It’s easy to talk about how change is good, but when it actually happens, it’s a shock. It felt that way for hundreds of Washington Post employees on Monday when we heard our boss, Donald Graham, tell us that he was selling the newspaper.
To appreciate what happened this week, you have to understand how personal the owner’s relationship was with The Post. This is a chief executive who kept at the entry to his office an old wooden cart used to distribute the paper when it was called The Post and Times-Herald. He knows nearly every employee by name, and when he invokes his family legacy at the in-house Eugene Meyer Awards, named for his grandfather, who bought the paper, there’s often deep emotion in his voice.
Communication from the owner was frequent and, until e-mail, handwritten. Foreign correspondents risking their necks far from home always knew Don was reading their work because he would write them personal messages congratulating them on stories. As hundreds of correspondents and reporters can attest, it sometimes seemed as though Don was the only one who had noticed. The banks of editors who had handled your copy seemed too busy to write, but not the owner.
Knowing how much the Grahams loved the paper, we could only imagine how hard it must have been for Don and his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, to tell that stunned room of employees that the paper was being sold. As with any death in the family, there were stages of grief: shock, denial, a little rage, maybe, and then acceptance.
Many of us sense that Don and his family have done an unselfish and courageous thing, at some personal emotional cost. Knowing that the Grahams could not sustain The Post indefinitely as a great newspaper, they looked for someone who could. Had Don waited and the paper’s losses increased, he might have been forced to auction it off to the highest bidder, opening the door for people who would want to use The Post to advance personal political agendas rather than independent journalism. Don chose to act before he was forced to, while he could still make good choices.
The Washington Post building has ghosts. They’re in the newsroom, which for all the new sparkle is still recognizably the space where Ben Bradlee persuaded his boss, Katharine Graham, to bet the franchise that two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were right that Richard Nixon was lying.
Many of us can still hear echoes of Bradlee’s voice in the story conference room, telling jokes or teasing editors or making snide remarks about people we were covering. As a young editor I used to linger in that room to hear every word from Bradlee or his successor, Len Downie, or the other gods, and would often walk out thinking, I can’t believe they pay me to do this job.
I spoke with Bradlee Monday right after the announcement. He had just arrived at his summer place in the Hamptons and, like everyone else, was shocked. Ben turns 92 in a few weeks, but there was the familiar roar in his voice when he said: “I’ve got to get back there and help Don.”
There are ghosts in the walls of the building itself, I sometimes think. For generations, The Post printed newspapers here on 15th Street NW. If you stayed late (and who didn’t?), you could hear the old presses begin to rumble down in the basement as they started up to print the first edition. And then the whole building would seem to vibrate and hum. Sometimes, when the paper was on a roll with a hot story, the cars from the embassies and lobbyists’ offices would line up outside to get a jump on the news.
Our new owner is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. No self-respecting journalist would shower the new boss with wet kisses, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that he has good values and that he was among the first to figure out a way to make print content (books and newspapers) available in attractive, easy, digital form through the Kindle. And we have to think Bezos is a smart guy, right? He bought a great newspaper. He must understand that being a courageous, principled newspaper owner is the most wonderful thing in the world.