Graham family has wide reach into local business, philanthropy communities

It’s not often that a news organization finds itself at the center of the week’s biggest business news story. But last Monday, the Graham family announced it would sell The Washington Post and its affiliated publications after 80 years of ownership.

The decision reverberated beyond the walls of the newsroom.

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The Washington Post Co.’s role and reputation in the region extends beyond that of a major employer and source of news. To many, the company, its flagship newspaper and its longtime owners are also clients, investors, confidantes and benefactors.

“The Grahams have been extraordinarily supportive of the business community, and they’re an institution,” said Bobbie Kilberg, head of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. “I don’t think there’s anybody in this town that’s not going to have a sense of sadness.”

Wolf Ruzicka, chief executive of software developer EastBanc Technologies, first met with Post executives three years ago after the company had combined its digital and print operations at its 15th Street NW headquarters.

Ruzicka’s company was tasked with helping modernize a small part of the technology that helps journalists produce and distribute the news.

That began with a mobile app for The Post’s annual Peeps Show Diorama Contest. The firm then developed additional apps for smartphones and tablets before beginning projects to improve the newspaper’s content management.

“They were delighted that it’s a Georgetown-based company, that it’s a family-owned business and just the ability to walk a few blocks to be in my office is a huge draw for your team, no doubt,” Ruzicka said.

A local leg up

The Post has developed a reputation in town for keeping much of its business local, and taking a chance on young companies that might otherwise find it difficult to attract the attention of a larger corporation.

“If you compare them to other news organizations who are local, they are dramatically the most accessible, which is super impressive for a newspaper of its caliber,” said Allen Gannett, a partner at Acceleprise, a business accelerator for technology upstarts.

The Washington Post Co. is one of Acceleprise’s limited partners, he said, and a few of its top executives, including Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Chief Digital Officer Vijay Ravindran, serve as mentors in the program.

“That’s what you want a big company in a region to do,” Gannett said.

Duke Chung, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Parature in McLean, also met with Washington Post Co. executives in 2010. The company was looking for new customer service software, he said, and wanted to see what a local player had to offer.

“We felt a really good vibe when we came in,” Chung said. “The Post is a global newspaper, but being here in the D.C. area and being supportive of companies in this region, we certainly felt that was part of the decision-making process on their end.”

Parature now provides the online customer support software where the newspaper’s readers and advertisers seek answers to questions, as well as services focused on readers’ experience on mobile and social media platforms.

Barbara Lang, chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham has played an important role in building connections among local leaders.

“Whenever there was a problem, whether it’s in the business community or whether it was a civic issue in the city, people would go to Don to try to pull people together, because he had that kind of command,” Lang said.

Changing ownership

With the sale, ownership of The Washington Post transfers from a family synonymous with Washington, D.C., to an Internet billionaire who makes his home thousands of miles away in Washington state.

The companies that currently do business with The Washington Post said they hope to continue doing so under new ownership, but added that their companies do not heavily depend on business from The Post to stay afloat.

Lang said she supports Graham’s decision to sell the newspaper, but also wonders whether having an out-of-state owner will cause the Post to have less of a “hometown feel.”

“If I needed something, I could just pick up the phone and call Don,” Lang said. “I knew where he breakfasted with his niece at the Four Seasons. So I would just happen to go by, because that was how you could get to him.”

Kilberg at NVTC sees the ownership transition as an opportunity for a storied newspaper that has struggled financially in recent years, saying Bezos is “an entrepreneur, he’s an innovator, he’s an inventor and he’s a technology disrupter.

“It is obviously a real loss to not have the Grahams at the ownership helm of The Washington Post but, at the same time, you’re turning to a new chapter in the life of the paper.”

Staying the course

Just as many local businesses have felt they had a reliable partner in the Graham family, so, too, does the region’s philanthropic community. When it comes to corporate giving, local charity leaders said that Donald Graham sets the tone for other executives.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that loves the city quite as much as he does,” said Lynne Brantley, former chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank. It’s in, with, and through his bones.”

Graham was an early supporter of the food bank, and Brantley said his involvement was critical to the fledgling operation’s success.

“We were young and struggling in 1980, and his taking us on gave us credibility,” she said.

Graham also founded and serves as chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a group that aims to get more Washington students to enroll in and finish college.

Argelia Rodriguez, the program’s chief executive, said she thinks Graham’s sensitivity to this was born during his days working as a beat cop in the District.

“All of that came from Don really walking the streets, seeing those kids hanging out with no prospect of a future,” Rodriguez said. “And he took it to heart.”

Graham continues to be a constant fixture at DC-CAP events. Rodriguez says you won’t find him schmoozing with the major funders; you’ll find him hanging out with the students.

“Don is DC-CAP,” Rodriguez said. “There’s not a decision, there’s not a thing that’s done that Don is not involved in.”

Graham said he plans to continue his involvement in these causes.

“My personal philanthropic activities and those of the corporation won’t change,” Graham said in a statement. “I am one of several trustees of the Philip L. Graham Fund and I am sure I can say their activities won’t change at all either.”

The Graham family’s influence on local philanthropy began long before Donald Graham took the helm of the company. His mother, Katharine Graham, established the Philip L. Graham Fund, a foundation that today gives more than $4 million in grants to local charities each year.

Eugene Meyer, Katharine Graham’s father and the Post’s owner and publisher from 1933-1946, started the Meyer Foundation in 1944 with his wife, Agnes E. Meyer.

Julie Rogers, the foundation’s president and chief executive, said the Grahams played an integral role in shaping the region’s philanthropic landscape.

In the late 1990s, a group of executives from major national foundations was in town for a meeting. Katharine Graham invited them to what Rogers called “a magnificent and memorable party” on the porch of her home, where they mingled with Washington luminaries and members of the local giving community.

That night, Rogers said, was something of a turning point for philanthropy in the region.

“We went a long way in changing the attitudes of national foundations,” Rogers said, who previously hadn’t committed much funding to groups in this region with local missions.

Staff writer Marjorie Censer contributed to this report.

 
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