Home > Journalism, Uncategorized > A Personal Washington Post Reflection

A Personal Washington Post Reflection

The Jeff Bezos acquisition of the Washington Post shows with both poignant and shocking clarity something. But I’m not sure what. The conventional wisdom — as the Post itself reported it — was somehow connected with wealth moving west to Silicon Valley and its offshoot regions. I’m not so sure. Plenty of Eastern wealth could have bought it. Michael Bloomberg comes to mind, except that he’s still mayor of New York. The Boston Globe, which was managed nearly to oblivion by the New York Times Company, was unloaded for a mere $70 million to Eastern money, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

I think what these transactions really show is that the financial value of newspapers has slipped so far that people who can afford to take a gamble are the only ones left to buy them. That is, they’ve become baubles. I’m not saying that’s good. I think it’s terrible, but that’s just the way it is.

The Internet is one well documented problem for newspapers. I think another is how far what they report and the way they report it has bored or turned off large numbers of people. Many newspapers, and nearly all editorial pages, have become governmentalists, with everything they judge and report on measured against a few sacred shibboleths that are frankly becoming more, and more obviously, tattered every day. That’s about all I’ll say on that.

A lot of the published analysis comments on how well the new Post owner, Jeff Bezos, will be at customizing content for people so they only get the news they want. That’s ordinarily posited as a good thing for building readership. I’m not so sure about that either. The large format, graphic setup of newspapers honed over the century and a half they’ve existed fosters a browsing mentality that lets people’s minds wander to new ideas. I make the analogy of the disappearing card catalogs in libraries and books arranged by gradually changing subject, rather than by size for efficient storage and retrieval. The new way makes it easy to find exactly what you want. But it precludes you from discovering what you didn’t know you wanted.

On the other hand, Bezos is an unconventional thinker and you can’t presume he’ll end print production of the Washington Post. Maybe the natural circulation floor is 250,000 copies a day, or 200,000 and not the 700,000 or 800,000 of years past. What you print and how you deliver it is a rich area for analysis. Maybe the self-styled no-print iconoclasts are dead wrong. I think they are. Plenty of specialized and highly visual fields such as sports, fashion and food support healthy print-and-web models. News on paper could have a good future if someone fresh can figure it out.

The best thing Bezos can do is make the property commercially successful — that’s the best way for it to stay an independent voice. He’ll have no shortage of advice from the usual journalism furies. Judging from what Bezos has done in life, I hope he listens to himself first.

In the sense of having four or five big sections every day and comprehensive coverage of everything from local restaurants to the big international stories, I borrow the phrase of former Post business editor Jill Dutt. “The blanket just doesn’t cover the bed.” People in Washington love politics, although people who describe themselves as “political junkies” aren’t, in my view, paying themselves much of a compliment, directly or ironically. I’ve learned way more over the years from sports columnist Tom Boswell than from the flunkies at so many publications who turn out political stories that, like Seinfeld, are ultimately about nothing.

People should know what a kind and ethical outfit the Washington Post Company is. I worked there, not at the newspaper itself, for 10 years. When it decided to sell the conglomeration of Government Computer News, Washington Technology, FOSE and a few other properties of which I was editor in chief, I found out. If you worked hard there and did a decent job, they took care of you. Don Graham has a great memory for names and faces, enabling him to make everyone in the company he encounters feel important. More important, the company has an ethical culture that started with how it handled the newsroom but informed everything the company did. So, yes, I am proud to have worked there.

When the company first bought the properties from the old line Cahners Publishing Company of Boston, I wasn’t sure the new company fully understood what it was getting into or why it wanted the properties. But management learned fast and for 10 years the Post Company was a good steward. For a few years, the night before FOSE opened the big exhibitors were treated to a private dinner at the home of Katherine Graham, no less, with after-dinner speeches by famous political reporters. Once when Don Graham showed up for the dinner in the house he’d grown up in, I commented to him that he was the only one who could walk in, open the refrigerator and drink milk directly from the carton. He gave me a funny look.

Eventually the same internet troubles hit the trade magazine business as surely as they hit the newspaper business. As the Post Company started to deal with its blooming problems with its flagship newspaper, the relatively small unit I worked for became too much of a distraction.

Now the Post Company will change its name, inasmuch as there is no more Post in its portfolio. The Washington area is losing local ownership of a newspaper a family has doted on for generations.

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Categories: Journalism, Uncategorized
  1. Karen Carp
    August 13, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    At least The Washington Post will go on, for now.

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