Correction appended: Aug. 9, 2013, 09:55 a.m. E.T.
It’s hard to startle the journalism business these days, given the scale and speed of disruption of the media industry. But the Graham family selling the Washington Post to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for $250 million is an exception. Few newspapers in the world are as closely identified with a single family.
The story of the Grahams and the Post used to be told in giant pictures on the wall of the newspaper lobby on L Street not far from the White House. One grainy photograph documented the day in 1933 when the brilliant financier Eugene Meyer bought the paper for a song at a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. Another (a favorite of all of us who worked there) showed Meyer’s remarkable daughter, Katharine Graham, beaming as she left another D.C. courthouse in the company of her favorite editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, after they prevailed over the government in the Pentagon Papers lawsuit.
But the most important photograph, according to Mrs. Graham’s son and successor Donald E. Graham, was the one that showed Meyer in the company of Philip L. Graham, the brilliant and tragic husband of Katharine and father of Don. They were smiling like a pair of lotto winners, which they were. The year was 1954, and after years of effort and red ink, they had finally bought out their last remaining rival for dominance of the morning-newspaper market in Washington. As other families would learn in other cities across the country — the Chandlers in Los Angeles, the Coxes in Atlanta, the Knights in Miami and so on — dominance of the morning-newspaper routes would become a decades-long license to print money.
Owning the morning meant that the Post would thrive as afternoon newspapers fell to the competition of television news. (The last afternoon paper in Washington, the excellent Washington Star, winked out in 1981.) It meant that advertisers hoping to reach a broad Washington audience had no choice but to pay the Post’s steadily increasing rates. That day in 1954 was the key to everything the Post later became, Don told me one day about 10 years ago when we bumped into each other in the lobby. Watergate, all the Pulitzer Prizes, the foreign correspondents, the celebrity columnists — all of it was possible because the patriarch and his son-in-law managed to lock up the morning.
And now the family saga has come to an end precisely because the morning doesn’t mean money anymore. People get their news when they want it, and they have an astonishing selection of packages and purveyors. In a sense, the story of the Washington Post has come full circle, with Bezos in the role of Meyer. Like Meyer, the new buyer is fantastically wealthy from unrelated enterprises. Like Meyer, he is buying a publication hard-hit by a severe economic crash, one title among many in a ferociously competitive media marketplace. True, the Post is a vastly better newspaper today than it was 80 years ago, thanks to Meyer and his descendants. (His great-granddaughter Katharine Weymouth is the current publisher.) But the path to reliable earnings growth is at least as hazy for Bezos as it was for Meyer 80 years ago, and it stands to reason that Bezos, like Meyer, has reasons other than the bottom line to want to own an influential voice in the nation’s capital.
He becomes the most prominent in a growing line of back-to-the-future moguls who, like George Hearst and Jock Whitney and Raoul Fleischmann of yore, used money they made or inherited from nonmedia ventures to elbow their way into publishing. Over the weekend, billionaire investor John Henry won a competition to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. for a fraction of what the Times paid for it. Last year, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic magazine, not long after the late stereo magnate Sidney Harman briefly took over Newsweek from, yes, the Washington Post Co.
In retrospect, that sale probably was a harbinger.
The end of the Graham-family stewardship of the Post doesn’t have to spell the end of the paper’s greatness. Arguably, private ownership by a mogul like Bezos offers a more promising future. He will be free to experiment and invest more boldly than a publicly traded corporate parent can. Though hawkeyed media critics will be reading every word of the paper for signs that coverage is being skewed in favor of other Bezos enterprises, the paper will no longer be under the soulless gaze of Wall Street analysts watching the Washington Post Co.’s corporate stock.
And Bezos insists he will not meddle in the Post’s editorial workings for personal gain. “The values of the Post do not need changing,” he wrote in a letter to employees. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.” He also said he would continue to live in “the other Washington,” where his “day job” will be running Amazon as an entirely separate company.
But this certainly writes the epilogue to the age of monopoly media. Great fortunes were made. Great journalism was produced (not enough, in retrospect, and there was plenty of dreck to go with it). But news was covered and stories were told in the generations before newspapers became cash cows, and the same will be true in the future. The fact that people who are able to buy anything still want to buy into journalism is all the proof you need.
An earlier version of this story described Chris Hughes as a “billionaire.” It was changed to note that he is Facebook’s co-founder.