Don Graham explains why he’s selling The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos

August 6, 2013

Don Graham's grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought The Washington Post in 1933. His mother, Katharine Graham, led it to greatness in the 1960s and '70s. He was publisher from 1979 to 2000. Today, he leads the Post company, and his niece, Katharine Weymouth, is publisher of the paper. And this week, he announced that he's selling The Washington Post to Amazon's Jeff Bezos.

We spoke Tuesday morning about how the sale came about and what it means for the future of the paper the Graham family built. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Don Graham, Chairman and CEO of the Washington Post Company. (Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post)
Don Graham, Chairman and CEO of the Washington Post Company. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ezra Klein: Let’s begin at the beginning. What specifically made you decide to sell The Washington Post? 

Don Graham: I’m the chairman of the board of the Washington Post Company -- the soon-to-be renamed Washington Post Company -- which owns four large businesses, one of which is the newspaper it’s named for. I came to work for The Post as a reporter in January 1971. I’ve worked in the company for the last 42 years. And I never until this year even imagined the possibility that we might think about selling.

But at the end of last year, as we do at the end of every year, Katharine Weymouth, who’s the publisher of the post and my niece, and I sat down to look at how 2012 had gone and what we could forecast about the next three years; 2013 we knew was probably going to be the seventh year in a row of declining revenues and particularly declining print advertising revenues. Looking at the trends, our response to declining revenues has always been to try and innovate. Wonkblog is an example of that. We’ve had a lot of successful innovation at The Washington Post. But the innovations, though very high quality, weren’t offsetting the decline in revenue.

As we looked ahead, if revenues kept declining we’d have no choice but to keep cutting. Roughly 85 percent of stock in the Post Company is owned by shareholders not in the Graham family. So the money we’re losing isn’t our own. We didn’t feel good about that. Still we were quite certain that The Post could survive and have a long future, but we wanted to do more than survive. We wanted to be successful and expanding and financially strong. So for the first time in either of our lives we asked ourselves if we thought our small public company was still the best place for the newspaper. We didn’t at that time make the decision to sell but we made a decision to think about it,

EK: How did the process work? Paul Farhi reported yesterday that you spoke to at least a half-dozen buyers. Can you tell me anything about them?

DG: There are a number of ways in which people sell businesses. We did not, as is sometimes the case, hold an auction where you take bids from any prospective buyer. Our aim was to see if there was a buyer who could give shareholders a fair deal and make the Post newspaper stronger in some way. We spoke with fewer than a dozen corporations and individuals not all of whom were in tech.

Jeff Bezos was always a particularly intriguing possibility but I was surprised when he expressed an initial interest because Jeff is famously, single-mindedly focused on Amazon. He had two conversations with Allen and Co., the firm we were working with on the sale, and then those conversations ceased, and I assumed he’d decided he had no interest, But instead he e-mailed me less than a month ago and asked if we could get together. We did, twice, we spent more than three hours talking over the course of those meetings and at the end of those meetings, he told me he was interested and serious and quickly sent a team to explore our financials, and we arrived at an agreement pretty quickly.

EK: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Bezos prior to this deal. How did you first meet him? 

DG: I’ve known him for 15 years. My memory is we were introduced by Katharine Graham who’d met him at various conferences. She had always wanted to know great technology people. She knew Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and Andy Grove at Intel was a very close friend of hers. We both liked the same things about Jeff. He’s direct and decent, very smart and funny. And you have to be impressed by the business he built, the way they take care of their customers, and the way the technology and everything at Amazon has gotten better and better.

Most of our conversations between then and now were me asking him for advice about news and technology. When he was starting the Kindle, he invited me and a few other people from The Post out to Seattle. I was very impressed again because, typically of the businesses Jeff runs, he lost a lot of money starting the Kindle, and it wasn’t clear it would be a success. But of course it was a huge success.

EK: Tell me about those conversations. What are Bezos’s thoughts on the media? What kind of news consumer is he?

DG: Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past two weeks. When Jeff holds meetings at Amazon he asks people not to use Powerpoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a Powerpoint together. He also says to get to know people he calls daylong meetings about books where everyone reads the same book and talks about [it]. So he’s a reader.

The quality of his thought and advice to me over the past few years is reflected in the memo he wrote to the staff. His philosophy is to try things. Try things and experiment, and if it doesn’t work, try more.

Katherine Graham with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. (Mark Godfrey / Estate of Katharine Graham)
Katharine Graham with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. (Mark Godfrey/Estate of Katharine Graham)

EK: Does Bezos come in knowing where he wants to take The Post and what kind of changes he wants to make, or is he buying the institution and figuring out what to do with it later?

DG: You should ask him, but what he says in the memo that he wrote -- and he’s an absolutely truthful man -- is that it’s the latter. He’s a very good businessman and technologist, but not a magician. He doesn’t come in knowing how to fix things. But he comes in knowing how he’d think about fixing things. One of the biggest things he brings is, if you’re Jeff Bezos, you know lots and lots of technologists. He knows a lot of people and what they’re good at and my guess will be he’ll identify the problems and think about who should work on them.

EK: What about local news? You’ve always emphasized that The Post is first and foremost a local paper. Your family has deep roots in this city. Bezos doesn’t live here and isn’t planning to move. How will that emphasis change?

DG: He doesn’t live here but he’s a businessman, and he’ll quickly see the importance of local news, local revenue and local readers to this business. He understands the vast majority of our revenues will come from print. Print will get a lot of his attention. Eugene Meyer, my grandfather, bought the paper in 1933 and had zero experience in the newspaper business when he bought it. But his ownership turned out to be very good for the post, and I hope Jeff’s will be as well.

EK: Bezos runs a massive company that has a direct stake in much of the legislation that runs through this town. They care deeply about sales taxes and Internet regulation and international trade, to name just a few. Amazon already spends millions of dollars lobbying. Now Bezos will own a newspaper with a lot of influence in Washington. How will those interests remain separate?

DG: Yes, I spoke to him about that at considerable length. He is buying The Post for the right reasons. He is not buying it, as he said in his memo, echoing my grandfather, to serve the private interests of its owner. We did talk over that, and I have every confidence in Jeff’s approach.

EK: Bezos is buying The Washington Post and some of the company’s other papers, like Express and El Tiempo Latino. But he’s not buying Slate or Foreign Policy or the Root. Why aren’t they in the deal?

DG: Well, Slate and Foreign Policy and the Root are unrelated businesses. What he bought are related businesses. Since you are in New York, you are missing the most delightful reaction to the purchase, which is in the Express. It says, “Bezos buys Express!” And then in parentheses, it says, “(and the Washington Post, too)”.

So he bought The Post and other businesses closely related to The Post. Express and El Tiempo Latino are printed on our presses. Slate and The Post have always helped each other, but there hasn’t been that kind of relationship. And the Post company, once renamed, is very happy to continue as their owner.

EK: What advice have you given to Bezos? What would you have liked to try in recent years if you had his kinds of resources?

DG: I’ve left most of my cards on the table. Jeff has nothing to learn from me other than what I don’t have to teach him. Respect for The Post, and if you read what he wrote yesterday, his respect can’t be clearer. He knows this is a hard problem. This could be the most exciting problem. Our people and the ideas Jeff and his people will bring, It’s easy for me to overpromise on his behalf, of course, but it will be fun. This will be the most exciting newsroom anywhere. Tell your friends to begin sending their resumes to Marty and Katharine. It’s going to be a great place.

Department of mistakes I wish I hadn't made: An earlier version of this piece misspelled the first name of Katharine Graham and Katharine Weymouth. 

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