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Column: Reflecting on the Sale of The Washington Post and the Future of News

Washington

Ie_SSRqve been at The Washington Post for a while — most of the past 50 years, in fact. That gives me license to reflect on the Post and the news business on the eve of the newspaper’s sale to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

My first memory is from 52 years ago, when I spoke with Philip Graham, then the publisher.

Back in 1961 I had just finished a freelance project for the Post, writing follow-up stories based on a June 1960 Life magazine article I’d co-authored with Don Oberdorfer about members of Congress cheating on their expense accounts.

I was proposing to Graham that he hire Oberdorfer and me to do investigative stories that would start with a magazine piece in Newsweek — owned then by The Washington Post Co. — to be followed by newspaper stories that pushed for reforms.

Graham’s father-in-law, financier Eugene Meyer, I learned, had purchased the Post at auction in June 1933 for $825,000. It had not made any money for the first 20 years. Then, after 1954, and the purchase of its morning competitor, the Washington Times-Herald, the Post did begin to show a small profit.

Like most owners of local U.S. newspapers, Meyer was already successful and never saw newspaper ownership as a money-maker. Instead, as Graham put it, the family thought of the newspaper as a public utility. If it ever made as much as 7 percent on its gross income, it would be deemed a success.

Meyer’s principles still stand. One is, “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.” Another: “The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners.”

Newspapers made big money only after getting radio and then television licenses. If a newspaper became a network affiliate, almost all it had to do was expand local news coverage and plug into the network for prime time. Profits grew.

It was also a time when national advertisers, like automobile companies, along with local department stores and classified advertisers, had no better way to reach the public.

Beginning in the late 1960s and through the ’80s, newspapers became money machines. Fat with advertising, family-owned newspapers drew Wall Street interest and were snapped up into chains such as Gannett and Knight-Ridder. Privately owned papers such as the Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times went public.

Soon, expectations for a newspaper/media company were that earnings should be at 20 to 25 percent on its gross income.

There were days when Monday’s Post was more than 80 pages, and on Thursday it was almost twice that size. Industry leaders didn’t see that people still spent only an average of 27 minutes reading daily newspapers, so when papers grew to twice as large, some advertisers weren’t getting their money’s worth.

Habits were changing, too. Radio and television became the prime news providers. Television finished off picture magazines such as Life; evening news shows killed big-city evening newspapers. The Internet was coming, and it drew away the profitable classified ads. Cable and multiple radio stations damaged network advertising.

Think of a newspaper as a supermarket of material. I work in the meat department (national and foreign news along with sports and crime) as the public is becoming not just more vegetarian (health, science, style and human interest and animal stories) but also more practical (local news, home furnishing, education, entertainment).

The Internet has joined radio and television in being first with news, but Web sites and cable are providing more of what I call “junk food” — news-gossip and opinions rather than facts.

Reporters have morphed into commentators and then into “personalities.” The best example: The annual White House correspondents dinner has turned into a contest in which media organizations compete for inviting the most outrageous guests.

Respect for the media has dropped in public opinion polls. Journalists have been acting as if we’re more important than those we cover and our readers.

By the 1990s it became clear that the news business was changing and newspapers would, too. For more than a decade, along with writing for the Post, I helped write and produce television news reports and documentaries for CBS and NBC News.

I came to believe that the Post should create a joint venture with a network news division.

The Washington Post Co. had me help look at television ventures and other projects. We did two documentaries with CBS that were preceded by Newsweek articles and Post series. In 1995, we worked out a proposed nightly news show with CNN that would be based on the next day’s newspaper. Sadly, it collapsed just as we were about to test the program. I still believe combining The Washington Post ’s reporting assets with a television news organization’s video and programming expertise would be a viable joint venture.

It’s also a shame that America’s two great newspapers, the Times and the Post, have separate Web sites when they could jointly provide the best news site on the Internet.

The foundation of The Washington Post is its local readers and the advertisers who want to reach them. They are not as plentiful as they once were, but revenue from circulation and advertising will help keep the Post going. The Web can provide supplementary but not the primary income.

Post management understands the situation, and it’s up to each one of us who works here to satisfy the customers who shop in our little corner of this vast marketplace of ideas. We want them to keep coming back for more.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post and writes the Fine Print column.