Late Monday, The Washington Post Co. announced it will sell its flagship newspaper to Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos. The surprise sale ends ownership by the Graham family, which has run the paper for four generations. We explore how the change will affect the local and national media environment.
- Andrew Beaujon Senior Online Reporter, The Poynter Institute
- Mark Jurkowitz Associate Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism; former ombudsman of The Boston Globe.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast restarting the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks, but first, late yesterday The Washington Post announced that the founder of Amazon.com Jeff Bezos is buying the newspaper for $250 million in cash.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBezos is buying the paper as an individual. The sale has got nothing to do with Amazon, but it does have everything to do with the internet. Like many traditional newspapers, The Post has been losing revenue for years and struggling to find its financial footing in the online world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe sale marks the end of an era, eight decades of local ownership by the Graham family. For many people, The Post is the storied paper that broke Watergate and continues to generate award-winning coverage.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor Washingtonians, well, it's our hometown paper. Joining us to help decipher what this all means is Mark Jurkowitz. He's associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center. He's former ombudsman and media reporter for The Boston Globe. Mark Jurkowitz, good to see you again.
MR. MARK JURKOWITZYou too, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Andrew Beaujon. He is a senior online reporter with The Poynter Institute. Andrew, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDREW BEAUJONThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think the sale of The Washington Post to a Seattle-based owner will do for the culture that The Washington Post has created here in Washington, D.C.? Do you think it will cause some change in local coverage or the influence of The Post in this region?
NNAMDIGive us a call 800-433-8850. Jeff Bezos is a tech entrepreneur. The irony of course is not lost on anyone. What does that mean for a newspaper that like many traditional news organizations has been struggling to stay afloat in this digital era, Mark?
JURKOWITZWell, you know, I think this is a really interesting development and I think if you really look at it, there's been a debate in journalism and a discussion in the newspaper industry about whether or not the right people, so to speak, were running these news organizations, this beleaguered newspaper organization.
JURKOWITZPeople who had been of the generation that had built these newspapers up that were used to the era of 20 percent profit margins, but maybe didn't, you know, have the entrepreneurial or innovative chops necessarily to be able to deal with the digital disruption.
JURKOWITZI think what happened yesterday is the clearest sign. I think the Grahams, who dearly loved their paper like they loved their own child, basically said, it's beyond really our ability and resources to move this paper to the next plateau, to the next step.
JURKOWITZWe need to find, not only different people, but people with different skill sets if we're going to save this paper and we're going to save this news organization. And I think that's a pretty powerful statement.
NNAMDISame question to you, Andrew.
BEAUJONWell, yeah, you know, I agree a lot with Mark. The Post has done some great experimentation, has done some really interesting stuff, but it has been a stone that has been really hard to get up the hill. And they're passing that task on to someone who has disrupted a business before.
NNAMDIThe Post is the hometown newspaper for those of us living in the so-called DMV, the District, Maryland and Virginia and, of course, the Graham family that has owned this paper for some 80 years was also part of the very fabric of Washington society. Along comes a West coast tech entrepreneur, very far from all of that.
NNAMDIDo you think this is going to have some influence on the culture of the paper? This was always seen in this town as a family newspaper that was part of a family that was also involved with this community in general, all of that, in a way gone.
JURKOWITZWhile I don't think anybody can sort of replicate, obviously, what the Grahams have meant to this paper or this town, but within the newspaper itself, the culture is dictated by the people who sit in the big offices. And what we know at this point is, you know, that Mr. Bezos made clear that at least for now the current leadership team is going to be around.
JURKOWITZAnd I think whether or not, how long the family remains involved, I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think he also went out of his way to assure people that Marty Baron, who is the relatively new editor there, is going to stay on. Now I worked for Marty at The Boston Globe.
JURKOWITZHe was responsible for overseeing the coverage of the Catholic priest scandal. He's got great news chops. I think he's popular in that newsroom. And I think for now, in terms of what the product that people might see, I think there's going to be a good deal of continuity and if you were to ask people, do you think in the next, you know, six months you'll see a different Washington Post, I would say no.
NNAMDISame question again, Andrew.
BEAUJONWell, you know, Kojo, there's a specter that hangs over all these newspaper acquisitions. That's a small elfin shadow belonging to a guy named Sam Zell who bought the Tribune Company and nearly destroyed it coming in with the idea that the journalists didn't know what they were doing.
BEAUJONBezos' first message to Post employees said, I share your values and I think, you know, that touches on Mark's earlier point. They would not have sold to somebody who they thought was going to destroy the place.
