Patrick B. Pexton On the Sale of the “Washington Post”

The former ombudsman for the “Post” reflects on what the change of hands means to the paper—and to the city.

Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the
Washington Post is, in a sense, going way, way back to the future.
Katharine Graham’s father,
Eugene Meyer, didn’t know a lick about newspapers when he bought the
Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. But he was wealthy, very wealthy. People forget
that Meyer was both the Charles Schwab and Ben Bernanke of his day. He was one of
the most successful Wall Street traders of the 1920s and 1930s and then, as a lifelong
Republican, became head of the Federal Reserve under President Herbert Hoover and
for a few months under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Indeed, we know that wealthy entrepreneurs who made their money in some other enterprise
have always bought, and started, newspapers and magazines then, as now.

Perhaps the oddest in DC was Reverend
Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean evangelist who started the
Washington Times in 1982 because he wanted influence in the US capital. Mayor
Michael Bloomberg of New York launched Bloomberg.gov, an online, subscription-only publication, in
2010 because he saw a market and also wanted insider influence in Washington. Local
businessman
David Bradley, whom I worked with for 12 years before I went to the
Post, bought
National Journal in 1997 and then the
Atlantic in 1999 for reasons much like why Eugene Meyer bought the
Post 80 years ago: because he liked to read newspapers and magazines, had a good idea
about what they meant to democracy, wanted some influence in Washington, and liked
the challenge of making something that was bankrupt into a profitable, respected business.

That sounds much like Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com founder, who stunned Washington and
the media world with his August 5 purchase of
Post. In his written statement to the newspaper’s employees, he stressed that he wanted
to keep faith with the basic values and mission of the
Post. “The values of the
Post do not need changing,” Bezos wrote. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers
and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth
wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own
up to them quickly and completely.”

Indeed, the
Washington Post is one of the few media companies that posts its values in the main lobby for all
to see, and actually talks about those values in high-level meetings and in its quarterly
“town hall” meetings with all employees. They are part of the culture of the institution,
even if outsiders are skeptical of that.

It’s also encouraging for readers that Bezos wrote of the journalistic courage of
the Graham family over the decades: “I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams
have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait,
be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods,
and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter
the cost.”

We’ll see if Bezos has the fortitude to stick to that.

As a business proposition, Bezos takes on a huge challenge. The decline of the
Post newspaper is self-evident: fewer news and ad pages, fewer journalists, declining
revenue, and declining circulation. The only bright spot has been online traffic,
where the
Post has done well, but online and mobile ads, although trending upward, still don’t earn
much as much revenue as print ads or subscriptions. There are no easy answers right
now for any journalism product. As
Don Graham said on August 5, “The newspaper business continued to bring up questions to which
we have no answers.”

No one can predict what Bezos will do with the
Post. You can be sure that he’ll experiment and that with $25 billion in his pocket he
has plenty of cash to do so. But it will be a struggle, probably like the one Eugene
Meyer faced for the first 20 years of his ownership of the
Post.

In her autobiography, Katharine Graham said this about her father’s tutelage of the

Post:

My father “had rather naively felt that since he had been a success at
business and government he could apply what he had learned to the realm of journalism.
Though he didn’t understand newspapers, he thought he could turn this one around simply
by investing heavily and running it better. Instead, there followed years of struggle
and discouragement and investment with only minimal success. He learned some expensive
lessons. The going-in price was just the beginning of the financial drain and mental
strain that went on for most of the next 20 years, and there were many moments during
these years of uphill battle when he had his doubts about whether he could ever succeed.”

My prediction is that Bezos, once he gets into the weeds more with the paper—as he
inevitably will—is that he’ll either like it and want to master it, or throw up his
hands and sell it when it proves to be a harder challenge than he imagined. But Bezos
is a long-term kind of guy—it took years for Amazon.com to make a profit, and his
vision for it even now involves sacrificing short-term profit for longer-term strategies.
My guess is that he’ll stick it out. And that could be a turning point for the media
industry—and perhaps a return to the days when newspapers were fun, vanity projects
for the wealthy rather than profit machines for traders on Wall Street.

Now, what does this mean for the journalists at the
Post? For the veterans—and it’s important to note it’s a much younger staff now—it will
mean the loss of an intangible: the feeling of “family” that comes with working at
the
Post. I felt that unique culture within days of becoming ombudsman. Even though I was
completely independent, I could palpably detect the familial ties—the loyalty in both
directions, from the Grahams to the staff and vice versa.

Even though the
Post has long been a public company, you just knew that Don Graham cared, deeply, about
the paper and its people. Katharine Weymouth has been less emotional publicly about
the
Post than Graham. But I know from private meetings with her that she, too, felt the burden
of carrying a franchise that had an unspoken contract with the journalists and with
the city they covered. She had to make an awful lot of hard decisions—we can all kibitz
about whether they were the right ones—but she was unafraid to make them in her own
no-nonsense way.

The loss of the familial will be felt keenly at the
Post. It will be like losing a longtime mooring. But the norm for the
Post in the past ten years has been constant change; editors and writers there have been
hardened to it. This is one more change. Stunning at first, sure, and people will
feel adrift for a few months until Bezos’s intentions become clearer. But there is
also palpable relief in the
Post newsroom.

As a manager, it’s tough to come to work every day and have to look at another buyout,
another down quarterly earnings report, another down circulation number. As a journalist,
it’s tough too. Should I stay or go? they all ask themselves. Do I abandon this culture
where I have done great work, or risk going to another sinking journalistic ship?
It’s not a pleasant question to keep asking yourself.

At least for now, with Bezos’s deep pockets, there will be hope.

Pat Pexton, a longtime DC journalist and editor, served as Washington Post
ombudsman from March 2011 until March 2013, and blogs at pbpexton.com.

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