FORTUNE -- "All businesses need to be young forever," Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers on Wednesday. "If your customer base ages with you, you're Woolworth's."
A pithy statement -- glib, even. Not entirely inaccurate, but also not quite accurate, and not anything the Post (WPO) should ever use as a guiding principle. News organizations have repeatedly shown that when they try to chase "the youth demo," they fail miserably. Meanwhile, the Post would actually do well to emulate Woolworth's many decades of success and innovation, while also, of course, avoiding that retailer's eventual fate.
Post employees lauded Bezos, the founder of Amazon (AMZN) and the Post's incoming owner, for his remarks on Wednesday, vague and platitudinous as they might have been. Any show of genuine optimism from a newspaper owner at this point is bound to be well-received by newspaper employees. And Bezos seems to be genuinely optimistic, if short on specifics. For now, it was enough for him to say that he believes the newspaper business can be saved, and though he didn't say anything about further investments in the Post, he at least indicated that he's not planning any further cuts.
Nobody, including Bezos, knows yet what will work. The underlying problem for the newspaper business is that its most vital function -- reporting on public affairs -- doesn't by itself generate enough demand to support it at the levels that are needed for the people (citizens, voters) to be adequately informed. It never did -- straight news has always been subsidized by the other, more-popular parts of the newspaper -- comics, sports, real estate, advice columns, coupons, etc. That subsidy is drying up as newspapers shift from print to the Internet, and unless some other form of subsidy is found, news reporting will continue to diminish.
This has little to do with age demographics, though. First of all, newspapers must work on behalf of the citizenry as a whole -- even including the people who don't read newspapers. From a pure business perspective, though, they need to reach as many people as they can without pandering (pandering being the job of marketers, not journalists). It became clear years ago -- well before newspapers found themselves in a death spiral -- that people of all ages were increasingly turning away from newspapers, favoring radio, TV, and the Internet to keep them as informed about the world as they cared to be.
Newspapers did everything they could to win those people back, even after it became clear that it wouldn't ever happen. They pandered -- first to the "general public" and then to "the youth demo," with all kinds of terrible, marketing-department-inspired drivel. The truly curious and civic-minded among us were, and remain, the only people left who might still be interested in newspapers, but many newspapers -- the Washington Post definitely among them -- turned them off by cranking out piles of pop-culture coverage and dull, artificially "balanced" news reports. All the while, newspapers were also cutting back on news staff and making their product less and less appealing on every level. Again, this all started before circulation and revenue started plummeting at startling speeds as people piled on to the Internet.
The truly curious and civic-minded, by the way, tend to be older people. Not necessarily old -- older. And they tend to have disposable income. But those were just the people newspapers decided to forsake in their fevered attempts to regain the attention of the general public and the young.
Contrary to Bezos's statement, all businesses do not have to "be young forever." Of course, they must keep up with the times and avoid alienating younger people, but there are all kinds of businesses that cater to an older, or at least mixed, crowd -- including in media. Not that cable news should be considered a good example of what newspapers should do, but their audiences do comprise people who are interested in public affairs, and cable-news audiences are downright geriatric. The average Fox News viewer is at least 65 and probably older. CNN's and MSNBC's audiences aren't far behind, with the median ages of its prime-time viewers hovering at around 60. NPR's average listener is 55. The median for the increasingly popular HGTV is 53, with more than half the audience in the 25-54 demo that advertisers covet. Young people watch it, too, just like young and old alike would read newspapers (online or off) more often if there was something more there to attract them.
The median age of Comedy Central's audience is 28. These generally aren't kids who want to know everything that La La Anthony is up to. They're grownups -- often college graduates, starting families, buying real estate, and investing in college funds. And if you isolate the network's top shows -- The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which are geared toward public affairs -- the average age quickly rises, to about 40.
If newspapers are going to chase a particular demographic, it should be that one: smart, engaged people of all ages. People who enjoy reading. Newspaper readership has always risen with age. Further, the population as a whole is going to continue to age for the next couple of decades as the Baby Boomers continue to move into retirement. That should take away some of the appeal of attracting the young at the expense of everyone else.
Bezos's reference to Woolworth doesn't quite wash, either. Woolworth is an American success story like few others. It lasted for nearly 120 years and -- much like Amazon -- it invented a whole new way of retailing: the five-and-dime store. It also spent much of its corporate life innovating, not "aging." In 1979, 100 years after its founding, it was running the largest chain of variety stores in the world. It started a chain of single-level discount stores -- Woolco -- in the early '60s, just as Wal-Mart (WMT), Kmart, and Target (TGT) were doing the same. But it was more ahead of its time than either by going big: some Woolco stores were more than 100,000 square feet, highly unusual at the time. Even its flagship five-and-dime outlets not only survived the onset of shopping malls, but thrived within them. The company also launched new stores like Kinney Shoes and Styleco that did well during the mall/shopping-center era.
