First of all, a (very) old, (very) bad joke. The great Roy Thomson is sitting in an aircraft at Bangkok en route to Australia. “Get me the Bangkok Times”, he snaps to an aide. The young assistant returns in due course and gives the press tycoon his newspaper. “What did it cost us?”, the great man enquires. “10p”, replies the slightly surprized executive. “Cheap at the price if we got the properties as well” growled the newspaper acquisition legend. But this story comes to mind yet again from my 1960s publishing days not just because the price of a newspaper title is falling so rapidly, but because Roy Thomson was the last of a breed: he bought newspapers without any intention of imposing his views on the world, but simply – indeed, “purely” – to make money. Since his time, and I do not exempt Rupert Murdoch from this, newspaper proprietors have bought in to change the world, exercise power, develop a personal following or compensate for something missing elsewhere in life. And this week, as the Boston Globe goes for a pittance to an industrialist and now the Washington Post goes to Jeff Bezos for a mere $250 million we are back on the track created by the Chicago Herald Tribune: very expensive power jewellery for very rich people.

None of this will save a newspaper or make it more relevant to now-lost audiences. Jeff Bezos is an outstanding businessman who has created a singularly powerful ecommerce environment, but he may not have the answer to news in the network. Bob Woodward says on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “This isn’t Rupert Murdoch buying The Wall Street Journal, this is somebody who believes in the values that the Post has been prominent in practicing, and so I don’t see any downside,”
(http://www.politico.com/story/2013/08/washington-post-sale-jeff-bezos-bob-woodward-rupert-murdoch-95226.html#ixzz2bDFk8ntc”), but for all we know at present, Politico, where I saw this story, is the true successor of political news and comment in newspapers. Jeff Bezos will be an experimenter and a catalyst for change, if we can go by his record, but while we wait it may be more interesting to see how the remaining assets of the Graham family fall. For example, will Kaplan go, and which Pearson competitor will try to offset flagging textbook fortunes by buying it (although even Kaplan is looking a bit past its best).

What would be good is a way of putting together the thinking of the best minds and begin to test and re-iterate models of engagement for networked populations. OK, we have done this before and the answer was Twitter – but I do not despair. The best thing that Jeff Bezos has bought may be a brand that he can transfer elsewhere for credibility and profit. All predecessors in the re-invention stakes have started from the idea that you take content first formulated from print and then re-condition it for online audiences. He doesn’t – or does not have to – think like that. And he will look at the Guardian, with 50 million online users, the voice of global liberalism in English, the place where everyone from Assange to Snowden comes to leak, and he will wonder why such a mighty distribution empire produces such pitiful revenues. And he will, as an online storekeeper, know which buttons to press to get revenues moving, since he survived the derision of the world for having no business model at Amazon – until his business model, once found, brought the consumer book industry to its knees and may yet point to its exit.

The keynote here is experimentation and re-iteration. All of us who work in the network must work this way now. Even in domestic terms, as I realised this morning when my wife said “I think we really need to have a 3D printer”. As is wise, I agreed, and then sought to justify my agreement by looking at the things that we might do in a small village in the Chilterns with such a device. And within moments I had found it! The largest number of installations of 3D printers and allied additive manufacturing technologies in Europe and the US is in so-called Fab Labs, many of them housed in libraries. My nearest Fab Lab, one of around 150 created in the past 5 years, is at Manchester, some 200 miles away. Here is its rationale: “Fab Labs – digital fabrication laboratories – were set up to inspire people and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into new products and prototypes by giving them access to a range of advanced digital manufacturing technology.

The idea was conceived by renowned inventor and scientist Professor Neil Gershenfeld at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His idea was a simple one: to provide the environment, skills, advanced materials and technology to make things cheaply and quickly anywhere in the world, and to make this available on a local basis to entrepreneurs, students, artists, small businesses and, in fact, anyone who wants to create something new or bespoke.” (www.fablabmanchester.org) And here is something about their impact:

“A global network of over 150 Fab Labs now exists, connecting people, communities and businesses across the world and enabling them to collaborate, problem solve and brainstorm ideas.

Shepherds in Norway have used their Fab Lab to create a system for tracking sheep using their mobile phones, while in Ghana, people have made an innovative truck refrigeration system powered by the vehicle’s own exhaust gases.

In Afghanistan, people are fashioning customised prosthetic limbs, while in South Africa a government and business backed project is creating simple internet connected computers that hook up to televisions and cost just ten dollars each.”

Compared to this record of innovation, surely re-inventing what the newspaper means in the network would be easy? And once we are fully functional as the first Village Fab Lab in Britain we may have a go at that too!

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