the causes that the Washington Post under Bezos will engage the public in is the war on drugs, which is one of Reason's big issues. As Reason's Matt Welch wrote Monday, "[T]he attorney general of the United States today is declaring America's drug-war-led over-incarceration a moral failure, and announcing new federal rules to deliberately evade mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses." Of course, this is but a baby step toward ending the insanely destructive -- and increasingly unpopular on both ends of the political spectrum -- war on drugs.
The Washington Post could be in a position to mobilize the public on these beyond-left-and-right issues by bringing the innovative tools of engagement and participation Bezos created at Amazon to the news arena.
Of course, this is all speculation. But it's also a real opportunity -- not just for the Washington Post, but for all of us to think about how we can make the most of this new hybrid future. "What technology has taken away, technology can return," Bezos said in a speech 13 years ago. And as Heraclitus made clear, it won't return it in the same way. But that's not a bad thing. It will be different, and it can also be better. Debates over business models for the news media are going to continue for a long time, and there will never be a single answer. But it's a very good thing to have Jeff Bezos as part of that conversation. The Washington Post has a great history. I have no doubt that now it will have a great future as well.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)