The spectacle of experienced, often cynical journalists getting a little weepy over the prospect of their paper’s ownership changing from a group of rich people to one exceptionally rich person might seem strange.
But it really happened this week when the Washington Post stunned nearly everybody, myself included, by announcing its impending sale for $250 million to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
What was so special about the Graham family owning the newspaper and the Washington Post Company behind it?
This: To us, their stewardship was our rock.
The family had shown it would take punches for the paper. Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, when it was the fifth newspaper in a four-newspaper town, then subsidized its losses into the 1950s. His daughter Katharine Graham took over after his son-in-law Phil Graham’s suicide and stood up to Richard Nixon and much of the military-industrial complex; her memoirs show she was an Iron Lady well before Margaret Thatcher earned the title.
And even as the newspaper industry started to slide, the Post’s two-tier stock structure locked Wall Street out of voting control and, we thought, ensured the paper could be managed for the duration while others made cruel and stupid staff cuts to meet short-term earnings goals.
For me and many other under-40 Posties, the family’s role was personified by Don Graham, the paper’s publisher from 1979 to 2000, chairman from 2000 to 2008 and still chief executive of its parent firm. “Mrs. Graham” had her well-earned perch in the 9th floor executive suite, but Don was a constant presence in the newsroom who could be counted on to read every story in the paper.
If you did a good job, you might get a handwritten compliment via interoffice mail, later on an appreciative e-mail. And if you screwed up, Don could understand. In January of 2000, stressed over my aunt’s death the day before, I completely blew up at a cranky caller and hung up on him in a stream of curses, something I’d never done before and never have since; the guy promptly called Don, who heard him out, apparently talked him off the ledge and refrained from having me canned.
In and outside the newsroom, Don declined to play the part of a media mogul. He’d followed Harvard by serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then in D.C.’s streets as a patrolman with the Metropolitan Police Department. He insisted he be compensated far less than his peers, with his salary frozen since 1991. It seemed normal that I’d have the occasional brief chat with him on the walk to Metro at the end of the day.
Up until maybe five years ago, working for the Post seemed one of the surest bets in journalism. But we weren’t doing as well as we thought–even as the apparent security of having the Grahams in our corner probably kept us from taking chances we should have. Circulation figures and ad revenues kept sinking, one round of buyouts begat another and another, and the newsroom leadership turned over more than once. Don Graham’s successors as publisher–Bo Jones from 2000 to 2008, his niece Katharine Weymouth from 2008 on–didn’t have the same newsroom presence.
I’ve wondered what the family members in charge thought about the steady erosion of their legacy. Now we know: Late last year, they began to explore the implausible: If we can’t escape a seemingly endless cycle of cuts and can’t find answers for the questions the newspaper business keeps throwing at us, maybe it’s time for somebody else to take over, somebody with new ideas and enough resources to fund the paper’s reinvention entirely free of the stock market’s concerns.
Since Monday’s news, I’ve been hearing anxiety from current and former Posties over what Bezos might have in store–from his history with unions to what Amazon’s done to independent bookstores. I don’t think you can overlook a deeper angst: that the Post is being wrenched off the foundation that had endured for over 80 years.
Accepting that change had to have been a crushing realization to the Graham family too–that you essentially must fire yourself from your life’s work. But it seems in keeping with the history I’ve read and the publisher I got to know. As my friend and fellow ex-Postie Frank Ahrens wrote in an eloquent note shared on Facebook: “After a lifetime of benevolent ownership, this sale is Don’s last great gift to you. He gave you a fighting chance.”
Don Graham’s work at the Washington Post may be near its close, but he remains one of the most decent, honorable people I have met. Thanks, Don.