The Post’s Fire Sale
We need an end to the revolving door between the legacy media and politics.

Web site display in the lobby of the Washington Post.



It’s not often that the zeitgeist whups both of the newspapers the Right loves to hate — the Washington Post and the New York Times — upside the head with a righteous shillelagh simultaneously, but (as Mattie Ross says in True Grit) it did happen. In fact, it happened this week. Let’s start with the Times and its fawning portrait of the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, which went online on Friday and appeared in print on Sunday. The lengthy — very lengthy — article begins:

On the eve of the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, this city’s annual media-politico-Hollywood love fest, Katharine Weymouth convened the sort of Washington power dinner for which her grandmother, Katharine Graham, the pioneering publisher of The Washington Post, was famous.

Around the dining room table in Ms. Weymouth’s airy Craftsman home sat a collection of Kay Graham’s intimates and descendants: Vernon Jordan, the Clinton consigliere; C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the first President Bush; [Graham’s] oldest son Donald, now chief executive of the company that owns The Post; and Lally Weymouth, Mrs. Graham’s daughter and Ms. Weymouth’s mother, a globe-trotting journalist and Manhattan socialite known for both her interviews with Middle East dictators and glitzy Fourth of July Hamptons parties.

At the head of the table sat Ms. Weymouth, a Harvard- and Stanford-educated lawyer, single mother of three and, at 47, a fourth-generation publisher of the Post. As her guests chatted, she gently intervened, steering the conversation, salon-style, toward the economy and presidential politics. When it was over, Mrs. Weymouth, not an easy one to please, showered her daughter with praise.

“It was a big moment,” said Molly Elkin, Ms. Weymouth’s best friend and one of the dinner party guests. “It was sort of like: ‘I’ve passed the baton, kid. You’ve learned well, you did a good job.’”

It was the kind of scene, rife with unspoken family drama, that captivates longtime Washingtonians, who have scrutinized and mythologized the Grahams for decades, much as the British do their royalty. Now, in an exceedingly difficult climate for newspapers, Ms. Weymouth is charged with saving the crown jewels. 

So Monday she sold the paper — gave it and a handful of other properties away, really — to Jeff Bezos for $250 million cash money. Not to Amazon, which Bezos founded in his garage and turned into a marketing and publishing powerhouse, but to Bezos himself, personally. I guess the One Percent really is the personification of all evil and inequality in this country — until it comes time for one of them to bail out a liberal institution. 

Anyway, talk about instantly disposable fishwrap. The liberal fantasy world, media division, that the Times and the Post both inhabit and limn: “media-politico-Hollywood love fest,” check; socialite, check; power dinner, check; airy Craftsman home, check; single mother of three, check; lawyer, check; Harvard and Stanford degrees, check; cameo appearances by Vernon Jordan and Lally Weymouth, check; obligatory reference to the Hamptons, check — has come crashing down. With the fire sale of the Boston Globe and some other media properties by the Times, the euthanizing of Newsweek, and now the sudden heave-ho given to the flagship enterprise of the Washington Post Co., the old order indeed passeth. 

One has to read in full the Times’s puff piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg on one of the members of its exclusive club of family-money and bien-pensant progressivism — really rich folks, down for the struggle! — to get a sense of just how out of touch with reality these people are. They’re like the effete late–Roman Empire poets, impotent capons peeling grapes and arguing the nuances of internal rhyme as the big ugly Germans come crashing through the gates, barely bothering to look up as Alaric’s axe meets their heads:

Ms. Weymouth is many things: a working mother and enthusiastic cook; a fearless skier (“She has not met a slope she won’t take,” says Liz Spayd, a former managing editor of The Post); a fitness buff (“She can crunch till the cows come home,” said Pari Bradlee, a yoga instructor and daughter-in-law to Ben) and, for a while, one of the most sought-after dates in town. (After seeing a local architect, Ms. Weymouth has recently reunited with an old flame, Marty Moe, a former AOL executive.)

But neither should anyone miss the Postown account of the sale by Paul Fahri, which at least has the virtue of acknowledging the changes in store for the Weymouths and, by extension, the Sulzbergers of the New York Times, and the journalists they employ — or used to:

Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham and Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, his niece, broke the news of the sale to a packed meeting of employees at the company’s headquarters in downtown Washington on Monday. The mood was hushed; several veteran employees cried as Graham and Weymouth took turns reading statements and answering questions. “Everyone who was in that room knows how much Don and Katharine love the paper and how hard this must have been for them,” said David Ignatius, a veteran Post columnist who was visibly moved after the meeting.

But for much of the past decade, The Post has been unable to escape the financial turmoil that has engulfed newspapers and other “legacy” media organizations. The rise of the Internet and the epochal change from print to digital technology have created a massive wave of competition for traditional news companies, scattering readers and advertisers across a radically altered news and information landscape and triggering mergers, bankruptcies and consolidation among the owners of print and broadcasting properties . . .

The Washington Post Co.’s newspaper division, of which the Post newspaper is the most prominent part, has suffered a 44 percent decline in operating revenue over the past six years. Although The Post is one of the most popular news sources online, print circulation has dwindled, falling an additional 7 percent daily and on Sundays during the first half of this year.

Ultimately, the paper’s financial challenges prompted the company’s board to consider a sale, a step once regarded as unthinkable by insiders and the Graham family.

What’s really striking, though, are these passages, separated in the story but closely related in significance:

[Graham] added: “The Post could have survived under the company’s ownership and been profitable for the foreseeable future. But we wanted to do more than survive. I’m not saying this guarantees success, but it gives us a much greater chance of success.” . . .

Weymouth said the decision to sell The Post sprang from annual budget discussions she had with Graham late last year. “We talked about whether [The Washington Post Co.] was the right place to house The Post,” she said. “If journalism is the mission, given the pressures to cut costs and make profits, maybe [a publicly traded company] is not the best place for The Post.” . . .

The Post, founded in 1877, has been controlled since 1933 by the heirs of Eugene Meyer, a Wall Street financier and former Federal Reserve official [and father of Katharine Graham]. Meyer bought the paper for $825,000 at a bankruptcy auction during the depth of the Depression.

Translation: We had to sell the Post in order to save it; and the Washington Post Co. is no longer the right place for the Washington Post.