Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bezos and The Washington Post

For journalists throughout America, The Washington Post is the second greatest monument in the nation's capital.  Its legacy of independence, public service, political and investigative reporting stands as a powerful beacon and inspiration for all who enter the craft.

The Graham family has had editorial leadership and control of the venerable newspaper for 80 years.  A commitment to aggressive, responsible and fair reporting has been a constant throughout their ownership.  The paper's code of ethics states, "We fully recognize that the power we have inherited as the dominant morning newspaper in the capital of the free world carries with it special responsibilities: to listen to the voiceless, to avoid any and all acts of arrogance, to face the public politely and candidly."

Legendary journalists have plied their trade under the paper's banner.  They include, Ben Bradlee, David Broder, Art Buchwald, Meg Greenfield, Mary McGrory, Shirley Povich, George Will, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.  The paper has received 47 Pulitzer Prizes, including eight Pulitzer Prizes in 2008, the second largest number given to a newspaper in one year.

Perhaps the most significant time in the paper's history was the Watergate era, when the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, the tenacious editorial guidance of editor Ben Bradlee, and the unflinching leadership of Katherine Graham, the newspaper's publisher, combined to bring President Richard Nixon down.  "Deep Throat", who was Woodward and Bernstein's primary source, became a household name.   Their work was the inspiration for the movie All The President's Men

Katherine Graham was a remarkable figure in American publishing.  She expressed great anxiety when she officially took over as publisher of The Washington Post in 1979; after all, few women had run a newspaper.  Yet she won the admiration and respect of Washington's power brokers, and the loyalty of her own staff.  It was a family.  Ms. Graham also served as chairman of the board from 1973 to 1991.  And her son, Donald Graham, continued the paper's traditions after he replaced his mother as publisher in 1979, and as chief executive officer and chairman in the early 90's.    

So it is no wonder that news of the sale of The Washington Post came as a shock to reporters and editors at the paper.  But the company had been struggling for years with financial challenges brought on by declining subscriptions and increased competition.  Yet, the fact that the new owner, billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, bought the paper offered many staffers a sign of hope.   

Bezos is a brilliant Internet entrepreneur who revolutionized the book publishing industry.  At Amazon, he has continually emphasized what he calls his six core values: customer obsession, ownership, bias for action, frugality, high hiring bar and innovation.  It is unclear how some of these values will be applied to the Post, but Bezos would not make a $250 million purchase of a financially challenged company unless he had a plan. 

In a letter to the newspaper's employees, Bezos said, "The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes."  But he did admit that, over time, there will be changes.  “The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs,” he wrote.  

Innovation and tradition are often opposing forces.  The paper is at an important crossroads.  Should The Washington Post's legacy of investigative journalism, outstanding writing and reporting, and service to the public become the victim of "frugality" and "customer obsessions", the paper will precipitously decline.  On the other hand, should Bezos make this legacy his top priority, and preserve The Washington Post's editorial independence while expanding its readership on all platforms, all of America will benefit.

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