Editor’s note: With the future in front of us, I won’t forget a lesson from the past

Donald Graham, the Post Co. chairman and chief executive, explains why he came to believe that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos offers the Post the best chance to thrive after 80 years of Graham family ownership. (The Washington Post)
August 6, 2013

What does it mean when a digital native owns a major news organization?

We’re about to find out. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who is purchasing The Washington Post, has not yet revealed his plans, except for the tantalizing promise that “We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”

I’m excited about having a front row seat in this coming era of innovation. But I’ll also be mindful of what I’ve learned from Post chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham and his family.

Several years ago, I was trying to organize a luncheon of local CEOs to celebrate the publication of our annual Post 200 list of the region’s largest companies and nonprofits. These can be tricky events. There are lots of egos involved.

Before committing, some wanted to know: Who else is attending?

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So I sent a note to Don and asked if we could draft an invite in his name.

He agreed. We packed the place. I marveled as he worked the room. It almost felt like a reunion, he seemed to know folks that well.

For a guy who rubs elbows with the likes of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Don never forgot the people who worked for him.

Back home, I have a scrapbook that includes a citation from my days as a young Post paperboy. The award is signed by Don, who was general manager at the time, congratulating me for signing up the most new subscribers in Maryland, a feat that earned me an all-expense-paid trip to Spain and Portugal.

When I joined the Post some dozen or so years later as a staff writer, Don still remembered the name of my distributor, Whitey Hoover, and he was genuinely curious about what I thought of circulation up in my neck of the woods, Columbia.

Later, he sent me a handwritten note after I wrote my first front-page story. I was feeling pretty full of myself, until my officemates showed me their “hero-grams” from Don.

Don’s ability to remember a name was hardly confined to the newspaper’s offices. When I took over as editor of Capital Business, I kept running into people who had a Don story, about some charitable or civic cause he had undertaken, invariably with little fanfare. Entrepreneurs told me tales of how The Washington Post Co. was one of their first customers, or how Don had introduced them to someone important.

A newspaper is more than the stories it publishes. It is also a business whose success depends on relationships. And relationships endure, even when business models change.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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