The Washington Post put on its official farewell reception Thursday night for the hundred or so reporters, editors, and support staff who chose to take the 2008 buyout. My wake-up call came this morning when I tried to phone a source at the newspaper.
For the first time ever, the voice on the other end of the line was a recording offering options, just like at Pepco or Washington Gas. Over the years I had come to expect and appreciate the patient and efficient operators who answered the Post’s general phone line.
“The Washington Post—how may I help you?”
Len Downie’s office, I would say.
I never got to Len—he quit taking my calls years ago. But at least I came away having spoken to a real person.
I always assumed the live phone answerers were Don Graham’s doing, an extension of his family newspaper. It seemed like he wanted to project a local, friendly voice to the public. He also seemed to want to keep the newsstand price of the paper low—for many years a quarter.
Now the Post has raised its newsstand price to a half a buck and the receptionists with sweet voices are gone, along with many great reporters and the memory and experience they brought to their journalism.
At the official farewell fete at the Post, Don Graham seemed to take it the hardest, according to many people who were on hand. Former Post publisher Bo Jones, now working on the corporate side with his long-time friend Don, read every name and recited a few lines about each staffer. Everyone got to have a picture snapped with Don and Katharine Weymouth. That took about two hours.
Graham, who came up through the newspaper from Metro reporter to editor, took over as publisher from his mother, Katharine, in 1979. He knew the printers who had been there for 40 years, and he knew the reporters who had covered local news for 30. He spoke Thursday night at length, and at one point he gazed with sad eyes at the gathering and said, “This is my crowd.”
Said one writer: “He looked devastated.”
That “This is my crowd” reaction was only one of Graham’s lines that drew tears from the ink-stained wretches.
The Posties stood up and cheered four times—one for long-time political reporter David Broder, who brought so much intelligence and fairness to the paper; one for company nurse Phyllis Waslo; one for Rick Weiss, science writer and long-time union rep; and a long one for Pat O’Shea, Len Downie’s able assistant.
There were a few odd moments.
Each departing Postie got a white rose pinned to his or her lapel. Was this a funeral?
When it took too long for the Post staffers to take their seats, Bo Jones looked at managing editor Phil Bennett and said, according to one source: “Can’t you manage them? You’re still managing editor.”
Champagne flowed, shrimp and oysters were eaten.
Katharine Weymouth—Don’s niece and the granddaughter of Katharine Graham—who took over as publisher from Bo Jones and now clearly runs the place, spoke.
And Don Graham hugged people until the party’s end.