The fall of the house of Graham

wapo cover 2

The Washington Post is my hometown newspaper.  I read it for many years as part of my daily routine, and until the paywall came down I continued to read the sports pages in search of tidbits about my beloved Washington Nationals.  The Post’s self-image is that of a feisty challenger to the New York Times – and like all number twos, it loves to think that it tries harder.

The paper was always a rich man’s plaything.  It was owned by a wealthy family whose name changed several times in four generations, but which, for some reason, is always referred to as “the Grahams.”  They owned other, more valuable properties, but it was the Post that bought them a walk on the red carpet.  In the capital city of the world’s greatest democracy, the Grahams were treated like royalty.  And no wonder:  they controlled the image of the invertebrate political population.

On 2 August, 2013, the Grahams sold the Washington Post to an even wealthier individual – Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.  They kept their more profitable possessions:  only the newspaper was dumped.  In a hilarious journalistic moment, the Post itself reported the sale as “sudden and stunning,” and cited Donald Graham, the paper’s ex-CEO, as expressing “shock.”  It was as if the family had woken up in a strange bed with a $250 million check on the night table.  Not even the paper’s crusty beat reporters, whose gimlet-like eyes missed nothing, could account for this abrupt fall from grace.

The sale has stirred up the customary uproar about the future of newspapers and the merits of new media, as opposed to the more antiquated kind.  I will get back to that in a moment – briefly, which is all the subject deserves.  But first, a word about the Post’s place in the mythology of news

Newspapers like to tell a particular story about themselves.  In this tale, the public is helpless and ignorant, elected officials are cunning Machiavellians, and journalists serve as watchdogs to power while telling truth, like it or not, to the unwashed masses.  That this is false on all counts has never stopped people in the newspaper business from believing, on moral and political grounds, that the world will tumble into barbarism if they should ever lose their jobs.

The Post features in the only scrap of evidence ever produced in support of the story:  the paper’s role in the Watergate scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the presidency.  This is really a fable within a fable, one in which two cub reporters on the city beat, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, stumbled into a film noir of government conspiracies and, by following the money, saved the republic from an unspeakably Nixonian fate.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, became a popular movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

That was the worst of it.  Nobody in the city of Washington DC is now or has ever been as handsome as Robert Redford or as good at acting as Dustin Hoffman.  Nobody here has ever said “follow the money” – people in government speak in pungent paragraphs, not punchy phrases.  As it happened, the Post’s part in Watergate was minor, and the movie, like most Hollywood concoctions, bore little relation to reality.  Yet to this day newspaper types confuse themselves with movie stars, and young people get lured in large numbers to journalism schools hoping to land a leading role in a Washington scandal.

Instead, those who actually seek employment with newspapers will land among the ruins, in the informational equivalent of the city of Detroit.  Let’s get real:  for all the talk of new media, the problem with newspapers isn’t that they are old or pretentious, but that they can’t make money in the marketplace.  Donald Graham admitted as much, stating that, under his family, the Post “could have survived” but not exactly thrived.  He was shedding risk – bolting out the back door while Robert Redford look-alikes lined up for jobs in the HR office.

Two days before the sale of the Post, the New York Times Company had engaged in the kind of cold-hearted business calculation it usually criticizes in the opinion pages, unloading the Boston Globe at a loss of over $1 billion.  And yes:  that’s “billion.”  The buyer was the owner of the Red Sox, who holds several ballplayers under bigger contracts than the $70 million price tag for the Globe.

The usual suspects offered up for the near-fatal mugging of the daily newspaper are the loss of advertisement to websites like Craigslist, and the unbundling of content in the age of Google and Facebook.  Both are guilty as charged.  Newspapers operated within local monopolies, and the digital invasion of this marketplace wrecked their business model beyond the possibility of repair.

Not that repairs haven’t been tried.  In June of this year, the Post swallowed hard and imitated Number One, the New York Times, by getting itself a paywall.  Here we have the answer to the digital revolution by America’s two great dailies:  build a wall.  It places them in the same class with China, Iran, and other despotic governments worried about too much free stuff confusing the rudimentary mind of the public.

Hiding behind a wall has never been the best strategy, under any circumstances.  Hiding behind a wall in the age of Google and Facebook, when the currency is attention, starts to resemble an early symptom of senile dementia.

Much has been made of Bezos’ official standing as a conquistador in the mysterious domains of the web – whether he’ll seek to ravage the dowdy Post, whether such excitement would be the work of the devil or just what the old girl needs.  This may matter to politicians who love to see their names in genuine dead-tree newsprint, but for the rest of us it’s a discussion empty of content.  Newspapers today are small potatoes.  The Washington Post is small potatoes.  So, for that matter, is the New York Times.  Those who think otherwise are persons of a certain age who view the world through layers of memory, as if from the wrong end of a telescope.

Bezos is a billionaire who bought himself a plaything from a family of multi-millionaires.  That is the future of the daily newspaper:  the sugar daddy, and all the metered intimacies such a relationship entails.  Bezos’ new toy, I expect, will bring him much personal gratification, and maybe an invitation or two to the White House, but it will be of little consequence to the future of truth, justice, and the American way.

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