NNAMDIKeeping the current staff in place, does that offer some small guarantees of what the paper is going to be like going forward?
JURKOWITZFor now, I think there's reassurance and my guess is, and I don't know this real well, but I would guess in the newsroom itself, at this point, there is sadness for and about the Grahams, and a sense of optimism about the future. We, you know, I don't think for example that the new owner is someone who has come in here and said, I'm a bottom-line magician.
JURKOWITZI'm going to pretty-up this bottom line in the next year or so and make, and change our balance sheets. If we know anything about Jeff Bezos it's, A, that he's innovative, but, B, that he's patient. He has made investments at Amazon that have been long-term investments that perhaps didn't make sense for people who were looking for quick turnarounds.
JURKOWITZI think he will be an innovator here, although I'm not sure he knows how he will innovate yet. But I don't see him as someone who has come in to fundamentally at this point change the culture of the paper or pretty-up the bottom line so I think, for now, we're going to see continuity.
NNAMDIYou've been saying, Mark, and others for a long time that the wrong people are running newspapers and you expanded on that a little while ago. We talked with Donald Graham, the CEO of The Washington Post Company about a year ago, back in March of 2012 and here is a little bit of what he said.
MR. DONALD GRAHAMFirst of all, I don't run The Post on a daily basis anymore. Katharine Weymouth is the publisher and, I think, a great one, but the job is tougher now. But if you were going to pick a newspaper you wanted to be the publisher of at this point, you'd probably pick this one because the staff is great because we're in the capital of the free world, the capital of the United States and everybody cares about us.
MR. DONALD GRAHAMBecause while it's clear that younger people are no longer as interested in newspapers as my generation was, I think they're just as interested in news and I think quality news reporting, you know, like your organization does and I think our organization does is something that the people I know in their 20s and 30s care about a lot. I would bet you have a lot of callers to this program in that age bracket.
NNAMDIWe certainly do.
GRAHAMAnd you know, I'm slightly insulted you didn't have me on "Tech Tuesday," despite my...
NNAMDIWell, you are associated with Facebook so.
GRAHAMBut I'm not a technologist, but I'd say this. The successful news organizations of the future are going to have great journalists and great tech people.
NNAMDIHe says, Mark and Andrew, I am no technologist, but the successful newspapers of the future are going to have great journalists and great tech people. That's what a lot of people I'm assuming meant by the wrong people are running newspapers now. That is, people understand the newspaper business, but they don't understand technology as much as they should.
NNAMDIAnd the people who are now going to be reproducing this content are still going to have the reporters who are creating the content but the people who now have to market this content have to be much more familiar with technology. Andrew?
BEAUJONYeah, and, you know, listening to that statement, I think the interesting thing is that Graham is keeping the digital businesses, you know, Slate Foreign Policy and I believe the labs, The Post's innovation center are staying with him. I might be wrong on the labs part.
BEAUJONBut, you know, that's a refrain I've heard at every journalism conference that I've attended for the last five years. You know, reporters need to get more technological. They need to learn how to program. Don Graham has pushed this in a very interesting direction.
JURKOWITZYou know, now the term wrong people, obviously sounds harsh.
JURKOWITZThe Grahams have been the right people for this city for a long time, but the question is skill sets. There's no doubt about it. And I think if you do a post-mortem on what's happened to the newspaper industry in the last 15 years, we know it's been reactive.
JURKOWITZWe know that it failed to take advantage of opportunities. Even if you look at The Post, one of the more interesting things that's happened there is they agonized over whether to have a paid digital subscription plan, a.k.a. Paywall, in place and were sort of all over the map. There might be more sure-handed technological leadership in the future. I think that's what Don was talking about.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mark Jurkowitz. He is associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center. He's a former ombudsman and media reporter for The Boston Globe. Andrew Beaujon is a senior online reporter with The Poynter Institute.
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. Did the news of The Washington Post sale take you by surprise? What effect do you think it's going to have on the DMV? Do you think the sale will be good for the struggling newspaper? 800-433-8850, second high-profile sale Mark in the past three days of a struggling newspaper to a wealthy individual. Is this the end of the newspaper as a publicly traded company? Are we returning to an earlier era of individual ownership?
JURKOWITZWell it's interesting. You think back 15 years ago and what was the big issue that people cared about newspapers worried about? It was consolidated ownership. Too many big companies owned, too few big companies really owning too many newspapers.
