What The Washington Post’s Sale Means For D.C. Journalism

Maybe it was a smart business decision for the Graham family to sell The Post, but it’s worrying for those of us on the local beat.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

With the exception of corporate brass, top editors, and the reporter who broke the story, news yesterday that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will buy The Washington Post shocked the newspaper’s staff as deeply as it did its readers, admirers, and competition. After 80 years and four generations under the control of the same family, the Post — tasked with chronicling a nation and a city — will have a new owner with no ties to the local community it serves.

Minutes after being told that Bezos bought the Post, reporter Mike DeBonis, who has covered D.C. politics for the paper since 2010, tweeted about what it means to lose the Grahams: “Soon, when I have lunch w/ a source, I won’t get to say, ‘We’ll let Don Graham pick up the tab.’ And that makes me so goddamn sad.”

Later, DeBonis said that the line was a subtle joke he makes to D.C.’s powerful types. “The people I say that to knew Don,” he said, referring to the Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive officer. “They knew it’s his paper and it’s identified with his family. He’s a rich guy who travels in rarified circles but knows city councilmen and takes interest in local affairs.”

In breaking the news to his employees yesterday, Graham all but admitted that after 80 years, the newspaper business finally got the better of his family and that maybe what the Post needed, like any bit of late-night copy, was a set of fresh eyes. “We had innovated, and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn’t made up for the revenue decline,” he said. “We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.”

It’s stunning to watch the Post be sold (and surreal to cover it), especially to a billionaire investor from the other side of the continent. Yes, it’s the paper of Kay Graham, Bradlee, Woodward, Bernstein, and scores of other bylines who shook and continue to rattle the highest powers in the country, but it’s also the only daily newspaper we’ve got for our city. As much as the nation might need a vital Washington Post to keep check on presidents and members of Congress, D.C. needs a Post that can inform us about what’s happening on U Street, or in Petworth, or across the Anacostia River.

And that “we” includes the rest of us on the local beat who don’t work at 15th and L. We joke about the Post’s sluggish approach to the internet, nitpick every line of every feature, and grouse about the ratio of scoops it gets, but we’d all be lost without a Post that serves its home city.

Katharine Weymouth, Don Graham’s niece and the great Katharine Graham’s granddaughter, is holding on to her position as publisher, but the Post as a local, family-owned business seems done. And what is truly unsettling is that we don’t really know Bezos here. Weymouth’s five-year tenure as publisher has been bumpy at times, and yes, she grew up in New York City, but she integrated herself into D.C. after joining the family business.

I’m also a transplant to D.C. But it didn’t take long after moving here to realize that in this city that seeks to define itself apart from the grand marble temples it hosts, we care a great deal about who provides our local news. We need our reporters to be invested in our lively streets, evolving neighborhoods, and ridiculous local politics. Everybody wants to hang out at the newest restaurants on 14th Street NW, but it’s a small group that wants to sift through the development contracts, zoning variances, and voluntary agreements that made that $12 cocktail possible. When the Post’s sale to Bezos goes through, very few of those people will be employed by local entities.

Our local NBC and Fox stations are owned and operated by those far-flung networks. The ABC station, WJLA, and its sister cable station, are being sold by Arlington, Virginia-based Allbritton Communications to Sinclair Broadcast Group outside Baltimore. WTOP, a radio station that hardly does any local news anymore, is owned by Hubbard Broadcasting in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Washington City Paper, the alt-weekly, is owned by Nashville-based SouthComm. The Washington Examiner, owned by the Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, boasted a strong local section when it was a daily tabloid, but that was recently nuked in favor of a reboot as a conservative magazine to fit Anschutz’s political views. DCist, of which I am editor-in-chief, is part of Gothamist, a network of local news blogs based in New York.

If you want locally owned local news in D.C., there’s WAMU, an NPR affiliate based at American University, and WUSA, a CBS affiliate owned by Gannett. But it’s tough to feel close to a television station that’s owned by a media conglomerate whose marquee product is a newspaper about as personable as the hotels one finds it in.

Locality of ownership is not necessarily an indicator of quality of the news being produced. The Post’s own local coverage has been much stronger in 2013 than in recent years, no doubt to the credit of new executive editor Martin Baron, who is staying on through Bezos’ acquisition.

Some D.C. leaders say they are fine with Bezos taking over the Post. “I’m honored to have worked with Don Graham and the Graham family; they have been committed stewards of one of our city’s most important institutions,” D.C. Mayor Vince Gray said in a statement. “Jeff Bezos is a pioneer and a visionary. His investment in the District is significant and meaningful, and we look forward to working with him — especially as technology takes on a more important role in the District’s economy.”

But we already knew that about Bezos and technology. We know absolutely nothing about Bezos as newspaperman, other than the fact that one can download a wide variety of papers on a Kindle.

“I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day,” Bezos wrote in a letter to the Post’s employees and readers. “I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.”

Perhaps, but someone like Bezos does not simply drop $250 million for vanity. “There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years,” he wrote. “I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention. Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post — as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States — is especially important.”

I could hardly agree more with the last part of Bezos’ sentiment. But those of us on the outside know little about what he means by it, as do the folks inside the Post. “We don’t know yet,” DeBonis told me. “He’s not buying it as a short-term flip.”

“For the people who still work there, the ones who left and the many forced to leave in brutal buyouts, the Post still means something to us all,” says NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood, who worked at the paper from 1974 to 1989. “Truly stunned at sale.”

Buyouts have been commonplace at the Post, with five rounds in the past decade, most recently in early 2012, when 50 employees, including many minority staffers, cashed in. Bezos says changes will arrive, but whether this means more newsroom slimming or a rejuvenated investment in the daily grind is mostly a guessing game at this point.

The Post has had surprise West Coast buyers before. In 1933, Eugene Meyer, a California businessman and Federal Reserve official with no previous newspaper experience, bought it at a bankruptcy auction for $825,000. “It will be conducted as an independent paper devoted to the best interests of the people of Washington and vicinity, and hopes to have their interest and support,” Meyer said in the Post when he bought it.

Meyer and his daughter, Katharine, gave this city that paper for decades. On Monday, his grandson sold it to Jeff Bezos.

Benjamin R. Freed is the editor-in-chief of DCist.

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