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The Washington Post Doesn't Need a New-Media Mogul—It Needs an Old-Fashioned One

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

The Washington Post, in grave financial trouble, was bought by a very wealthy man whose biographer called him “an energetic young tycoon.”1 Highly successful as a banker and Wall Street investor, the new publisher had never before worked at a newspaper, let alone owned one, but he had shown a fine head for business and was known to be far-sighted. He had plenty of new money and wanted to do something civic-minded. His wife wrote in her diary that the Post would afford “a great opportunity” for him “to be a dominant influence in this formative period of the new America…a great chance to be creative.” Soon enough there were complaints that he was “insensitive to journalistic tradition and habits of thought.” He didn’t care. He was into agenda-setting in the nation’s capital: for influence, for pride, and for fun.

His name, of course, was Eugene Meyer, he was the father of Katharine Graham, and the year was 1933. The Post’s trouble was terminal. The paper was bankrupt. At auction, Meyer outbid not only William Randolph Hearst, who dropped out of the bidding at $800,000, but the wife of the previous publisher, Edward McLean, a profligate who had inherited it, drove it into the ground, and not long after the auction, was declared legally insane. Evalyn McLean stayed with the bidding up to $600,000 (she wanted to repossess the paper for her sons) but evidently got off in no small part because she preferred to hold on to a different bauble in her possession—the Hope diamond. Not so civic-minded, though flashier.

In the lore of the press, there’s a favorite twilight tale. Once, in the sepia-tinted days, far-sighted businessmen (and some women) walked the earth, operating without fear or favor. True, they avoided stepping on too many of the toes of the folks they liked to gather with at dinner tables. Still and all, by and large, they strove to erect monuments of probity and propriety—even objectivity, or something that could pass for it. Truth, they thought—even the truth—was their business. The proprietors of these papers understood a newspaper as a public trust, as Eugene Meyer wrote in 1935:

The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large and not to private interests of its owners. In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good. The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.    

This was feel-good rhetoric, of course. Meyer was not running a charity or a muckraking gazette. A year later, he made clearer, in private, what he meant by ”the public at large,” telling a friend: “…we are not trying to get mass circulation but quality circulation….I am being very sordid about this. I am not selling the paper to many who haven’t got an interest in buying goods.” That model worked—until, under the well-known pressures of electronics, reader expectations, and advertiser desertion, it snapped. It’s not news that commercial newspaper publishing is reeling. Many say this spells the end of newspapers, or at least venturesome ones.  But another way to think about the present moment is that we may be reverting to a world in which commerce is not the prime motive for publishing. Only by facing the music can publishers discover that it is not a dirge, though there is a rumbling leitmotif: There are plenty of better ways to make money than owning newspapers. The salvation of our better newspapers, if there is to be one, lies in the hands of tycoons and foundations who know it and act on their knowledge.

The era of the commercial press, especially the high-minded kind, now looks like more of an interlude than a permanent American fixture. Recall that it was not the founding dispensation. The American press began as a bunch of scurrilous partisan rags. Vast riches were not in prospect. There was hardly any of what we came to call “reporting.” Thomas Jefferson is fondly remembered (especially by newspapers) for having written in 1787: "If it were left to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” His remark of 1807, issued from the White House, is less frequently cited: "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”

Only after the penny press emerged in the 1830s did what we now call a “business model” emerge. The new urban papers attracted a mass readership. It required reporters and, eventually, professional norms. The prospects of large profits followed. So did sensationalism. So also did watchdog journalism in the interest of rational government. (Journalism, as Richard Hofstadter wrote, fueled the Progressive era.) Well into the middle of the twentieth century, there was enough money in publishing to sustain multiple papers in metropolitan areas, including an elite press. Midcentury New York, where I grew up, counted the Times and the Herald Tribune among a total of seven dailies.

From the Civil War onward, the ideal of independent journalism was heard in the land. It was trumpeted by Adolph Ochs, already a newspaper man with a high-minded idea of his Chattanooga Times, when in 1896 he bought (also at auction) a newspaper known as “the most picturesque old ruin among newspapers in America,” The New-York Times, a paper with a “good name,” one that he could revive as “decent, dignified [and]…devoted to the general welfare…[and] free from all ulterior influences.”2 Comparable was the cry of Eugene Meyer, who already knew his way around Washington (he served in Woodrow Wilson’s administration as a “dollar a year” man, and was a confident of Herbert Hoover, who appointed him governor of the Federal Reserve Board). He was policy-minded and soon understood that his route to success would be to sell his paper to well-educated people who were either in the know or wanted to be, not least the denizens of “this town,” official Washington. So Meyer had no qualms about courting an upscale readership. Advertisers got the point, not least the department stores that became the bedrock of big-city circulation. Like most elite publishers, Meyer believed that he could do well by doing good. His formulation of the national interest would interest his public, a public that could sustain him. No doubt he could have made more money by investing in copper, as he had done early in his career. He wasn’t publishing his paper strictly for money. He aspired to be heard in the public good, and thus to be elite—not just rich, but best.