JURKOWITZWhat we are seeing now is a reversion back to sort of the individual owner. Now, not the family owner that created many of these great institutions, like the Taylor family, for example, in Boston, but you're getting a new class of owners now. They don't all have the same ideas.
JURKOWITZSo in Boston, so here we have this internet innovator. In Boston we've got John Henry who is not a media guy but was a day-trader and who owns the Boston Red Sox. In Orange County they have the Orange County Register. We have one of the more interesting experiments going on in local newspapering with a man named Aaron Kushner who made a lot of money in the greeting card business.
JURKOWITZWe will soon have new owners of the L.A. Times and places like The Chicago Tribune might -- there's a fairly good guess they'll be these kinds of people, so yes. Now these guys are getting these things at discounted prices, big-time, but the era of consolidated ownership is over and the era of kind of the lonesome, you know, individual owner is upon us.
NNAMDIWell, Andrew, what does this say about the other big family-run paper, The New York Times, which just sold The Globe? Is the Times somehow in a league of its own?
BEAUJONWell, you know, The Times has done almost a photographic negative version of what The Post is doing. It's gotten rid of pretty much everything but its newspaper. It's really going all in on that. You know, there are still some families who own newspapers and, you know, Jeff Bezos has a family.
BEAUJONI think we can probably include him on that, but, you know, Bezos in Seattle, if you look at The New York Times, though, they've stripped away everything that isn't the newspaper. They made a big bet on national news. They made a big bet on international news.
NNAMDIAnd The Washington Post, you have pointed out, I should say that people forget that Eugene Meyer, who originally owned The Washington Post, was a wealthy individual who had no background whatsoever in newspapers. He'd just come up being chairman of the Fed.
NNAMDIBut getting back to the impact it's going to have on the DMV, Andrew, you have emphasized that Marty Baron has invested in local coverage in the past months and the paper has been getting better in that regard.
BEAUJONAbsolutely. And I mean, I think you want to ask anybody about The Post's local coverage, you might want to start with the governor of Virginia.
NNAMDIAnd doing a job on that
BEAUJONYou know, Rosalyn Hilderman (ph) who has been reporting the heck out of those stories was the first reporter that Don Graham mentioned when he announced the sale to The Post staffers yesterday. And, you know, I think that that sends a real message not just to them, but also to Bezos about like what is important here.
NNAMDII remember the profile that Nikita Stewart did of the Washington businessman Jeffrey Thompson which took a long time. It took her as far as his relatives in Jamaica. It's what a local paper does and I think it's what people in this area expect. And for the time being it would appear that is likely to be continuing. Here now on the phone is Mustafa in Cheverly, Md. Mustafa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MUSTAFAOkay. Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I enjoy your show, Kojo. I have been a subscriber to the Washington Post for nearly four decades. It's my home newspaper. And I have read -- I respect the (word?) and everything, the very insightful discussion it has made. I enjoy it and I like it, but I just wanted to say that I saw some changes, rather dramatic changes which could be a source of decline. One is that the editorial page, particularly (unintelligible) good job, but it has kind of (unintelligible) conservative right wing point of view more.
MUSTAFAAnd I have talked to friends (unintelligible) and they agreed with me, this could be one cause.
NNAMDIWere any of those friends that you talked to conservative right wing people?
MUSTAFAShould I name them?
NNAMDINo, no, don't name them. But the point I'm trying to make is that I know a very few conservative right wing people who think that the Post editorial page is tilting conservative and right wing. But go ahead.
MUSTAFAOkay, fine. But we disagree on that, maybe I'm wrong, but this is my point of view. I miss the days when Matt Greenfield (sp?) I mean, managed the editorial page and op-ed pages. And there was much more diversity. Secondly, on the...
NNAMDIWell, let me deal with the first question first with Mark and Andrew. Of course there are people who will be concerned about whether new ownership will affect the direction, if you will, of the editorial page.
JURKOWITZWell, you know, the first point is, there is something of a bifurcated editorial philosophy at the Washington post, which I think is that they lean center left on domestic...
NNAMDI...domestic affairs and...
JURKOWITZ...and advocate, well, for one of a better term, a muscular foreign policy.
JURKOWITZSo I sort of understand what the caller is saying. To be honest with you, that's less a function -- I mean, there's been a lot of discussion, well, what are Mr. Bezos' politics? And we kind of come down on the idea that he's a libertarian, that he obviously backed the gay marriage movement with some serious money. Generally speaking, you know, shifts that are not tectonic in the editorial views depend on who just happens to be the editor, you know, and the key people on that page at any given time. So I don't think you would see any fundamental shift there.
