The Washington Post has been in the heart of the District for over a century. Since 1877, the historic paper has reported on politics and pressing news from both sides of the capital’s borders. Unfortunately for the Post, the rapid development of connecting technologies, most notably the Internet, has brought about challenging times for print media. Against all odds, the Washington Post has pulled through what many thought would be the end of its days of circulation by utilizing the very thing that brought its near demise. It left the hands of the Grahams, one of the most prominent families in D.C. and in journalism as a whole, and fell under the aegis of Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. In the process, the Post has loosened the roots that held it so close to the District.
The Washington Post was founded in the late nineteenth century by Stilson Hutchins, a reporter who wanted a platform to progress the views of the Democratic party. After cutting his ties with the party in 1889, Hutchins decided to sell the paper to two established DC politicians. It passed between owners several more times before Eugene Meyer, chairman at the Federal Reserve, bought it at a bankruptcy auction on the steps of its headquarters. At that time in 1933 the paper was at near collapse due to the mismanagement of its previous owner, but Meyer believed he could bring it back as an independent voice in journalism. For years, Meyer sunk his money into the paper with no return. He believed in the Post and the important journalism it was supporting, his substantial financial capital no doubt making this an easy sacrifice. By the 1950’s, his faith began to pay off and the newspaper began to stably turn a profit.
In 1946, Meyer stepped down from his position as publisher and handed the reigns over to his son in law, Philip Graham. He was the husband of Katharine, the fourth of Meyer’s five children, and had garnered significant prestige of his own in D.C. as a supreme court clerk. Through their combined power, Philip and Katharine had made plenty in friends in high places: the social circles they ran in were heavily weighted with the elites of the city. From presidents to department heads, it seemed as if the entire government would be on the guestlist for a Graham dinner party. They were political socialites, and they didn’t waste the connections they had.
Issue of the Time Magazine cover dedicated to Philip Graham.
The Grahams, like anyone with influence in the District, played their hand the business of Washington. While the Washington Post remained for the most part a neutral paper, Philip and Katharine had their own political views that they did not refrain from acting on. As a good friend of John F. Kennedy, Graham used his access to convince the politician to choose Lyndon B. Johnson as the other half of his ticket for the race of 1960. After they won the election, Graham was that much more powerful for having pieced together the executive duo. Katharine tested her power in the water of Washington as well, but saw less success. She attempted to place Edward Bennett Williams into the role of mayor-commissioner, but the president-appointed post went to Walter Washington (“Katharine Graham”).
In 1963, Katharine Graham was left in control of the newspaper, unsure whether to sell it or try to run it. Philip Graham had shot and killed himself after years of struggling with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Eventually, she accepted the challenge and formally became the Post’s president, publisher, and CEO. Her ascension came at a time when there were few high ranking women in business at all, let alone journalism, but for Katharine the lack of role models simply meant she had to forge her own path (“Katharine Graham”). The decision to stay ended up bringing one of the most important eras of groundbreaking journalism the Washington Post had ever seen.
Katharine Graham in front of the Washington Post Headquarters
Under Katharine Graham, the Washington Post became a truly national publication; the hard-hitting journalism she fostered garnered widespread attention (“Katharine Graham”). She encouraged her editors and reporters to be daring and to dig deeper. When the New York Times was court-ordered not to print the Pentagon Papers, Katharine had the Post publish its own copy (Barnes and Farenthold). Even more important was what many would call the pinnacle of American investigative journalism: the Watergate Scandal. While most other papers and reporters underestimated the story that lurked behind the theft at the Democratic National Committee’s D.C. office, Katharine and her editor Ben Bradlee stood behind Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they continued to report on the unfolding situation. Katharine allowed the story to be told, and as a result she played a key role in the resignation of President Nixon.
