Many in the Fourth Estate were recently saddened by news that The Washington Post and related publications are being sold to Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com, for $250 million cash.
"A death in the family" was a typical reaction. The Post's own news story said "several veteran employees cried" when the Graham family, guardians of the paper for generations, broke the news of the sale at an employee gathering.
Tears notwithstanding, the sale is cause for celebration, because it gives rise to the hope that The Post will start doing what a good newspaper does - honestly reporting what's important to its readers.
The Post has been a mediocre newspaper in drag for a long time, and it can be judged by what we see in Washington, D.C., today. The District, itself, is mess. And the nation's three branches of government in that city are failing the American people in every imaginable way.
Had the watchdog been watching, the District and the nation would be in better shape today.
The newspaper lost its way decades ago, perhaps when the cult of the personalities took over. Larger-than-life figures included Publisher Katharine Graham and her executive editor, Benjamin E. Bradlee.
Graham, who died in 2001, cast a huge shadow (some considered her the most powerful woman in the world), and in her autobiography, she wrote that she was guided by the principle that "journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand."
She and Bradlee went after Pulitzer Prizes with abandon, and they captured a bunch. But "journalistic excellence and profitability" slipped away.
Graham's granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, a lawyer by training, took over in February 2008, and she's been trying to dig out of the paper's hole ever since. She's cut staff, closed news bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and eliminated the Sunday Book World section.
The verdict: Lawyers do not make good publishers.
In the first six months of 2013, circulation was off an additional 7.1 percent to 447,700 on weekdays and an additional 7.6 percent to 646,700 on Sundays, compared with the first six months of 2012. Ad revenue was down an additional 4 percent in the second quarter.
At normal newspapers, people are thrown out. At The Post, the towel was thrown in.
It's a good divorce for a suffering paper. Some of its more embarrassing moments:
- In1981, a Post reporter wrote a feature story about "Jimmy," an 8-year-old black boy who was a heroin addict. Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor, submitted the story for a Pulitzer Prize, and one was awarded.
The Pulitzer had to be returned, however. As it turns out, there was no "Jimmy" and the story was fiction. Bradlee, the executive editor, describes the incident as "the most serious blow to the Post's reputation while I was editor by far."
- On Jan. 17, 1998, Matt Drudge reported that Newsweek magazine (then owned by the Washington Post Co.) had killed a story about a White House intern having a sexual affair with the president of the United States.
Four days would pass before The Post could report on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
- On July 1, 2009, The Post's Marking Department sent a flier to lobbyists, inviting them to cough up $25,000 each to attend an off-the-record "Washington Post Salon" at the publisher's home.
The "salon," entitled "Health-Care Reform: Better or Worse for Americans?" promised access to "those powerful few," including Obama administration officials, members of Congress,and the paper's own reporters and editors.
Politico reported on the flier, the newsroom erupted in anger and the event was canceled. "Salongate" was born.
What does the future hold for The Post? Everybody's watching. Maybe Jeff Bezos can figure out a successful business model for print in the digital age and produce a credible newspaper.
If he does, he'll be a hero. And if he doesn't, look for another announcement and more tears.