Bezos buys The Post

The news flattened me. I’m still not entirely vertical. We’re gonna need a bigger spatula. My friend Ruth Marcus said everything I want to say about this: There’s the rational reaction, and then there’s the emotional reaction, and they’re entirely different.

Rationally, yes, I understand, and support, and am prepared to applaud the decision by the Grahams to sell The Post. Going private has its rewards. Being owned by a billionaire who can afford to lose a little money may be preferable to remaining a piece of a publicly traded company that is answerable to shareholders.

Another rational thought, voiced by my friend Gene Weingarten: If Don Graham says this is the right thing to do, and Bezos will be a great owner, that’s good enough. Because I trust Don.

And there’s the rub. So many times in recent years, as the industry has contracted, and threatened to collapse entirely, I had my pole star. And he won’t be there anymore. This is why it’s so difficult emotionally.

When people have asked me about the troubled business model of metropolitan newspapers, I’ve always said I’ll be the last guy standing. But I never really believed that. I thought I’d be the second-to-last guy. Don would be the last.

It has been an honor to work at a place where the person at the top is a terrific journalist. I remember years ago – the ’90s – I suggested, in a moment of hubris, that we should get heavily in the business of publishing books. Don said something like this: “Let’s put out a great newspaper.” He’s read the paper every day, religiously, and sent those notes that Ruth talked about. I think it was David Von Drehle who once said that the Graham family’s continued willingness to support an array of foreign bureaus even as revenues plummeted was a supreme act of patriotism.

A newspaper is a special piece of a community. It’s a business, but it’s also a piece of the civic infrastructure. One of the salutary trends of recent years is the way the wall between the producers and consumers of news has been eroded. Every article, blog, video, etc.,  now has reader comments; in some cases the comments are more important and interesting than the professionally rendered product. When a newspaper is truly successful it is not merely something people use, but rather a part of their lives – a part of their day. We come into people’s homes. This is why we don’t use foul language, usually, and why we are careful what we say about the fat guy who comes down the chimney at Christmas. So what I’d say to my new friend Jeff is that prosperity in the future requires a cultivation of relationships – maintaining the relationships with longtime subscribers (in print or online) and developing new relationships with people around the country and the world.

There are aggregators everywhere, and a proliferation of sources of information, but I believe there is an added layer of credibility to something that runs under the Washington Post brand name. Part of this is that we don’t publish everything we hear. We filter, and our filter is finer than those of some of our rivals. If it’s in the Post, it is supposed to have a marginally higher likelihood of being true.

“The Washington Post” will be around for a long time in some fashion. Will that existence include a print edition? I hope so. Print has many virtues, including portability and a kind of tactile bandwidth, and it lends itself to graphic renderings of embedded journalistic judgment (consider, for example, how you can tell from looking at the front page of Tuesday’s Post how huge the news of the Post sale was, according to the assessment of the Post editors and layout folks).

There are, unfortunately, enormous costs associated with print journalism, starting with the newsprint itself, the ink, the cost of transport around the city – like Amazon we deliver — and of course the salaries of reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, layout editors, advertising sales people, printers, press workers, drivers, and so on. One conceivable way this all plays out, over time, is that the print edition disappears. If that happens, that will be the decision by the customers, and although some of us will be weepy, that’ll be the voice of the market speaking. You can’t sell people something they don’t want.

But there are basic principles of journalism that transcend “platform.” Like, get it right. Be fair. Be thoughtful. Be courageous. And an underappreciated virtue of journalism is “be interesting.” I would add, at the risk of being pretentious: Make it beautiful. Dare to put literature in the newspaper. In the encomiums to the greatness of The Post over the decades we always cite Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and overlook the countless times Henry Allen wrote something utterly brilliant in Style, or Phyllis Richman told the bitter truth about a new restaurant, or Tom Toles (and before him, Herblock) made us laugh about the latest political squabble, or Sally Jenkins aimed a verbal dart at a superstar athlete’s over-inflated ego.

A final thought: This transition is jolting, and hard for us, but it is incorrect and insensible to think that the newspaper business has ever been stable. Ask my friends who worked for years at The Washington Star (or The Miami News). The newspaper business is like life itself, in that you have to accept the simple truth that no one here gets out alive. At some point down the road there will probably not be a Washington Post as we’ve come to know it.

But if there’s an over-under bet, I’ll take the over on that. As soon as I scrape myself off the floor.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · August 4, 2013