How do you like your newspaper delivered? How about “to hell in a handbasket?” newspaper-bezos-savior

That pretty much summed up our Creative team’s response to the news that Jeff Bezos is purchasing The Washington Post. We’re digital marketers, but we prefer our hard news straight — no chaser. Putting the Amazon founder at the helm of one of the most respected newspapers in the nation makes that prospect fuzzy as heck.

Not only does Bezos lack a shred of experience in the journalism industry, he’s an icon of the retail/advertising industry. To hard news purists, newspapers are meant to serve primarily as community watchdogs. Mixing that up with any type of Amazon recipe just seems funky.

While it’s evident that the newspaper industry has been taking a horrific dive over the past decade, there was hope among many of us at DigitalRelevance (including numerous former journalists and journalism majors) that some semblance of journalism would survive with at least three newspaper juggernauts: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. On some level, we considered these “The Untouchables” … until a few days ago. When somebody actually decided to touch one of them … for the fee of 250 million bucks.

So, is this a deal with the devil? A sellout? Or could it be a marriage that finally delivers an antidote to the dying newspaper industry?

Why the Bezos deal could work for The Post … and all newspapers

Newspapers need a shred of hope. And every company needs content. This is a matter of each side acknowledging, “You’ve got what I need,” sort of like in a marriage. It will take a visionary with digital insight to get newspapers out of this mess. Many industry watchers seem to be in agreement that it’s just a matter of time before print disappears … and, along with it, the resources that deliver reliable, objective and well-researched news day after day.

While nearly all newspapers have adopted a digital presence, they evidently haven’t figured out a way to be profitable with that model. Bezos was the visionary who gambled on the notion that America would gain the confidence to shop online … to the tune of $327 billion by 2016, if predictions by Forrester Research pan out. If Bezos can transfer that masterful leadership and foresight to media, we can only hope that the essence of the newspaper industry can survive.

On the flip side, companies like Amazon.com are in need of reliable, non-branded content to succeed in the digital marketing space. And reporters, writers and editors are experts at delivering those types of goods. A blend of these resources, if done without influence from the advertising sides of those operations, could result in a win-win solution.

Newspapers also could use an outsider’s perspective. Bezos is widely reported to lack experience with the newspaper industry. But is that really a bad thing? No, really. The truth is, newspapers could learn plenty from a successful industry outsider… specifically how to fully adapt and thrive in a digital marketplace. For now, newspapers … no matter how incredible they are … are subject to a morbid death watch. Unfortunately, it seems that they were victims of their own success. The model that made reputable newspapers admirable was their ability to objectively report on the daily happenings around them—without inserting themselves into the story. As a result, they were incredibly slow in figuring out how to transform and monetize the industry at the onset of the digital era.

Why the Bezos deal could lead to the final death knell of newspapers as we’ve known them

For all the reasons a partnership between an online retail expert and a traditional newspaper could work, it also could be the formula that cripples journalism as we’ve known it. For decades, journalists have been ruled by ethics that forbid the prospect of a story ever being swayed by outside influences, particularly a company throwing advertising dollars at the newspaper. And it’s a tradition that has ensured objectively reported news.

But the lines are blurring. As the competition for advertising dollars intensified with the emergence of other options, from cable TV and radio to email, direct mail and SEO, newspapers have been finding it harder to stay true to those ideals. The emergence of “special advertising sections” is just one of those instances. Designed to look like other parts of the newspaper (gasp!), these sections have been among the tactics newspapers increasingly use to appeal to advertisers by featuring stories on topics in their industries. There was a lot of healthy debate among journalists about how this tactic blurred the lines between advertising and journalism when they first came on the scene. The need for advertising dollars won out: special sections in newspapers are now the norm.

As newspapers become more desperate to stay alive, the chances of publishers being willing to blur the lines can’t be far behind. And an outsider like Bezos may be willing to take those steps more quickly than those who have been beholden to the traditional tenets of journalism.

Another reason the traditional newspaper model may not stand a chance? Americans have a monstrous taste for sensationalism and it doesn’t seem to be going away. While reading through one popular news site about the Bezos deal, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the blaring headlines taking up the right column, begging to get users’ attention: “The Top Party Schools,” “Alec Baldwin’s Wife Looks VERY Pregnant,” “Jennifer Garner Suffers Mini Wardrobe Malfunction.” Can a “just-the-facts”-type of story stand up against that?

For traditional journalists, the idea of a Bezos-Post deal is a hard mammoth-sized pill to swallow. But it’s clearly time for newspaper leaders to let go of traditional methods that may have been relied on for decades. If anyone can teach a lesson on what it takes to dive into the high tech world and adapt, it would be Bezos. However, it would be a huge loss if the lines that have separated great journalism and advertising opportunities are critically blurred. It could signal the end of an incredible industry.