Why Amazon's experiments with an editorial staff in the 90s are good news for the Washington Post

Rob Walker
Why Amazon's experiments with an editorial staff in the 90s are good news for the Washington Post

As you may have heard, the e-commerce pioneer and widely lauded tech mogul Jeff Bezos will soon own an editorial staff, in the form of his newest acquisition, The Washington Post.

This won’t be the first time: In the late 1990s, Amazon.com had an editorial staff, too.

In those days critics and editors employed by Amazon played a key role in deciding which books and other media products the burgeoning ecommerce site would highlight for its potential customers. Writer James Marcus was among them, and recalled in his 2004 book Amazonia that some observers considered these Amazon staffers “among the most powerful critics in the country.”

Obviously, that didn’t last. What happened is neatly recounted in the recent book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. Bezos got interested in book recommendations derived from individual customer purchase habits, and other data-crunching methods, rather than experts. The company explored which was the more effective sales tool: “what the clicks said, or what the critics said?,” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier write. “It was a battle of mice and men.” The tests were conclusive. “I was very sad about the editorial team getting beaten,” an engineer involved tells the authors. “But the data doesn’t lie.”

That sounds like an ominous sign: A number-crunching, “metrics”-obsessed approach to editorial content has been lamented and feared by traditional-journalism purists for more than a decade now. It’s the mindset behind everything from search-engine optimization gimmicks to experiments with articles actually written by computer algorithms.

But speaking as someone who cares pretty deeply about the future of journalism, I think Bezos’ earlier dabbling with editorial is worth recalling for different, and ultimately optimistic, reasons.

The relentless focus on data is only part of Bezos’ m.o. It’s been coupled, consistently, with an equally relentless focus on experimentation. The one time I interviewed Bezos, back in 2004, I was struck by his description of testing the sales effect of television advertising against cheap-shipping deals. What’s really notable there isn’t just the decision to obey the data, but the creativity of testing those two seemingly disparate tactics against each other. (Cheap shipping won.) That’s much more adventurous than the A/B testing of obvious variables so familiar among many tech firms.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s shift away from staff critics obviously didn’t mean a shift away from editorial: Its vast stockpile of reader reviews has had the unlikely side effect of making a retail site one of the most successful examples of the user-generated content idea ever.

It’s unclear how active Bezos will be in directing The Post’s future, and his medium-cool comments are being interpreted as suggesting the answer is “not very.” But I have a feeling this purchase is more to him than a trophy, and that his interest in editorial has never really gone away. After all, Amazon generates original editorial content right now, via the Singles program headed by former Village Voice editor David Blum. Singles is controversial, but it’s also reportedly profitable — and an experiment I can’t imagine happening if Bezos hadn’t had a genuine interest in content. (The latest Singles stunt: Blum’s original interview with President Obama, offered for free.)

In other words, it’s a little unfair to suggest that Bezos is an e-commerce mogul who has developed a dilettante-ish curiosity about the content-making business. There’s an editorial track record dating back to Amazon’s earliest days, and it’s compelling: a combination of bold experiments, and a willingness to unsentimentally measure and act on their results. Who knows what that might mean for a property like The Post? My guess is that feeling Bezos will not be able to resist finding out.