Katharine ceded her role as the head of the Washington Post to her son Donald in 1979. Donald was a grounded man who had worked at nearly every level of the newspaper, from reporter to advertising salesman to editor. The staff loved him, and he prided himself on knowing each and every one of their names (Barnes and Farenthold). A reporter with a particularly impressive story could expect to receive a “Donny-gram” on their desk, Donald’s personal show of thanks for the hard work they were doing. When he took over from his mother, he was inheriting a paper at its prime; the same could not be said for his niece, Katharine Weymouth, who replaced him at the head in 2008 (Barnes and Farenthold).
In under thirty years, the Post went from the height of its game to a hard slump, and no one factor would be as important in the near crash of the paper than the invention and expansion of the internet. The internet has dealt almost fatal blows to the newspaper industry in two ways. First, advertising is the main revenue stream that makes a newspaper profitable. Advertisers give up sizable chunks of money for access to the a large circulation of readers like that of the Washington Post. When the internet came about and computers became more ubiquitous, advertisers moved to the more flexible space that could get wider or more targeted product recognition. Additionally, the internet provides a quick and easy connection to an unfathomable amount of data. People have more news than they can read at their fingertips, all free with an web connection. No longer does one have to make a subscription and wait for the paper to show up on their doorstep each day; the internet provides a twenty-four hour, seven days a week news coverage.
Washingtonpost.com homepage from December 20th, 1996.
In order to stay in touch with the technology of the times, newspapers had to take to the internet too. The Washington Post website first went live in 1996 with what now seems to be a rudimentary gray and white page, although the style was progressive at a time when many were employing the most basic HTML and Java design (“The Washington Post”). The oldest archived page of the Post, from December 20th, 1996, is like a snapshot in time. Carl Sagan is dead at sixty-two and a judge is about to making a ruling on the case of OJ’s custody Move forward twenty years and at first glance the site is completely different. Steeped heavily in the minimalist aesthetic of the modern day web design, the retrospectively tacky toolbars and graphics from 1996 are replaced with a sleek black and white contrast. The timeless logo heads the page, this time without any graphic design experimentation of fading and overlap. But looking closely, the skeleton of content that the held up the site’s predecessor twenty years early is indeed still the framework upon which the blossoming Washington Post of 2016 operates.
If they’re the same site with the exception of a few polishes, why was the publication still failing in 2008? The Washington Post was clearly putting effort into its website, but its labor was bearing little fruit. It wasn’t attracting enough readers to make the profit from online ads or subscriptions that it needed. Katharine Weymouth was an unfortunate bystander in transition period in the Post she could not control. With the loss of revenue, Weymouth had to oversee the closing of printing plants and the firing of reporters and other staff that they just couldn’t afford to pay anymore.
In 2013, Weymouth, with support of Donald Graham, decided it was time for a change; she was going to sell the paper. The Washington Post had to survive, with or without the Graham legacy attached. Shocking to everyone, Jeff Bezos stepped up to the deal (Benner and Wingfield). It was a parallel situation to that of 1933 when Eugene Meyer bought the newspaper; Bezos is a wealthy entrepreneur who believes in the journalism the Washington Post allows, and as the founder and chief executive officer of Amazon Bezos has plenty of money in his back pocket to keep the Post afloat while it adapts to the new technological climate. The deal finalized in October of 2013 and Bezos officially became the first owner of the Washington Post outside of the Graham family in eighty years (Farhi).
Jeff Bezos addressing a crowd.
When Bezos stepped into office, he brought with him all of the technological expertise that running a multi-billion dollar online marketplace awards. Things for the Post began to turn around as Bezos commanded a more strategic use of the internet and all its assets. Social media, especially sites like Facebook and Twitter, became one of the major tools that supported the Post’s revival (Moses). By employing baiting headlines, writers for the Post can assure that the article will be passed around on different facets of the internet and readership will skyrocket. Washington Post articles have begun to dominate Facebook feeds, and its leg up being based in the District made it a hit during the election cycle. Recently, the Post even began to fall in step with the New York Times in online readership numbers (Nakamura).
