I woke up Thursday morning to read a startling story in the New York Times (on my smartphone, of course). The Washington Post, one of the traditional media heavyweights, is now focused on turning itself into a source of punchy stories suitable for reading on a new app included on the Kindle. With Amazon chief Jeff Bezos in charge, the institution synonymous with Watergate now aims to distill itself into a useful content stream capable of reinforcing the value of the Amazon ecosystem.
By afternoon, my jaw was dropping anew at word that Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, is reportedly talking to Arianna Huffington about using the reach of the Huffington Post to distribute the fruits of her soon-to-be-launched long-form journalism project. This is the same Jill Abramson who famously tattooed herself with the Gothic-style "T" of the Times, a name seemingly antithetical to much that the Huffington Post represents.
No single day can stand as representative for all the ways the Web and social media have upended the media landscape. But if we had to pick one, Thursday would do fine.
Yes, we already knew that things are changing so quickly that even the vernacular for speed and volatility feels like tedious clichés. (Disruptive game-changers, anyone?) We have grown accustomed to conversation-shaping scoops now regularly offered up by entities that did not even exist a few years ago, from BuzzFeed to Politico to Business Insider. Yet even by the standards of all that, these two titillating pieces of news on Thursday -- news served up as standard fare, by the way -- offer a particularly sharp reminder that virtually nothing can be taken for granted in the media world nowadays. Nothing is sacred. No one holds a sure grip on authority, legitimacy or a revenue stream.
Before the Web and social media, which have turned news-reading from a prix fixe meal to a teeming buffet spread across multiple tables, the Washington Post was what we now call a destination. It was a publication that was a must-read within its circulation area, and it reliably covered most of the major news of the day. Now you can think of the Washington Post as something akin to a podcast channel that iTunes allows us to download for free as a means of keeping us loyal to our iPhones and iPads.
Before social media, the thought that Jill Abramson would join forces with Arianna Huffington seemed about as likely as a joint venture between the inspiration for her other much-discussed tattoo -- her alma mater, Harvard -- and the University of Phoenix.
This is the part where I confess a particularly personal interest in these events. I worked at the Washington Post for a decade, back when its stature seemed beyond reach of change. I jumped to the New York Times, then run by Bill Keller and his managing editor Jill Abramson. Four years ago, I leapt to the Huffington Post, a decision that was remarked upon by media commentators as a sign of changing times, evidence that new digital media could attract journalists from the print realm.
Some in the old media derided my transition as a sign of a world sliding inexorably toward digital hell, one in which reporting gets trumped by gossip, theft masquerades as aggregation, and cat videos displace serious work. In a column in the Times, Bill Keller suggested that adding an old-school journalist to the Huffington Post was "like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooter's." He labeled Arianna "the Queen of Aggregation." He didn't mean it as a compliment.
When Abramson took over from Keller three years ago, she made clear that she wanted no battle with Arianna. "I respect the fact that an awful lot of people like to read that way and, in some cases, I think the Huffington Post has been inventive and presents what it aggregates well," she told CNN.
But not wanting a war with Arianna is very different from what Abramson might want now: a deal that would allow her to use the Huffington Post to publish her journalism -- presumably the same quality of serious journalism she has produced through a prize-winning career at the Times and, before that, the Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post is many things to many people. It has a Pulitzer Prize to its name and an audience that most sites would kill for. Yet as I type this, the HuffPost offers up the following headlines: Katy Perry's Bikini Is A Different Kind of Animal Print, Dominatrix Offers Fetish Fitness Classes for Submissives and Here's Why Cats Keep Rubbing Against Our Legs.
I don’t mean to sound flip or negative. As I have written before -- and on the Huffington Post, as it happens -- the purchase of the Washington Post by Bezos holds enormous promise, both for the Post itself and more broadly for serious-minded journalism. He brings a demonstrated ability to innovate on the Web, and he brings money, gobs of that stuff, along with a willingness to spend it on rethinking and bettering the product at hand.
The Kindle app is apparently just one experiment in a broader campaign to expand the reach of the Post and bring its excellent journalism into the orbit of new audiences. Under Bezos' short reign, the Post has ditched its prior incarnation as a publication largely confined to its local environs. It is becoming what it should have been all along as the Web transcended the limits of physical distribution -- a national and even international brand that attracts readers on the strength of its investigative reporting, storytelling and authority, all of it now delivered with increasingly deft and engaging digital skill.
As for an Abramson-Huffington combination, this, too, could well prove illuminating and rewarding for millions of readers. Abramson is beyond question a supremely talented journalist who cares deeply about the sustenance of ambitious work. She is teaming up with Steve Brill, who has a knack for the longform. They will need an outlet for what they produce. The Huffington Post is masterfully good at capturing eyeballs.
Still, I can't stop thinking about the time I watched one of Arianna's editors approach Abramson at a New York conference and inquire whether the then-top editor of the New York Times might be interested in blogging for the Huffington Post. It seemed ridiculous, and I found myself apologizing to Abramson for this absurd entreaty. Abramson oversaw the ultimate platform. She did not lack for opportunities to connect with a huge audience.
Not two years later, Abramson was out of the Times and she wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post. And now she is reportedly engaged in talks to use the HuffPost as the home for a broad array of work.
What happens tomorrow? Gawker and Bloomberg forge a partnership? Vice takes over the "Today" show? Microsoft licenses Kim Kardashian's nude photos to spice up MSN? And then, presumably, Alibaba buys News Corp. and turns its content into an app to be given away for free on a hundred million Xiaomi phones.