NNAMDIAnd Andrew Beaujon, people invariably link what they see on the editorial page to the reporting in the newspaper, even though large newspapers like the Post and the Times say there is a firewall between the two.
BEAUJONRight. And that's even a matter of great debate within the Post. You know, you'll often hear people talking about how people on the opinion pages -- and there are a lot of people on the opinion pages now, especially online -- are -- whether or not they're reporters. Some of them I think are actually really good reporters.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mustafa. Here is David in Herndon, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi, Kojo. As you said, my name is David. And I am a recent graduate of Concord Law School. Concord Law School is owned by Kaplan University, which is owned by Kaplan which is owned by the Washington Post, which is now no longer owned by the Washington Post. I wanted to see if you guys or your commentators had anything to say about how those other investments of the Washington Post revenues companies may be affected and how those -- you know, how these other investments of newspaper companies are changing the newspaper company industry as a business.
JURKOWITZWell, obviously the family is keeping the Kaplan business, as they are keeping certainly other businesses. I think this is really fundamentally about just putting the newspaper in other hands. As far as, you know, what these ownership changes mean for the newspaper industry, I don't think we see a coherent philosophy emerging among these new owners. Everybody says we need to be more digital. There are a lot of different ways in trying to do it.
JURKOWITZI mean, one of the most interesting experiments in the newspaper business is happening in Salt Lake City, Utah where a fellow by the name of Clark Gilbert, who is a former Harvard Business School professor is sort of rethinking the newspaper model as dramatically as anybody else. And he's a non-media guy. A lot of people in the industry think his ideas don't make any sense.
JURKOWITZSo the one thing to keep in mind as the newspaper industry moves forward is, no one has -- the magic bullet has not been found. The formula has not been written. The playbook is not there. And so I think what you're getting now are an array of smart people with expertise in different areas all trying to figure it out. And we're watching and waiting.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you for your call. Andrew, the new owner Jeff Bezos did send a letter to the staff saying he shared their values. A brief quote from the letter, "So let me start with something critical. The values of the Post do not need changing. The paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interest of its owners. We'll continue to follow the truth wherever it leads and we'll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we'll own up to them quickly and completely." He says he won't be leading the paper day to day, as Mark pointed out. He's happy in the other Washington, Seattle.
NNAMDIAndrew, it's just a letter but it sets a very different tone than some other newspaper transitions in the past. Can you talk about that?
BEAUJONYeah, absolutely. I mean, it hits a veritable symphony of right notes, you know, of not just for journalists but also for media critics. That about correcting mistakes was received very enthusiastically among some of my colleagues. You know, it comes in with the idea that the journalists have some idea of what they're doing. I've been through a bad acquisition -- I'm sure Mark has some experience with this too -- where an owner comes in and tells you that you have no idea what you're doing. Sam Zell really did that when he took over Tribune, not to keep beating that horse.
JURKOWITZAnd this is a letter that gives people agency and it also -- as one of my colleagues pointed out -- doesn't have false optimism. It acknowledges that times are tough.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of us are -- a lot of people are accusing us of talking inside a baseball here, Mark. Here's an email we got from another Mark in D.C. "I think the discussion of the sale needs a bit of perspective. Unless you are a Graham or worried about your job at the Post, I cannot fathom how the sale of the Washington Post could possibly be any of the millions of flavors of sad that the D.C. media is going on about today. The Washington Post is an embarrassing shadow of its former self and has nowhere to go but up, or out, which I would argue can be seen as a kind of up.
NNAMDIThe personal relationships of the press discussing this sale seem to really blind them to the fact that the Washington post or the Graham's ownership means very little to the vast majority of Washingtonians."
JURKOWITZWell, I would say that who owns the newspaper in most communities may not be a big deal. I would disagree. I think the Grahams in this community means something. I would also say that -- you know, the Washington Post is still an excellent newspaper. It's still a prize-winning newspaper. What happens to it is not important to everyone but it's important to a lot of people. And I would say from the comments we got from that individual, they frankly couldn't care less about the fate of the Washington Post, which may be a minority or majority view. But there's a significant enough minority at worse that this is a subject that bears discussion.
NNAMDIMark Jurkowitz. He's associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism with the Pew Research Center. He's former ombudsman and media reporter for the Boston Globe. Mark, thanks for dropping by. Good to see you again.
JURKOWITZA pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAndrew Beaujon is a senior online reporter with The Poynter Institute. Andrew, thank you for coming in. Nice meeting you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.