Katharine Weymouth is cruising down Connecticut Avenue, the top down and windows up on her 1991 black BMW convertible. Her three kids are safely off to day camp. Dressed in a striped crew-neck T-shirt and tan pants, she’s preparing for a day as publisher of the newspaper that’s been in her family for four generations.
Riding shotgun, pen and pad in hand, I figure I have her strapped in for a few probing questions.
“What did you think about the editorial that mentioned you in the paper this morning?” I ask.
The editorial, “To Our Readers,” touched on “worry about the future of news reporting,” described “particularly painful” changes at the Post, and devoted a paragraph to Weymouth’s recent promotion to publisher and her commitment to quality journalism.
“Haven’t looked at it,” she says. “I’ve been up since 5:55 and going nonstop.”
Got the three kids up. Put drops in the eyes of Red, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Fed the kids. Made lunches for the kids. Attempted to work out. Got two to the bus stop and the youngest to day camp at Beauvoir. Picked up the reporter doing a profile of her.
“You didn’t know about the editorial?” I ask.
“I read a draft,” she says.
Did she read the Metro article about Beauvoir? A third-grade teacher was placed on leave when his camera was found to have “inappropriate pictures” of a young boy. Two of Weymouth’s children attend the school. The story mentioned that she’s on the board.
We stop for a latte at Starbucks. Waiting for her cup, she picks up a stray Metro section and reads the Beauvoir article.
“I knew the story was out,” she says. “Such a horrible thing to have happen. But we’ve been open and transparent with parents. I think we’re handling a bad situation very well.”
The woman seems unflappable. I’m beginning to think that longtime journalist Sally Quinn was not far off when she said, “Katharine is one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met.”
Perhaps I can rattle her with a question about the Post’s editorial policy. Had she been publisher at the time, she could have had a say in the way the newspaper supported the war in Iraq before, during, and after the 2003 invasion. I mention the subject and ask, “What are your political leanings?”
“Moderate to conservative Democrat,” she says. “But I’m not going to impose my views on the editorial page. I’ll leave that to Don.” Her uncle Don Graham remains chair of the parent Washington Post Company, and the newspaper’s editorial-page editor reports to him. “My plate is full,” she adds.
Her schedule today at the Post includes orchestrating the change of chief editors, from Len Downie to Marcus Brauchli, whose name has not been announced at the time of our interview. “It’s my first big decision” is all she’ll say at the time. “If I do it right, that person will be around for a long time.”
We’re passing under Dupont Circle. I try the social scene: “Your grandmother was very involved in public policy and Washington’s social whirl. Will you do the same?”
“That’s not my world,” she says. “I don’t pretend to have any ambitions in that way. My grandmother knew JFK and LBJ. That was her world. I enjoy meeting interesting people. But that’s not my world.”
“How did you do at the party last night?” I ask, figuring she might be surprised that I know that Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., whom she replaced as publisher, hosted a party for her with Don Graham. The guest list of about 125 power players included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, DC mayor Adrian Fenty, Ted Leonsis, Bob Barnett and Rita Braver, Brendan and Lila Sullivan, Don Brown, Judy Woodruff, Steve Roberts, Debbie Dingell, and many of Katharine’s friends.
“It was fine,” she says. “Bo said my grandmother gave him a party, and he wanted to do one for me. Now we’re done with parties. All my friends are tired of celebrating me. So am I.”
She takes a left on DeSales Street, passes between the Mayflower hotel and the ABC TV bureau, and heads toward 15th Street and the Washington Post.
As publisher, Katharine Weymouth becomes one of the region’s most influential leaders. She also has one of the toughest jobs in corporate America.
Many businesses, from airlines and automobiles to banking and housing, are facing hard times, but newspapers have been hit especially hard as readers and ad revenues move to the Internet.
In trying to reverse publishing’s declining fortunes, Weymouth joins Rupert Murdoch, who just bought the Wall Street Journal; Sam Zell, trying to turn a profit at the Tribune newspapers; and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times.
The Grahams and Sulzbergers stand alone atop the last two major media companies still controlled by families. The Bancrofts, Ridders, and Chandlers have given up family control. The Sulzbergers have owned the New York Times since 1896; Weymouth’s great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post in 1933 and passed it on to his daughter, Katharine, and her husband, Philip Graham.
Newspapers grew and thrived after World War II. But not one corporate leader has figured how to make the publishing business as profitable as it was even a decade ago.
The Post has suffered steep declines. According to the Washington Post Company’s annual reports, paid circulation for the daily peaked at 832,232 in 1993; circulation was down to 658,059 in 2007. Sunday circulation dropped from 1.035 million in 2003 to 890,163 this spring.
Advertising revenue is dropping, too. The company’s annual report says print advertising declined from $596 million in 2005 to $573 million in 2006. Then last year print-ad revenue plunged to $496 million and this year is likely to see a further decline.
Before becoming chief executive of Washington Post Media in February, putting her in charge of both the newspaper and its Web site, Weymouth had been head of newspaper advertising since 2005.
Every workday, she faced the declining fortunes of the family’s flagship paper.
The morning before I interviewed Katharine Weymouth for the first time, I put in a call to Bob Woodward, the brand-name reporter who’s been with the Post since 1971. He and Carl Bernstein had written their legendary Watergate stories while Kay Graham was publisher; he had remained close to the Grahams and the newspaper while Kay’s son Don ran the paper from 1979 to 2000.
“I remember her as one in a group of Kay’s grandchildren at Martha’s Vineyard,” Woodward says.
What about now?
His voice gets gravelly. “She has the weight of the world on her shoulders,” he says. “With all the convulsions we are going through, it is on her head, her shoulders, her lap—to put it together. It makes her grandmother’s job look easy.”
That’s quite a statement, considering that Katharine Graham was thrust into leading the Post after her husband, Phil, committed suicide in 1963; published the Pentagon Papers against charges that the Post was threatening national security; took the Post Company public in 1971 at $6.50 a share (it’s now trading around $600); backed the Watergate investigation despite threats from the Nixon White House; broke the back of the newspaper unions; and passed the paper to her son.
Woodward continues: “It makes Don’s job look easy.”
Perhaps. Don Graham ran the Post during its gravy days, but he was one of the first newspaper publishers to invest hundreds of millions in a Web site. He also grew Kaplan, the Post Company’s fast-growing education division. It now brings in more than half the company revenues.
“What’s the business model for newspapers?” Woodward asks. “What makes a paper viable?”
Walter Pincus puts Weymouth’s challenges more succinctly. A veteran Post reporter and, with his wife, Ann, an intimate friend of Kay Graham’s, he says: “Katharine has to face what Don never faced—survival.”