August 9, 2013

This week was not the first time The Post rocked my world.

The other critical moment occurred nearly 60 years ago, though it seems like yesterday.

At a little hole-in-the-wall office near the corner of 21st and L streets NW, some neighborhood boys and I would report before sunrise to collect our wagons and newspapers for morning delivery. One day in March 1954, we got hit with a shocker: our newspaper, The Washington Times-Herald, had been sold to The Post.

In Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography “Personal History,” the former Post chairman chronicled The Post’s pursuit of the Times-Herald. We knew nothing about that paper chase. I was 14 years old and at the absolute bottom of the Times-Herald food chain. You can’t get much lower than “newspaper delivery boy.”

The sale shook up the Washington newspaper scene, leaving The Post to dominate the morning field.

That historic event, however, landed hardest on newspaper carriers. The two papers were combined into one behemoth: “The Washington Post and the Times-Herald.” The Sunday edition was a backbreaker.

Try hauling a wagon filled with more than 200 four-inch-thick newspapers up the hill to Pennsylvania Avenue and then climbing flights of stairs to deliver those suckers to apartment dwellers on 18th and 19th streets NW.

I learned the true definition of “the working press.”

Perched on a stand in our family’s Annapolis getaway is the symbol of the newspaper business of yesteryear — an upright, nonelectric Royal typewriter. It’s a museum piece. My grandchildren wouldn’t know what to do with it. But it was the instrument used to tell the stories that filled our newspapers.

It never occurred to me at age 14 that one day I would have in my pocket a small wireless device that allows me to speak to people around the globe, to see live pictures taken thousands of mile away and to read stories from far-flung locations published within seconds of their writing.

Call it change, call it anything you want. But see the 1954 Times-Herald sale and this week’s Post acquisition for what they represent: a response to market dynamics. Both papers, different in quality, philosophy and readership, were losing subscribers and money — two newspapers overtaken by competing forces beyond their control.

This transition is marked, however, by something once thought unimaginable: the coming presence of absentee ownership.

What does that mean for our nation’s capital?

Things are different when owners live on the land and help till the soil themselves. Their interest is personal. So, too, their knowledge of the people they work with and who, in turn, depend upon them. The owners and the landscape become one.

Eugene Meyer’s purchase of the The Post was the start of a cultivation of Washington that only accelerated with the Times-Herald under the family’s belts.

The Graham investment reached beyond the newspaper’s balance sheet. They went all-in with the city. That’s where they sought their greatest return.

Sounds grandiose, I know. But the Grahams knew this city, its problems both above and below the surface. And not just from the newsroom clippings.

Once during an editorial board meeting, I spoke of “playing the numbers.” The statement was met with blank stares around the table, except from Don Graham. He knew I was talking about the local gambling racket. Don, Post publisher and chairman, was once a D.C. cop.

He, like me, used to slip away from high school to sit in the balcony of the old Howard Theater to catch the live R&B acts.

The Grahams knew their way around the city, the power brokers, the highbrows and the wannabes and the voiceless.

Burnish in your mind the name Agnes Meyer, wife of Eugene, mother of Katharine, grandmother of Don, great-grandmother of Katharine Weymouth.

Agnes Meyer, and through her the Graham family, made The Post the conscience of the capital. There wasn’t an absentee-owner’s bone in her body.

She crusaded in the 1940s against what she had seen up-close and first-hand: the sad state of public education for black children and poor housing conditions in the city.

“She couldn’t stand the rampant injustices that she saw in Washington” Katharine Graham recalled. In her 1944 landmark piece “The Alleys of Washington,” Agnes Meyer wrote that in her visits through cities around the country, she had seen the worst possible housing but “not even in the Southern cities have I seen human beings subjected to such unalleviated wretchedness as in the alleys of our own city of Washington.” I had classmates who lived in those alleys. “These alley dwellings and street slums must go!”

And, by God, with The Post’s megaphone calling out the nation, those ugly dwellings did go.

For the Grahams, the need to establish fair play, justice and a level playing field for everyone in our nation’s capital was a never-ending crusade.

That’s what it’s like when owners live on the land.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.