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The Son Also Rises
Comments () | Published July 22, 2009

“We’re done cutting,” Allbritton tells me.

Moody’s analyst Karen Berckmann, who wrote the reports on Allbritton, explains that the company’s negative rating is due to the balance of debt to earnings it must maintain to meet covenants with its lenders.

“They could generate more than enough cash to pay their interest expenses,” Berckmann says. “In the past, they have given a lot of cash to the owners. It’s been a drag on the company’s cash flow. They are not likely to continue distributing cash to the parent company.”

In other words, the Allbritton family might have to take less profit for a time.

Compared with his company’s eight TV stations, Politico is a relatively small part of Allbritton’s costs and revenues. Moody’s called “the achievement of profitability for Politico also a positive for the rating.”

Allbritton dismisses the negative rating—he says his company is in great shape and won’t miss one bond payment.

“We have no problems,” he says.

Every Friday, Allbritton meets with news directors at WJLA and NewsChannel 8; then he gets together with Harris and VandeHei, as he does most mornings.

“I’m a pretty involved guy,” he says.

Allbritton’s involvement with Politico steers clear of the publication’s political tone. It has no opinion page. VandeHei and Harris say that neither Allbritton nor Fred Ryan has ever weighed in on coverage. Ryan worked in the Reagan White House and served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff when the President left office; he’s still close with Nancy Reagan.

“I check my political views at the door,” says Ryan. “We would not get quality journalism if we were pushing the coverage left or right.”

I catch up with Allbritton in the glassed-in conference room in the center of the combined newsrooms. He can see all of Politico and the assignment desk of the TV stations.

I ask if he sees himself as a pillar of the Washington community or a businessman who lives here. He chooses the latter.

“I do have a sense of responsibility for this community,” he says. “My father’s theory was that certain folks will know about what kind of good works he did. I tend to agree with that.”

The Allbrittons have been very philanthropic. Robert and Elena pledged $5 million to create a Center for the Study of Public Life at Wesleyan. “I am a huge supporter of education,” he says.

Most of the family’s gifts are anonymous. Public records show that the Allbritton Foundation, based in Texas, has focused its donations on cancer research, universities, and hospitals, but it has also donated funds to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Capital Area Food Bank. Robert meets with his parents every spring to designate recipients. Don’t expect any press releases.

“I see myself as a normal kind of person,” he says. “I like driving myself to work, shopping for my own groceries. I don’t want to lose touch with what people are going through. For many people in DC, the most important thing is what they project, how they dress, which party they were invited to. That’s never been important to me.

“I’m a pretty happy guy. I wake up every morning and say, ‘Thank you, God, for a wonderful day.’ ”

His peace of mind comes in part from his decision not to buy the nine New York Times Company TV stations three years ago.

“I knew I wasn’t going to sleep well with that much debt on the books,” he says.

Perhaps that’s the secret to his success: eight hours a night—except when son Alex wakes him at 6. 

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/22/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles