Katharine Weymouth explains decision to sell The Washington Post to Jeff Bezos

Video: The Washington Post's publisher and CEO, Katharine Weymouth, talks with Nia-Malika Henderson about the future of The Post and letting go of the family business.

Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth on Tuesday joined Nia Malika Henderson on PostTV’s On Background, where she described her family’s decision to sell the newspaper it has guided for decades to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. A transcript of the interview follows.

NMH: I’m joined by Katharine Weymouth today who’s publisher of The Washington Post. Thanks so much for being here. Big day today, and this is the paper today. Katharine, I’m sure it landed on your doorstep this morning - how did we get to this moment?

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KW: You know it really was a process. The fam – the paper has been in my family for 80 years going back to when my great-grandfather bought it, and we’ve as a family been incredibly proud to steward the business and be affiliated with it and hope to go on for generations to come and as Don and I and the board started looking at our future we began to ask ourselves the question of whether or not the Washington Post Company was still the right home for the Post and you know we think of this is not a regular business. This is a mission-driven business, and the goal is to preserve and enhance and enrich the mission, which is the journalism. And so that was what we really began to focus on was, is there an owner out there who could be a better owner for the Post in a private company, really invest in it, bring new assets to bear, and we found that in Jeff Bezos.

NMH: And why do you think Jeff will be a better owner? What does he bring to the table other than a sort of private structure ownership? What does he bring in terms of a vision?

KW: Well, you know, he has a proven track record as an entrepreneur. He is always focused on the long view. He invests for the long term, he is famous for ignoring Wall Street when he does that, and needless to say he takes tremendous technological expertise. So it almost is sort of a shift to a new generation and to a new family. I mean, it’s going from one family to another family, and what we like about Jeff is that he shares our values. He understands that the paper is going to write articles about Amazon and him and his friends that he may not like, and he understands that. So he’s not going to interfere editorially. He believes in what we do, and he’s buying it, because he wants to see it go on for generations to come.

NMH: And Don talked about cuts that you all were looking at. Are those cuts still going to happen?

KW: Well, I think Jeff has the same view that Don held, which is you can’t just lose money for years on end. So, I think he’ll be willing to invest if he can see where we’re going, but he’s not going to want to lose his – this is his own personal money, remember, not shareholder money. So he has asked us to do as Don had, stay profitable but you don’t have to be very profitable. So I think we will have to continue to cut our cost structure. I think there’s – that’s just the world we’re in. But I think Jeff also wants to invest, and he will have ideas once he gets a chance to get to know us and look at our business.

NMH: Did he share any of those ideas with you?

KW: No, what I like partly about him is that he’s not coming in here with, here’s my list of ideas of everything you should do.

NMH: Right.

KW: He’s very humble about saying, “look, I’m new to this business. You guys know this business a lot better than I do.” And he’s said to me, “Katherine, look I have a job.”

NMH: Right.

KW: And I like my job. I’m the CEO of Amazon, and I need you and your team to run the Post. So he’s humble about that. I’m sure he will have ideas, but he’s not arrogant enough to come in and say, “Well, here’s my ideas of how you should do it better.” I think he’s going to get to know the team, the business, and then I have no doubt he’ll have ideas.

NMH: Any sense of – I mean he’s not a news guy. He offered his sort of sense of vision of what the paper would cover. It was like restaurant openings, governors, government, didn’t mention politics, didn’t mention foreign policy. Why did you go with a non-news guy?

KW: Well, I think he’s an incredible, voracious reader. He’s famous for his reading, right? He started Amazon as a book-selling company. He was telling me that one of the ways he likes to get together with employees and get to know them is literally by doing a book club and discussing books, so he’s not a news guy per se because he hasn’t been affiliated with the news, but I know he’s a voracious reader of news and consumer of news, and that’s something I also like. At Amazon he is relentlessly focused on the customer, and our business is the same. We are relentlessly focused on our readers and the other customers: our advertisers. And we’re only going to win, if we can serve readers content that is interesting and that is unique, and that’s what we’ve always been trying to do.

NMH: And your sense of your tenure here, you have said you’re going to stay on. Do you have a sense of how long that will be that you stay on? Are there sort of contractual obligations or what’s your sense?

KW: Well, there’s no contract. I didn’t have a contract with Don, either. I think obviously I will serve at Jeff’s whim and so I love the paper, I love the team and the people I work with. I will stay as long as he will have me, but I will have to do a good job, like any executive would.

