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 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:
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.
Bezos says current management will stay put, and there will be no layoffs. That means Katharine Weymouth — granddaughter of the late Katharine Graham, who led the paper during its most storied period, including the Watergate era — will stay on as publisher. Another good sign in an industry skittish from years of cutbacks and management chaos, all of which can have a negative impact on the quality of work produced by a newsroom. (The New York Times diagnosed this as a major part of Newsweek‘s problems even as it attempted a Hail Mary merger with the Daily Beast.)
The Post was among the earliest and savviest entrants into online news, even before the web, and it has maintained a strong presence on the Internet, with popular initiatives like Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog. At the same time, it still displays some of the tendencies of “old media” that turn off younger readers, such as often presenting the news dully and in binary “he said/she said” fashion, and maintaining an editorial page that sometimes seems aimed more at proving that the Post is politically “balanced” than at helping anyone understand the issues of the day. The paper will have also always passed up the opportunity to create Politico, arguably one of the most successful new media outfits.
And of course the newspaper — which has seen revenues fall by nearly half just in the past six years — is at the mercy of the same market forces the rest of the industry has endured. Print circulation and ad revenues have continued their inexorable decline, and it had become clear in recent years that the current owners didn’t have the stomach to fully transform the business. Weymouth herself said as much to the Post‘s media writer, Paul Farhi: “If journalism is the mission, given the pressures to cut costs and make profits, maybe [a publicly traded company] is not the best place for the Post.”
None of which means that Bezos will necessarily succeed. The industry’s problems are structural — it’s not clear that professionally reported public-affairs journalism, the way we have come to know it through newspapers, can command a market price high enough to sustain its production. The Internet has split that kind of reporting off from the other parts of newspapers (like coupons, advice columns, and horoscopes) that stirred most of the demand for newspapers. Hard news now has to find its own market. And not even Bezos can necessarily make that work, nor will even he be patient forever. “We believe in the long term,” he told Fortune last year, “but the long term also has to come.”