While Bezos was a saving grace to the paper, he is an outsider to the world the Washington Post has been associated with for all these years. He’s a native to the West, having grown up in New Mexico and basing his business in Washington state. While he received an East Coast ivy league education, his circles run among the innovative minds of Silicon Valley and other technological hubs (“Jeff Bezos”). Furthermore, Bezos has no background in journalism or print media. Although Amazon began as a marketplace for books, his involvement was with selling, not producing (“Jeff Bezos”). Overall, his name is relatively new in the eyes of the District.
Beyond the perceived concept of connection, Bezos has brought a physical disconnect between the Washington Post and its hometown. When Bezos bought the company from the Grahams in 2013, he didn’t buy the property that had served as a home to the paper for decades. Instead he opted to lease three floors of office space in downtown D.C., shrinking the square footage the newsroom was used to considerably and giving it an air of impermanence (O’Connell). As the building on 15th Street was demolished, so went with it memories like that of Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee on the floor with their award winning reporters (Fisher). It was a different time, in a place where an empty lot now waits for development.
Katharine Graham in the newsroom with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
The Washington Post has experienced a subtle trade-off. Bezos took over and breathed new life into the paper with an influx of money and new tactical advice. It came at the cost of the importance of place. Bezos is a mastermind of expanding internet brands to transcend real world borders and limitations. This skill has no doubt touched the Washington Post, as its digital readership has grown considerably across the country and the world. Of the many things that Bezos is, he is not the Grahams, nor even Stilson Hutchins. He was not born and raised with the government at his back door. The networks of the District, integral to what the Washington Post has focused much of its reports on, are foreign to him. This distance could be bad, or perhaps an outside perspective is exactly what it needs.
“Asked how he saw The Post — as a local, national or international news organization — Bezos demurred. ‘That’s a question that needs to be answered in concert with the leadership team of The Post. Is it local? Or national? Is it something new?’ Whatever the mission, he said, The Post will have ‘readers at its centerpiece. I’m skeptical of any mission that has advertisers at its centerpiece. Whatever the mission is, it has news at its heart.’” (Farhi).
Barnes, Robert, and David A. Fahrenthold. “The Grahams: A Family Synonymous with The Post and with Washington.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Aug. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-grahams-a-family-synonymous-with-the-post-and-with-washington/2013/08/05/94f26d04-fe1a-11e2-96a8-d3b921c0924a_story.html?utm_term=.83e0d269c5cf.
Benner, Katie, and Nick Wingfield. “Jeff Bezos, Riding High, Defends Decision to Buy Washington Post.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/technology/jeff-bezos-riding-high-defends-decision-to-buy-washington-post.html.
Farhi, Paul. “Jeffrey Bezos, Washington Post’s next Owner, Aims for a New ‘Golden Era’ at the Newspaper.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Sept. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/jeffrey-bezos-washington-posts-next-owner-aims-for-a-new-golden-era-at-the-newspaper/2013/09/02/30c00b60-13f6-11e3-b182-1b3bb2eb474c_story.html?utm_term=.a11eb47e47ed.
Fisher, Marc. “Goodbye, Old Washington Post, Home of the Newspaper the Grahams Built.” The
Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Dec. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/goodbye-old-washington-post-home-of-the-newspaper-the-grahams-built/2015/12/07/023a0382-5d54-11e5-9757-e49273f05f65_story.html?utm_term=.70bc7e04ad7d.
“Jeff Bezos.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Bezos.
“Katharine Graham.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Graham.
Moses, Lucia. “How The Washington Post Leapfrogged The New York Times in Web Traffic – Digiday.” Digiday, 21 Dec. 2015,
Nakamura, Reid. “Washington Post Nearly Matches New York Times Digital Readership.” The Wrap, 15 Oct. 2015, www.thewrap.com/washington-post-nearly-matches-new-york-times-digital-readership/.
O’Connell, Jonathan. “Inside the Wild Ride That Landed The Washington Post on K Street.”
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“The Washington Post.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 Oct. 2016.