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 flagship property through the chaos of the massive, wrenching transformation the newspaper industry is undergoing. This is even more true of many newspaper chains that aren't family-controlled and are more beholden to investors and debt-holders. For them, meeting short-term financial goals in order to please stockholders or pay off debts -- even as revenue is falling through the floor -- is a much bigger priority than investing in the future, which is what the industry needs to do if it is to remain not only profitable, but socially relevant.
Bezos, who will own the Post independently from Amazon (AMZN), has proven himself to be a long-term thinker, forgoing profits today (to the dismay of many on Wall Street) in order to continually improve service, gain market share and secure the loyalty of customers. (Slate.com,Foreign Policy, and TheRoot.com aren't part of the deal, though some regional papers are.)
Of course, it's impossible to know what Bezos might be able to do with the company, but it seems a safe bet that he's going to invest rather than simply wring it for profits in the short term by cutting costs (and quality), as other newspaper companies like Tribune and Advance have done, often under the pretense of forging ahead into the new era of newspapering.
Bezos seems to recognize that nobody has any idea what the new era of newspapering might look like five or 10 years hence. It's up to people like him to find out. He said in a statement:
"The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."
And to experiment will mean to spend money and accept much lower profit margins than the ones most newspaper publishers had gotten used to in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st. Bezos surely knows this -- why else would he bother?
Last year, Bezos told Fortune: "The three big ideas at Amazon are long-term thinking, customer obsession, and willingness to invent." Replace "customer" with "reader" and those are just the ideas the newspaper industry needs to adhere to as the highly uncertain future unfolds.