Education-reform advocate Jeff Bezos could be good for journalism

 

I used to live in Washington, D.C., and I worked at The Washington Post. Now I live near Seattle and work at The Seattle Times in a building just next door to Amazon.com’s sprawling complex.

Those facts add up to just a few degrees of separation for the journalists and non-journalist friends curious about my thoughts about Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Post.

Sorry, but I have no insights beyond speculation. Bezos, a private guy anyway, is not walking around the South Lake Union neighborhood we share broadcasting his plans.

Ominous foreshadowing may be gleaned from a cartoon on Dow Jones’ technology site, AllThingsD. It features Bezos offering free Washington Post home delivery with every Amazon purchase.

“I”m going to save a fortune on packing materials,” the cartoon Bezos crows.

Of course, humor can hint at reality. On the website TechCrunch more than a few commenters pointed to Bezos’ renowned business acumen. One suggested he might use newspaper delivery trucks and cars – their loads lightened by declining circulation – to deliver Amazon products. Think of how easy it would be to order products online and know they’d be on your doorstep by dawn along with the day’s paper. And talk about efficiencies in fuel and the environment with fewer delivery trucks on the road!

But I digress. My friends want to know about Bezos’ plans for the editorial direction of the Post. Parallels between Bezos’ harnessing of technology to transform online retail and as a catalyst for reform in public education have not gone unnoticed.

The liberal magazine The Nation immediately called attention to Bezos’ support of a “neoliberal education agenda.”

“With Bezos in charge, hopefully he can firewall his own education agenda from the Post in ways the previous owners could not,” the magazine suggested.

I recently blogged that Bezos should build a thick firewall between business efforts on behalf of the Post and those on behalf of Amazon. But I like the idea of Bezos taking on a larger role in education, whether he decides to do so in Seattle or in Washington, D.C., where the tenure of controversial schools superintendent Michelle Rhee, an unabashed reformer, left a scorched earth.

Bezos is a skilled innovator and implementer of technology and he’s committed to education – judging from his philanthropic spending.

Amazon’s Kindle is among a wide variety of technology innovations that are changing education. Smart boards, e-readers and tablets join a flood of apps to spur learning. The plethora of digital devices transforming classrooms help a generation growing up with technology prepare for success in the 21st century.

Technology has also created a lot of the wealth now flowing from families and businesses to schools for educational needs.

Bezos is the primary funder of the Bezos Family Foundation, which funds learning programs from birth to high school. The foundation supports the Institute for Learning & Brain Science at the University of Washington as well as the Seattle Teacher Residency Program.

The foundation gave $500,000 to NBC for its Education Nation, a television series exploring standardized testing, charter schools and other education reforms. It’s a backer of KIPP charter schools; the Peace Corps-like teacher recruiting organization, Teach for America; and various math and science programs across the country.

The Bezos Scholars Program at the Aspen Institute exposes high-school students and teachers to the well-respected annual festival of ideas and innovation in Aspen, Colo. Another program, Students Rebuild, supports student-leadership efforts on a global scale, including the One Million Bones project helping young people wage humanitarian efforts in the Congo. These kinds of efforts challenge the popular notion of young millennials as disengaged by immersing them in real social, political and civic work.

Bezos’ impact on journalism is yet to be seen. The Nation coyly suggests he’s a threat to public schools. I disagree. Bezos’ efforts on the education front may portend good things for his new venture into journalism.

Lynne K. Varner is a columnist for The Seattle Times. Her email address is lvarnerseattletimes.com.

©2013 The Seattle Times

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