Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. was driving on Monday, August 5, when he got a call from the paper’s owner, Donald Graham. In several hours, Graham would tell the staff he was selling the Post—his family’s crown jewel for 80 years—to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million.
Graham didn’t have answers to the questions the newspaper industry posed. Neither he nor his niece, publisher Katharine Weymouth—the fifth family member to run the paper since her great-grandfather Eugene Meyer bought it in a bankruptcy sale—could see a way to combat internet-driven pressures without more budget and staff cuts. The phone call was Don Graham’s admission of defeat. “I didn’t know anything about this,” says Downie, who has worked with Graham for 42 years. “I was speechless. I had to pull over.”
Downie drove home, changed clothes, and went into the office. He stopped by Graham’s office to thank him. “We know each other so well that we can sense each other’s feelings,” Downie says. “He didn’t have to tell me it was a tense, difficult decision.”
Downie’s replacement as executive editor, Marcus Brauchli—who stepped down last year to become a vice president of the Post’s parent company—walked into Graham’s weekly Monday 3 pm staff meeting. The owner shut the door, then said to the group: “I have shocking news.”
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The entire staff needed to be told. Management sent out an e-mail at 4:15 announcing a 4:30 meeting that day. But Post media reporter Paul Farhi worried that even that was too much time.
Farhi had been on vacation in the Dominican Republic when executive editor Marty Baron called. Baron needed him back home to write a story, but he wouldn’t give Farhi any details other than telling him he’d call him on Sunday, August 4. They spoke for 45 minutes that day, and Farhi was told about the sale but sworn to silence. After crafting his story in a Word document at home, he arrived at work around 3 on August 5 in a daze, knowing a secret that would turn the Post inside out but unable to tell anyone.
Farhi’s biggest fear—and that of the few people at the paper who knew—was that another media organization would break the news. The day before, the New York Times had profiled Weymouth without any hint of what was to come. Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg had asked Graham if his niece would inherit his job running the Post Company. “[H]e ducks the question,” Stolberg wrote, quoting him as saying, “I’m not expecting her to go anyplace.”
That’s correct—for now. Under the sale terms, Weymouth and her management team, Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt, will stay on for at least a year.
At 4:30 pm, most of the paper’s 2,000 employees appeared in the auditorium. Many believed they were going to learn that the Post building had been sold—a widely reported possibility.
It had not.
Bezos had bought the Post, its printing presses, the Express newspaper, the Gazette Newspapers, Southern Maryland Newspapers, the Fairfax County Times, El Tiempo Latino, and Greater Washington Publishing—basically everything needed to produce the Washington Post and its website.
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Graham—the 68-year-old son of legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham—read a brief speech.
“I was surprised he’d written down what he wanted to say,” says Downie, who joined the Post in 1964. “He’s a good extemporaneous speaker. He may have done it for legal reasons, but I think it was more so he could get through it.”
Some in the auditorium cried at the announcement.
Graham soldiered on, his voice quivering: “To say the very obvious, I’ve loved working with you. Not just those who write the stories, but those who run the presses, sell the ads, deliver the papers. . . . I understand there is also, and necessarily, a sense of disappointment on my side. The only person I feel even a slight sense of disappointment with would be me. But not you. No one had a better bunch of people to work with.”
The next day he reiterated that sentiment, telling Post media blogger Erik Wemple, “I disappointed myself.”
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For Don Graham, selling the Post is like putting a baby up for adoption. The biological parent knows the child will have a better life than he or she can provide. But giving up that baby is still painful. It’s an admission that you can’t provide what the child needs.
Brauchli says putting the Post before his own feelings is what Graham is about: “He takes the greatest pride in doing the right thing, however difficult. He is immensely dedicated to his people and the history and legacy of the institution. He felt he was doing what was right for the institution. The pain was secondary.”
Robert Kaiser, who has worked with Graham since 1971, recalls a line that Graham’s grandfather Eugene Meyer said in 1954 after he bought a competitor, the Washington Times-Herald, for $8.5 million. Don Graham was eight; his grandfather was 78. Purchasing the Times-Herald while owning the Post meant Meyer had secured the future for the next generation.
“The real significance of this event,” Meyer said, “is that it makes the paper safe for Donnie.”
It did for decades—until a perfect storm fueled by the web, technology, and a recession brought the paper to its knees.
“On some level, Don must feel now that he has let the family down,” says Kaiser, an associate editor who joined the paper in 1964. “He didn’t live up to their expectations to keep the Post going. It was an extremely difficult decision and at the same time courageous.
“I think Don faced up to the fact that the only strategy Katharine [Weymouth] and he had wasn’t really a strategy. They were waiting for something to produce more revenue, and it never happened. He understood it was a long, downward glide involving more cuts.”
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This month, Post ownership will legally be handed over to Jeff Bezos. A bash for current and former Posties is planned at the paper to celebrate Graham and his family.
Graham—who will still be chairman of the board of the not-yet-renamed Post Company—is a deeply private man. A week after the sale, he told Washingtonian he was “interviewed out.” But he wasn’t likely to be that forthcoming anyway. That’s not who he is.
Post veteran Dave Kindred’s 2010 book, Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post, noted that Graham is a dream owner but also “every inquiring reporter’s idea of a frustrating interview (so much there, so little said) . . . .”
Peter Perl, who worked at the Post for 32 years, was assigned to write an advance obituary about Graham as he nears his eighth decade—standard news procedure for prominent figures. Perl interviewed dozens of people in Graham’s life.“Nobody knows Don on a deeply personal level,” Perl says, “even people who are friends. He just got married [to his second wife] and recently had a grandchild—I can see him saying, ‘I want to leave this thing in good shape and want the newspaper to always be there.’ ”
Graham has an elder sister, Lally Weymouth, and two younger brothers, Bill and Steve. None works day to day for the Post Company, though Weymouth writes occasionally. Graham’s daughter Laura O’Shaughnessy is general manager of SocialCode, a Post Company start-up that helps businesses develop their brand on Facebook. Her husband, Tim, is CEO of LivingSocial. Graham’s daughter Molly went to work for Facebook in 2008.
I reached two of his close friends, Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr., who worked at the Post for 32 years, and Nick Friendly. They had gone to St. Albans School with Graham and have remained close. Both offered to talk about what the sale meant to him, but only with Graham’s approval. He didn’t give it.
Lally Weymouth and her daughter Katharine also declined to be interviewed, as did Graham’s daughter Laura.
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Kindred’s book says Graham once told a staffer that he started each day by looking in a bathroom mirror and saying, “Don’t screw it up.”
Some may say Graham screwed it up. Forbes ran a February 2012 article titled nice guy, finishing last: HOW DON GRAHAM FUMBLED THE WASHINGTON POST CO. A Vanity Fair story last year was equally harsh, while describing how much everyone at the Post loved him.
The reality is the Post has tried many things in the last two decades. Some worked, but none was the holy grail. The internet robbed the Post of lucrative print advertising as readers moved online and circulation dwindled from a high of 830,000 in 1994 to today’s 474,767. Craigslist ate away at the once reliable cash cow, classified ads. During the last seven years, the Post Company’s newspaper division has seen a 39-percent drop in operating revenues. The future isn’t looking any better.