How the Nation’s Capital Sees the Washington Post

By Jack Limpert

Thanksgiving week has seen a lot of Washington Post watching. On Monday David Carr, based in Manhattan for the past 10 years, wrote a New York Times column that threw mud at Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth for not having much style and for doing a clumsy job of pushing out her editor, Marcus Brauchli, and replacing him with Boston Globe editor Marty Baron.

On Tuesday Rick Edmonds, based in Florida as a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said Carr missed the boat by not understanding the business side of the Post, pointing out that, contrary to what Carr wrote, the Post is in much better financial shape than the Times.

That was followed by Harry Jaffe, the longtime Post watcher at The Washingtonian, with a website piece that said Carr misplaced the blame for the Post’s sad state of affairs. Harry said more attention should have been paid to the rest of the Graham family and to Steve Hills, the Post’s president and business side boss. And then Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, like Carr a former editor of the Washington City Paper, weighed in with the contention that the real problem between Brauchli and Weymouth was the Post’s inability to get real revenue from its free website.

Here, from a reader of the Post for the past 45 years, is some Washington-based perspective on the Graham family, its editors, and its newspaper.

Katharine Graham took over the Post in 1963 after the death of her husband, Philip Graham. She made her son Don publisher in 1979 but she was a powerful force until her death in 2001. Don was and is an extraordinarily capable and decent newspaperman, but also a cautious son.  Mrs. Graham’s editor was Ben Bradlee, and he legendarily ran the editorial side until 1991, when he turned the newsroom over to Len Downie, a Post lifer and also a very capable and decent journalist. Those were great years for the Post: Bradlee had Watergate in 1972 and from the early 1970s on Washington the nation’s capital grew larger and richer (all those lawyers, lobbyists, federal dollars, and French restaurants) and the Post grew rich along with it. The Post Company had been smart enough to buy Kaplan, a small education company, and Don Graham made it a huge financial success. Plus there were the television stations and cable systems and a stock that reached $1,000 a share. In the early 1970s I had a friend who bought Post Company stock for $19 a share and sold it at $38, proud of doubling his money. When the stock went up to $1,000 a share, lots of Post employees shared in the growth and riches and life in print journalism felt really good.

The last 10 years have been much harder. Around 2002 the digital rocket took off with broadband, laptop computers, and Google. By 2005 the print world was beginning to feel it–ad money was moving out of newspapers and readers also were leaving. And then Kaplan ran afoul of the feds, who questioned why so many Kaplan students were getting federal loans and then weren’t getting the jobs they seemed to have been promised and weren’t paying back the loans. It made Kaplan, and the Post Company, look like it was conning the nation’s taxpayers and Kaplan profits went south.

Don’s titles at the Post have changed over the years but there was never any doubt that he was running the Post Company and the newspaper. In February 2008, he tapped his niece, Katharine Weymouth, as publisher. She is a Graham, the daughter of Lally Weymouth, who was Katharine Graham’s daughter. Lally had watched her brother Don being handed the newspaper, and some Posties felt Don installed Katharine W. as publisher to keep peace in the family. As Harry Jaffe asked in his Tuesday piece, “Did Katharine Weymouth really want the job?” Whether she wanted it or not, she didn’t bring much in the way of experience and gravitas, and some early missteps didn’t help.

Weymouth eased Downie out and then went outside the paper to hire Brauchli, who had taken a big payoff for quitting as editor of the Wall Street Journal when Rupert Murdoch bought it. Carr said, “By reaching outside her own company, she set aside almost 40 years of editorial continuity and set he newsroom on edge.” Stop the presses. While Bradlee was brilliant and Downie was very good, the Post hasn’t had a cadre of good editors for a long time. When Weymouth wanted a new editor, she found that Bradlee and Downie had not groomed much in-house editing talent. So she hired Brauchli, a smart editor with a great resume and reputation, but, as Harry pointed out, a lifeless leader.

In his four years as editor, Brauchli gets credit for merging the print and digital sides of the Post, but the quality of the newspaper drifted. The A section–international, national, and business news—continued strong. The Metro section continued weak. The Style section, created by Bradlee 40 years ago, became an embarrassment. Sports continued to be a winner. In my 45 minutes of reading the Post every morning, I usually found good stories on the front page (though few were local), lots of good sports coverage, some good but uneven and pretty sparse Metro coverage, and lots of mornings when there was nothing worth reading in Style. Brauchl’s background suggests he’s a very good hard news guy with a lot of interest in national and international news, but his record at the Post suggests he’s not all that interested in local news and he’s not good at the light stuff.

Carr said Monday that “the newspaper’s ‘for and about Washington’ editorial strategy had left employees underwhelmed.” Stop the presses again. As a Post reader, I never saw the slightest hint of a local strategy, a beefing up of local news coverage. If anything, local coverage got weaker under Brauchli, suggesting that Carr, while he was here in the late 1990s editing the Washington City Paper, now doesn’t read the Metro section of the Post very often.

What else? The Post hasn’t been much fun to read under Downie or Brauchli. Yes, there were Pulitzers but the little secret of the Pulitzers is that the prizes often go to stories that have great reporting and go on at great length but often don’t get read. The joke among Post readers is that the scariest four words in the paper are “First in a series.”  While the web was offering Washington readers all kinds of interesting reading, it seemed like the Post the newspaper was getting duller and duller.

So it’s not easy being Katharine Weymouth and having to read David Carr. She took over a newspaper with lots of problems: declining print revenue because of the web, a no-paywall digital strategy, forged by Don Graham, that is failing to bring in enough revenue from the web, a demoralized editorial staff because of so many layoffs, an editorial structure that needs rethinking—how about folding Style into Metro to make a bigger, better local section and really make the Post a local paper? The problems at the newspaper can be blamed on lots of people—and the Internet. If Weymouth hasn’t solved enough of them, or done it with enough style, the buck still should stop with Uncle Don.

Comments

  1. Hey, it’s not easy having to read David Carr for anybody, not to mention Ms. Weymouth.

  2. Jack Limpert says:

    On November 26, Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review website put the responsibility for the Washington Post’s problems at the door of Don Graham. Starkman says the Post’s website needs a paywall—now. http://www.cjr.org/the_audit/the_washington_post_needs_a_pa_1.php?page=all

    That was followed almost immediately by a piece by Mathew Ingram at gigaom.com saying “Why pushing for a paywall at the Washington Post completely misses the point.” He says that while a paywall may be working at the New York Times, it’s not the answer at other newspapers. http://gigaom.com/2012/11/26/why-pushing-for-a-paywall-at-the-washington-post-completely-misses-the-point/

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