Selling the Washington Post: An email exchange between The Fix and WaPo’s Paul Kane

August 14, 2013

Nine days ago the Graham family stunned the media world by announcing they they were selling the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.


New WaPo owner Jeff Bezos. Getty Images.

After getting over the shock of the announcement, we began exchanging emails with our longtime friend and colleague Paul Kane, henceforward referred to as PK. Our emails on the subject are below. These are real emails, edited only for grammar (The Fix is a fast and inaccurate typist.)

FIX: Ok, PK. The Washington Post is in the process of being sold — from the Graham family to Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos.

I have said and written that I think this is a very good thing. Bezos has shown an ability to build a brand and innovate. If he can sell lawn chairs online, maybe he can figure out how to make people pay for digital journalism. Right? Right?

PK: Wow, go away for a week and they sell the roof out from under you, literally! Quite a jolt from my Jersey Shore vacation. (Sidenote: My favorite Wawa in Avalon is back, stronger than the storm.)

Being 180 miles from the newsroom as the announcement hit has left me in a more complicated state of mind than most folks. Overall, there is a lot of optimism: This is a guy who takes a long view, eschews the "money-now" approach of corporate shareholders and builds for the long run. And he innovates. That's a great recipe for what might cure the modern malaise of the newspaper industry.

However, I can't get past one thing: Don Graham gave up on newspaper journalism last week. Newspapers were in his family blood. He had regular lunches where he'd bring people together who worked printing presses and those who wrote foreign affairs columns, sports reporters and congressional correspondents.

Plus, Don isn't an old tech-phobe. He totally embraced all this. He was a mentor to Zuckerberg, Bill Gates' wife was a Post board member, Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway was our largest shareholder. We've had really smart, really innovative people connected to this company that served as Don's inner circle. In his memo to staff last week he talked about how innovative we've been -- just look at your great launch of Post TV. We're doing things now that you and I didn't think possible just five years ago. Yet here's how Don summed that up: "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."

I just wonder what Bezos knows that Don (and friends like Zuckerberg, Gates and Buffett) couldn't figure out. That's what scares the hell out of me. Am I paranoid? Where is this industry going?


FIX: If I knew where this industry was going, I would be the one buying the newspaper

As for your other question: I don't think Don gave up on newspaper journalism. I think he gave up on the idea of newspaper journalism as a profit center for a publicly held company. I may be viewing this through rose-colored glasses — I have made clear how much I admire Don as a human being and a boss — but I think the basic calculation was this: The only way to allow the Post to grow rather than contract journalistically was for it to be sold to a private company that wasn't (as) answerable to a bottom line as the Post currently is.

The key in all of this — and this has been true for a long while now — is that the delivery vehicle  by which we get our journalism to people is changing. That's a big challenge for a newspaper.

But, wait, there's reason for optimism. And the reason is this: Delivery vehicles may change but good journalism isn't. Where all of the journalism goes — Tumblr, Twitter, blogs, Instagram, Vine etc. — matters WAY less to me than the fact that there remains lots of interest in that good content. The best sign of that interest? Jeff Bezos just plunked down $250 million to buy us.

Which brings me to our new boss. And, I want to look at a tweet sent by former Timesman and now ESPN'er (is that a thing?) Don Van Natta Jr. He tweeted this:

What say you to that tweet?

PK: Van Natta raises a valid point: Bezos has been one of the most transformational figures of our times. I love the idea of working for smart people. I'm a believer in the power of what strong, individual leadership can do -- in large part because I spend my day job watching an institution, Congress, where individual leaders have shrunk from the stage.

But really smart people have tried to help Don Graham master this conundrum: How do we make money delivering news in an era in which more people want news than ever before but fewer people want to pay for it than ever before? Read that question carefully. It's the dilemma for our age.

Don Graham has worked with Facebook and other smart people on this, and he decided it wasn't possible under this corporate structure. That's jarring. Yes, it will be easier for Bezos to not answer to corporate shareholders looking for annual dividends, but if this experiment ends well, does it mean the 'Benevolent Billionaire' is the only path to success for newspapers and their successors?

That's not a great path -- it means a lotta papers might fall. And, 'delivery vehicles' matter. People need to believe in that vehicle, and for the last 80-ish years newspapers have been the most honest, even-handed deliverer of that news. Whether in print or on a tablet or whatever Mr. Bezos has in store for us, we need them to survive. A really smart Ohio Republican, summing up the failure of the Josh Mandel Senate campaign in 2012, told it to me this way: Josh and his advisers forgot that a huge percentage of people in Dayton got a huge portion of their news from that city's Daily News. They treated it and other Ohio papers terribly, and it reflected in the coverage.

In a world in which those Ohio newspapers disappear, because they don't have 'Benevolent Billionaires' to buy them up, I fear for what becomes of presidential campaigns in such a critical state when there's nothing left to inform those voters aside from Fox News and MSNBC.

FIX: Here's my only pushback: Local newspapers were struggling long before the Bezoses of the world decided to get into the journalism industry. When I started as a reporter in DC in 1998, the Hartford Courant, my hometown paper, had a robust staff of five or so. Now? Not so much. My point: Rather than Bezos and other wealthy people as the problem to the news business, they may be the solution.  And, yes, while it's easier to sell WaPo or the Times or the Wall Street Journal, there are plenty of wealthy people who live in every state in this country. (Just look at the number of people who dump millions of their own money into running for office!)

So, what's to say that if papers like the Dayton Daily News were owned by a wealthy person (or group) they might not be free to do BETTER journalism?  Answer me that and then we'll end this one.

PK: Fair enough, those papers might be better served, so long as they get the right Thurston Howell III to own them. Recent examples of Sam Zell with the Tribune papers and the first group of private owners of the Philly papers, they both ended badly as both groups were over-leveraged and didn’t have the wealth base that could sustain some early losses.

Good local reporting is a foundation that can’t be easily replaced. Roz Helderman’s stories on Gov. McDonnell prove that every week here at the Post. We can’t all be Politico, intensely focused on national insider political reporting delivered in split seconds. Nor is there really a mass market for too many versions of Politico. Which is why I fiercely disagreed with Timesman Ross Douthat’s assertion that for the Post to win, “Politico must lose.” It makes no sense. For us to win we have to keep evolving and innovating – with "In Play" and other endeavors – but we have to stay rooted in the entire community: unearthing the latest scandals in Richmond and at DC’s City Hall. Those are missions that Politico isn’t even attempting to do, and frankly, nor should they.

For the Post to thrive again, the Post must thrive again. That’s Bezos' $250 million bet.

(Want to read past Fix-PK email debates? Here's one on why President Obama should play golf with House Speaker John Boehner. And one in which we handicap the 2014 Senate playing field.)

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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