‘A very big Washington moment’ as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos cuts deal to buy ‘Post’

Newspaper had its highest moment when it took on a sitting president over Watergate

In late 2012, Donald E Graham, the chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Company, met the newspaper's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, to look at its future over the next three years.

Their assessment troubled them. “We knew we could survive, but we always felt that our ownership should do more than help the paper survive,” Graham said in an interview on Monday.

With the agreement of the board, the company retained private investment firm Allen & Company and had an initial round of discussions with six potential buyers. Then in July, at Allen's annual Sun Valley conference, Graham met one of them, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. com. Graham liked what he heard.

So after 80 years of control and editorial leadership by the Graham family, the Washington Post began to change ownership on Monday, when Bezos agreed to buy it for $250 million.


The sale, when completed, will end the special relationship the Post has had with the nation's capital. Washington has been through all manner of tumult and change in the last eight decades, with years of racial strife, the resignation of a president, a terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the evaporation of a bipartisan political process.

But through it all, the paper has been a source of constancy, a centre of gravity and a force in the civic, social and cultural life of a city where many others came and went.

“It is a very big Washington moment,” said David Gergen, who was involved in four presidential administrations.

"When Kay Graham had you to her house, it was a command performance," Gergen adds, referring to Donald Graham's mother, who directed the paper for more than two decades. "It was one of the last places where people with very different agendas would set down their weapons and come to talk. That has been disappearing for a long time, but symbolically, this brings an end to that era."

Process of change
To many, the Washington that the newspaper once guided from family dinners and select Georgetown salons disappeared long before the sale. The rise of the website Politico – built by people trained and nurtured at the Washington Post – and other insurgents foretold a change. The days when people snapped open the daily paper to find out the things they should care about were long past, replaced by a cacophony of information sources, many of them far more driven by ideology than the Post.

In that way, perhaps, the purchase of one of the prized assets of American journalism by a talented entrepreneur from another coast is less of a shock than it might have been.

In selling to Bezos, the Grahams have left the Sulzbergers, the owners of the New York Times, as the last family standing in a club that once also included the Chandlers (Los Angeles Times), the Copleys (San Diego Tribune), the Cowles (Minneapolis Star Tribune), and the Bancrofts (Wall Street Journal). But even as those other families sold out to moneyed interests, it always seemed a safe assumption that the Grahams would continue to find a way to exercise a certain kind of stewardship over Washington.

The family's resolve to retain ownership was wilted by a sea change in the industry that laid many newspapers low. And even as most other newspapers decided that there was an urgent need to begin charging on the web, the Post held out, only recently deciding to join the rest.

For a time, the newspaper was propped up by its education division, Kaplan Inc, but when that company encountered regulatory and business turbulence, the losses at the newspaper – revenue dropped 44 per cent over the past six years – came into sharp focus.

Still, news of the sale and who was buying the paper was an extraordinary development in the newspaper industry.

Given that the Post still has potency as a political symbol, the fact it could be acquired by a man who made his fortune taking apart book-publishing – another traditional business – served as more evidence that the power centre in the media world has turned away from the east coast.

Technology and its leaders have proved time and again that they can set an agenda based on giving consumers what they want, not what some politician, or a newspaper, thinks they need.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the sale is that it happened under the watch of Donald Graham. All scions of industry do their time on the factory floor, but Graham had shown that he didn't want to just inherit his enterprise, he wanted to earn it. He served in Vietnam and later joined the Washington police force to walk a beat before doing his stations in the Post newsroom and on the business side.

He was perhaps not the legend that his mother was, but to many he represented a certain kind of stubborn belief that good newspapering was its own end. In the popular imagination, journalism reached its highest and best calling during Watergate, when the Post and its determined owner, Ms Graham, took on a sitting president.

Surrender the crown
The idea that Graham would sell the paper, whatever merits the sale might entail, seemed as unlikely as Henry V giving up the crown. But on Monday, he seemed at peace with what he had done.

As he rode down in the elevator to the newsroom to make the announcement, some of the reporters rode with him. One asked: “Is this bad?” Graham shook his head, saying that, in the end, he thought it would be good news for the paper.

“It was clear to me that he wanted to buy the newspaper for the right reasons,” Graham said of Bezos, “that he understood what newspapers do and why this newspaper in particular is important and that he would be willing to stand up for it.”

David Carr is a media and culture columnist for the New York Times