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By Carter Eskew
Special to The Washington Post.
When the great Washington restaurant Le Pavillon closed in 1990, chef Yannick Cam theorized that, like great art, great food needed a patron, someone who would support, nurture and ultimately pay for the quality that the market would not. Cam was obsessed with quality and paid whatever it cost to have the ultimate mushroom or the freshest sea urchins; he charged a lot, but not enough to cover his artistry.
I thought of him when I read the news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would be purchasing The Washington Post. With great news organizations folding or being sold at a fraction of what they were once worth, we have entered a new era: A top media organization now needs people willing to support it beyond its means to support itself.
We live in a world in which the economics of the news business have been revolutionized; information wants "to be free" is the smug phrase. The aggregators of news content are worth more than the institutions that create the content, as we saw recently with the sale of a former Post property, Newsweek. But where would those aggregators be without The Post, The Times, the Economist, the New Yorker and the Atlantic, to mention a few of a dwindling number of institutions that actually do the hard and expensive work of reporting?
This is the central challenge for a serious journalistic enterprise: how to get people to pay for the work. No one has figured it out, and a lot of very smart people have tried.
For now, we have to rely on patrons to save journalism. What kind of patron will Bezos be? On Monday, he said reassuringly that "the values" of The Post don't need changing but went on to say that readers will be the publication's "touchstone," as will "understanding what they care about."
This last bit worries me. Bezos built the greatest retailer in history by understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that's an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local news, sports, human interest stories, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All of that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought this week, and you can't put a price on it. Now he must protect it.
Carter Eskew is a co-host of The Insiders blog, offering commentary from a Democratic perspective on Election 2012, and was the chief strategist for the Gore 2000 presidential campaign.