NMH: You talked about in the beginning, this is a paper now that’s changing hands from one family to the next family. Can you talk to me about that moment when you decided that that was going to happen – that you were going to transfer this paper that is part of your identity and part of your family to another family – what was that like?

KW: Well, it was really part of a process. It wasn’t sort of one day we said, “Okay, let’s do this.” And we were very clear, Don and I and the board, that we were not just going to sell to anyone. If we could not find the right buyer that we thought was the right person to take the paper forward, we would not sell. So it evolved over months, and it really was about looking for somebody who could bring assets to bear, whether it’s technology or deep-pockets or managerial experience – but also shared our values. And although I know selfishly we would have loved to have kept the paper in our family, for generations to come, it had to be about more than what we wanted, right? I mean, the Post is bigger than the Graham family, and we’ve always understood that it was a public trust and treated it as such.

NMH: What was it like yesterday to hear your Uncle Don talk about the paper and be very choked up – people in the audience there in that auditorium choked up, crying, a very sad day for folks around here – what was that like?

KW: Well, it was just him, right? I mean, it was a sad day for all of us, but Don has grown up in Washington and with this paper in this family, and he really does love everyone here, and he does love what we do. And as he said he will continue to read the paper from cover to cover and be rooting us on, so I think it was very hard, and we all saw that, but it was also very real, and it’s a big deal, right? There’s been such a tight affiliation between the Graham family and the employees here, and so it’s an emotional moment, but I also sensed walking around afterwards a sense of gratitude to the family, but also some excitement and some appreciation for the fact that this is a transition to a good owner who has a lot he could bring to us and that we were not on the auction block and just auctioned to the highest bidder.

NMH: Any sense of loss or even failure on your part? They talked about you and the paper recently in the New York Times, the next edition, Katharine the second. I mean, what’s your sense of what this means for your legacy?

KW: Well, I guess because I’m going on with the newspaper, I don’t think of it as my legacy. So, I’ve always felt at the end of the day we’ll be judged by our results. I think the paper is as good if not better than it ever was and we will continue to work on that, so my legacy will be when I leave, how good is our news business?

NMH: And you’re right, I think the Post has had a really solid – I mean I feel like over these last 18 months and you talk to people in the newsroom feel like we’ve had a really great run, is this going to disrupt that at all with Bezos coming in or is it business as usual going forward?

KW: Well, I think there’s some natural disruption just as people are anxious when there’s a change like this, but what I and my team and what I think everyone is going to work to do is to stay focused. It is business as usual. It should be business as usual. The difference is we have a new owner who has made clear that he’s not going to come in and interfere in our day-to-day management, so who I think will just bring good ideas and help, but isn’t planning on telling us what to do, and we’ve had a fantastic first six months of the year, and we ought to have a fantastic next six months of the year, so you know what I want everyone to do is just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

NMH: We’ve heard a lot about Jeff Bezos including that he has a 10,000-year clock out in the desert. Can you describe him in one word?

KW: Brilliant. I mean it’s hard to describe anyone in one word, but he is brilliant and willing to take risks, but smart risks. And the clock is a perfect example of how he invests for the long term. It is a 10,000-year clock that literally will tick every millennium. That’s wild. Most people don’t think of, what will my legacy be 10,000 years from now? But I think as a newspaper owner, that’s what we want. We don’t want somebody who’s focused on quarter to quarter what did you make? We want somebody who’s focused on you know for the next generation of reader – for his kids, for my kids, for your kids how are they going to digest news, and how are we going to make it interesting for them? And what platforms will they want it on? And so, that’s why I think he’s the perfect guy for this.

NMH: Bob Woodward said when you took over that you had the weight of the world on your shoulders. How do you feel? Where’s that weight now? Is it gone? How do you feel?

KW: Well, that was Woodward’s characterization. I have never – I can’t focus like that. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of media scrutiny of the media, but my focus is on making sure we’re doing great work, because our customers are the readers and our advertising customers, and those are the people I’m focused on serving.

NMH: Katharine, thank you, so much.

KW: Thank you, Nia.

More on the sale of The Washington Post:

VIDEO: Don Graham describes the anatomy of hte deal

The Grahams: A family synonymous with The Post and with Washington

Weingarten: Open letter to Jeff Bezos

 
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