POST-GRAHAM: For the last 80 years, the Washington Post, one of the country’s preeminent newspapers, winner of nearly 50 Pulitzer Prizes and responsible for the downfall of a president, has been owned by the Graham family, one of the last of the storied newspaper dynasties to refuse to sell their paper even as the Chandlers and the Bancrofts buckled to lucrative offers to dispose of their birthright.
That changed Monday afternoon. Donald E. Graham, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington Post Co. and son of Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher who had steered the Post during its most historic years, sold the daily flagship, and its related community newspaper business, for $250 million to Jeff P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. It is a personal investment by Bezos, separate from Amazon.
This story first appeared in the August 6, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Washington D.C. fixtures were blindsided by the news.
“Unbelievable, the sale of the Washington Post. Total shock,” said Buffy Cafritz, a good friend of the late Katharine Graham. “I think it’s very sad. The passing of the torch. The end of an era. I’ve talked to a lot of people and everyone is shocked.”
Donald Graham said it had become clear a new leader was needed who could figure out how to turn around the newspaper at a challenging time for the industry. “Everyone at the Post Co. and everyone in our family has always been proud of the Washington Post,” he said. “[We] decided to sell only after years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post.”
He said Bezos’ technology acumen and his “personal decency” made him the best candidate for the job. Graham said the decision was reached with the board and Katharine Weymouth, the paper’s publisher and the granddaughter of Katharine Graham. The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, is staying on.
Bezos inherits the flagship daily, as well as several other community papers, like the Fairfax County Times and the Gazette, which serve counties in Maryland. Slate, an online magazine, Foreign Policy, and Kaplan, a for-profit education company, will remain with the Post Co., which will eventually change its name.
“I understand the critical role the Post plays in Washington D.C. and our nation, and the Post’s values will not change,” Bezos said. In its own story about the sale, time-stamped at roughly the same time Weymouth was breaking the news to the newsroom at the auditorium of its 15th Street headquarters in Washington, the Post reported Graham reached out to the investment firm Allen & Co. “with extraordinary secrecy” to explore a sale in light of the paper’s troubled financial situation.
A decade ago, the average daily circulation of the Post was 757,000 and net income was $73.1 million, according to the company. The average circulation in the second quarter of 2013 was 447,700 and net income was $44.7 million. Its Sunday edition, which a decade ago had a circulation above a million, has dwindled to an average of 646,700. The Post has also struggled to find its place amid faster, technologically savvier competitors, like Politico, which cannibalized the Beltway beat with microscoops about the Hill, and even other newspapers of its class. While The New York Times built a digital paywall in 2011 that has helped it prop up declines in print circulation, the Post’s own paywall went up in June.
A longtime Washington social fixture Joan Fleischmann Tobin said, “I’m not sure anyone could have turned it around. It’s seen better days. My understanding is that if you didn’t do certain things eight to 10 years ago, you were behind the eight ball; I think they were slow to surmise they could no longer survive in the Ben Bradlee mold. It is a shock, but I want to say, I admire Katharine Weymouth. She gave it a valiant try, and it’s a smart move.
Your exit is as important as your entrance, it’s important to know when to make your exit, good for her.”
On social media, staffers generally applauded the move even if it caught them by surprise.
“If Don Graham says this was the right thing to do, I trust him,” said longtime columnist Gene Weingarten.
Bezos clearly has long had dealings with the Post. Tammy Haddad, ceo of Haddad Media, said she first met him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004, where he was the paper’s guest.
The sale of the storied Post capped a volatile weekend in the media world. Newsweek, which was formerly owned by the Post Co., was sold Saturday afternoon to the publishers of the little-known digital newspaper the International Business Times, while earlier that day The New York Times confirmed the sale of the Boston Globe for $70 million to John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox.
The Post made the announcement a day after a lengthy profile of Weymouth ran in The New York Times’ Styles section premised on her commitment to “saving the crown jewels.” In one telling section, the reporter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who covers the culture of Washington, asked Graham if his niece would inherit his job as chairman and ceo. “I’m not expecting her to go anyplace,” Graham said.
Stolberg said Styles section editor Stuart Emmrich asked her to pursue the piece in April and she reported in July, with several interviews with Post veterans and outsiders, as well as Weymouth and Graham, that month. Stolberg felt she asked the relevant questions about the Post’s future and succession, and the answers ended up in the final piece. She did not expect the family would sell the paper.
“Neither he nor Ms. Weymouth gave any hint that the company was about to be sold,” Stolberg said via e-mail. “It was a surprise to me, as to everyone. Truly, my piece was a total coincidence.”