What did Woolworth in, in fact, was in part an effort to diversify and chase trends, as well as the economic transformations that were making life tough for nearly every American retailer other than Wal-Mart. Woolworth launched Foot Locker and, during the dotcom era, the catalog/online athletic-wear retailer Eastbay. Woolworth was essentially gone by 1997, thanks mostly to the company diverting attention away from its core businesses -- the discount and department stores.
Viewed from another perspective, it could be said that Woolworth continues to thrive and innovate -- Foot Locker Inc. (FL) is the direct successor of Woolworth, and its shares are worth about 3.5 times what they were when the company dropped the Woolworth name in 1997. It owns several popular brands, including Champs Sports and CCS -- a huge supplier of equipment for skateboarders and snowboarders. How's that for staying young?
Bezos's comments were offhand, and we shouldn't read too much into them. On the whole, he delivered exactly the right message, especially when he said, "The number one rule has to be: Don't be boring." If more newspapers had taken that advice years ago, they would probably have found themselves in a much better position now.
Jeff Bezos doesn't have an easy task in righting the Washington Post. Here are few good places to start.
By Ryan Holmes
FORTUNE -- It may be coincidence that the decline of newspapers has corresponded with the rise of social media. Or maybe not.
The two industries are very different, of course: One focuses its lens on the public events that change our world; the other is concerned largely with the personal stuff that happens behind MOREAug 8, 2013 10:45 AM ET
The Amazon founder is building a clock that will last for 1,000 decades. Wait, what?
By Anne VanderMey, reporter
FORTUNE -- As any Amazon (AMZN) investor will tell you, Jeff Bezos believes in long-term thinking. Make that really, really long-term thinking. So long, in fact, that he's spending at least $42 million to build a giant clock that will tick for 10,000 years deep inside a mountain in West Texas.
The clock MOREAug 6, 2013 1:24 PM ET
The man who wrote the first good book about Apple sings the praises of Jeff Bezos.
FORTUNE -- The news Monday that the Washington Post has been purchased by Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon (AMZN), has launched hundreds of stories and tweets -- including Andy Borowitz's Amazon Founder Says He Clicked on Washington Post by Mistake.
Nothing gets the chattering classes chattering like the sale of a storied newspaper -- especially MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Aug 6, 2013 11:43 AM ET
Jeff Bezos has proven himself to be a long-term strategist. That's just what the newspaper industry needs right now.
FORTUNE -- For anyone who cares about the public-service function of journalism, guarded optimism should be the first reaction to the astonishing news that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will buy the Washington Post.
It's clear that the Graham family, which has run the Post (WPO) for 80 years, was increasingly unable to shepherd its MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Aug 5, 2013 6:35 PM ET
A lesson in access journalism in the wake of the New York Times' Foxconn series
"An Apple spokesman said no executives were available to comment."
That sentence, appearing 12 paragraphs into a 14-graph story by Brian X. Chen in Thursday's New York Times, speaks volumes about how Apple (AAPL) deals with press coverage it doesn't like.
For more than a week, the company had been seeding selected media outlets with early access to its next MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Feb 17, 2012 7:18 AM ET
The Google-ITA merger is now on a fast track approval process and we could see an announcement as early as today.
Update: The merger has been approved with significant stipulations including licensing of the software:
WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice announced today that in order for Google Inc. to proceed with its proposed acquisition of ITA Software Inc., the department will require Google to develop and license travel software, to establish MORESeth Weintraub - Apr 8, 2011 12:29 PM ET
Grockit marries social media with standardized test prep.
Despite the controversy surrounding standardized tests for college admissions (Are they fair? What do they measure?), exams like the SAT and ACT remain a necessary evil for most college-bound students.
The same might be said of the process of preparing for these exams, a phenomenon that has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry led by two companies, the Washington Post Co.'s (WPO) Kaplan and The Princeton MOREJessica Shambora, Writer-Reporter - Jan 4, 2010 6:00 AM ET
|Five things you didn't know about Bernie Madoff's epic scam|
|Obamacare: 365,000 have signed up for insurance on exchanges|
|Teen millionaire helping Yahoo become cool again|
|What the budget deal doesn't do|
|JPMorgan patents Bitcoin-like payment system|