A New Age for the Washington Post

Iconic paper's sale to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos cements the end of our monopoly-media era

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Charles Del Vecchio / The Washington Post / AP

Philip L. Graham, left, and Eugene Meyer look at the first Washington Post and Times-Herald in Washington on March 18, 1954

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.

(MORE: Amazon Billionaire Jeff Bezos to Buy Washington Post for $250 Million)

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.

(MORE: New York Times Co. to Sell Boston Globe Amid Changing Media Landscape)

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.

(MORE: Comcast’s NBCUniversal Deal: As One Media Era Ends, Another Begins)

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.

MORE: CBS, Time Warner Cable Blackout Drags On as Consumers Fume

An earlier version of this story described Chris Hughes as a “billionaire.” It was changed to note that he is Facebook’s co-founder.

27 comments
tpaine
tpaine

The average American wants "compare and contrast" with different viewpoints on all of the issues that matter to them.  NBC, BSNBC, the NYT and WaPo are just mirrors of the "crony socialism" that have "the most Americans EVER unemployed and in poverty."

I can pop onto realclearpolitics.com and get viewpoints from both spectrums - with NBC usually being firmly in the Democrat camp.  I only subscribe to one emailed paper - WSJ - because it's the only one that supports small business.

MrsLeslieHoney
MrsLeslieHoney like.author.displayName 1 Like

if you want to keep your jobs you'd better rethink your ideology

mccarty42
mccarty42 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

WaPo is just one part of a much broader story.  Eight out of ten big city dailies are just a re-occuring daily leftist horn blast.

People are starving for something different in the way of a news source.  And they've gone away to go seek it.  Once there were options outside of the the "Morning Marxist" at the news stand or See-B-S at 5pm, many Americans broke out of the barbed wire compound.  And you know what?  Thay aren't coming back.  

futime
futime like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Post's economic failure and non profitable venture into partisan crony capitalism should be viewed with a step back. You too TIME.

LarryMcMasters
LarryMcMasters like.author.displayName 1 Like

We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads.......

Bwaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahaha.

LameDuck
LameDuck like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Lib-tard media is DONE--because Lib-tard ideas are a FAILURE!!

HenryCrum
HenryCrum like.author.displayName 1 Like

I am looking forward to multiple page articles published for the Kindle for Prime memberships, and sold for a nominal fee for others. It will allow much more in depth reporting and may allow the Post to make a profit again. I don't agree much with the Post positions, but they are no more slanted than the WSJ and much less than the NYT.

tpaine
tpaine

@HenryCrum there I would debate you.  Axelrod's choice first of Politico and then WaPo for the "high tech lynching of Herman Cain" was no accident.  The NYT, amazingly, turned him down.

RobertJeffreySchundler
RobertJeffreySchundler like.author.displayName 1 Like

The WSJ seems to have be the most balance, and the NYT the lease. The Post was halfway between the two .... which means it was too close to the NYT.

Kizar_Sozay
Kizar_Sozay like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

The Grahams are portrayed here as the icons of the fifth estate.  In actuality they took a company and ran it into the ground, laid off loyal workers, and are taking what they can get from the carcass.  Bezos is portrayed as a savior come to restore former glories.

Contrast this with the portrayal of Romney and Bain Capital who did essentially the same thing and are cast in the media as murderers and the sellers as people who exploited the workforce to line their own pockets.  The WaPo was front and center in this campaign.

Any wonder the paper is circling the drain?

tpaine
tpaine

@Kizar_Sozay and?  It's what Democrats do.  Look at the mess they've made of the economy for the last six years - "the most Americans EVER unemployed and in poverty" - and what's their excuse??  "Blame Bush" of course.  They are NEVER responsible for the mess their utopian socialism creates.

smithmorphy
smithmorphy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Kizar_Sozay  

don't expect anything other than hypocrisy from Time and the other Lib Media outlets.

brnstb007
brnstb007 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 7 Like

They will follow the truth? What about some truth on Benghazi? Or is investigative reporting not a skillset of Post employees?

LarryMcMasters
LarryMcMasters like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hey our messiah has told us that nothing is there. See we followed the truth.

Now on to the next article about Sarah Palin

Historybuff
Historybuff like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 6 Like

America's "News Environment" has been a wasteland for decades.   This move can not hurt, and may help.   If the WaPo becomes a more Professional News organization... balanced, unbiased, non-slanderous, objective... great!   If it stays a partisan hack, then just pull the final plug and kill it.

New York Times... are you watching?

tpaine
tpaine

@Historybuff yeah, they just had to sell the Boston Globe, but made no management changes!!  That'll just postpone the inevitable.

brnstb007
brnstb007 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Historybuff They can start out by investigating the Obama administration's phoney scandals.

LawrenceBailey
LawrenceBailey like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

now, if the WaPo would just become a conservative newspaper and do REAL journalism, it might survive.....

ajlovesya
ajlovesya like.author.displayName 1 Like

Not sure it signals the end of a monopoly-media era. We don't know enough about the direction or intentions of Bezos re: his next steps not just regarding the paper, but his investment/purchases in other media (he already owns quite a few publications http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/08/jeff-bezos-growing-media-empire/278388/). The references you make to Hearst, for example, illustrate this point: one purchase begets another, and another until a new monopoly is formed. 

What I am more interested in exploring is why public businesses go private. The Bezos purchase is big news, but what of other public companies that are exploring going private due to financial and other pressures (like Dell)? Will we see innovation and growth in revenue now that we don't have to focus Wall Street?

futime
futime

@ajlovesya Did not know Bezos owned the Atlantic, which remains a POS rag publication. So I don't see the new Business Model of his move into Publications.

tpaine
tpaine

@futime @ajlovesya I actually like The Atlantic.  They have a viewpoint - usually wrong - but I think they attempt to be fair even while being unbalanced.

chokingkojak
chokingkojak like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bezos bought it for a song.   Ton of hidden value there.

Nobody in Washington DC really takes any other D.C. paper seriously other than The Post.  Same with overseas readers looking for D.C. news.  

tpaine
tpaine

@chokingkojak you're kidding right?  WaPo and "serious" NEVER get mentioned in the same breath.  Now, if you said "representing the Democrat Party position," I'd have agreed with you.

tpaine
tpaine

@chokingkojak only if he uses the Murdock model and finds out what his potential customers are interested in, he can turn them around.  If he's just interested in promoting the Democrat agenda, nothing will change.

futime
futime like.author.displayName 1 Like

@chokingkojak So what is the deal. Instead of $100 million a year in Lobbyist fees. You now get an inside track on controlling the government with a one time purchase?

DanBruce
DanBruce like.author.displayName 1 Like

Well, at least it's not the Moonies!

tpaine
tpaine

@DanBruce sad when the "moonies" as you call them are more balanced.

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