The business model built on advertising and circulation to sustain a professional staff lasted roughly a century, and is now skidding and smoldering when it is not crashing and burning. Suburbanization killed afternoon papers, and along with television, drained department stores of their taste for full-page display ads. The Internet ate up the classifieds. At both high- and low-end papers, circulation, stagnant for years at best, plunged, as did profits, especially the sort of superprofits that became de rigueur as newspaper chains and other publicly traded media companies squeezed the newsrooms for more (and less news) for their bucks. Heirs of the Chandler (Los Angeles Times) and Bancroft (Wall Street Journal) families sold out to Tribune Company and Rupert Murdoch, respectively. The predator Sam Zell, playing with other people’s money, drove the Tribune chain into bankruptcy. No pretense of high-minded, public-spirited elite far-sightedness there. As former Post editor Leonard Downie, Jr., and my colleague, the sociologist Michael Schudson, argued in 2009: “The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone.”

To sustain independent reporting, Downie and Schudson proposed “varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy, and government policy.” Reporting is a public good but an expensive one that does not pay for itself. What kept it going in the high commercial age was that newspapers were great aggregators. If they could get you to read comics, sports, human interest, crime stories, they could get you to stick around for the more sober stuff. The aggregation no longer works. You can read, or watch, or tweet, all sports, all crime, all the time. But in the current political climate (or any conceivable one, for that matter), government aid to reporting, however logical a recourse to pump new blood into moribund news enterprises, is a nonstarter. Foundations have not—not yet, at any rate—bought out failing papers, though the Knight Foundation takes reporting as a priority and others have funded valuable online news organizations like Propublica, Voice of San Diego, The Texas Tribune, and MinnPost.

Enter, then, the billionaire Jeff Bezos, one of the cheerful beneficiaries of the government investment that made the Internet possible and of tax-advantaging laws. (Bezos has also campaigned against higher taxes for the wealthy.) Having created ways to extend markets with electronic infrastructure, men like Bezos have brilliantly (and ruthlessly) monetized what they devised. They can pick up major dailies for pocket change. This by no means makes them automatic saviors of journalism, though it certain does not make them its gravediggers. It does make them potential pillars of the next journalistic order—if there is to be one.

Jeff Bezos, may or may not want to be the anti-Zell, the philanthropist-subsidizer who can figure out not only how to get people to read journalism but how to create it somewhat afresh. Or he may take one or another low road. In fact, he may take several roads at once. Whether he is prepared to fund more and better reporting—and connect-the-dot analysis—is anyone’s guess. So is the sum he is willing to invest to acquire whatever influence he wishes to acquire. Two to three decades ago, other men of new wealth (to mention two, Norman Lear of television and Rob Glaser, formerly of Microsoft, then of RealNetworks) contemplated starting TV news channels, but in the end declined. Will Larry Ellison or Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page or Sergei Brin wish to be known to the future as underwriters of institutions as formidable as the libraries of Andrew Carnegie, or the nearly 5,000 schools built by Sears Roebuck’s Julius Rosenwald for African-American children in the rural South, organized in collaboration with Booker T. Washington, and reliably credited with producing substantial educational gains for an impoverished and neglected population?

But what is the alternative to the Bezillionaire model for today’s waning papers? The Washington Post has advantages: Between paper and online editions, it had a high-ranking 60 percent market penetration in its metropolitan area. It has the investment wizard Warren Buffett on its board. These pluses aren’t nearly enough. Today’s Post is not in receivership, but it is a depleted dog no longer nicely wagged by its tail, the Kaplan educational empire. As Kaplan’s for-profit enterprises came under government fire in recent years, they delivered fewer and fewer profits. "For a short while, it looked like Don Graham had come up with a way of propping up this paper by having a lucrative side business," the higher education consultant Barmak Nassirian told the Huffington Post. "What this subsidy turned into was one losing business attached to another losing business." Among American papers, the Post ranks third in foreign bureaus, but its must-read enterprise journalism has thinned out mightily. The op-ed page under Fred Hiatt has run neocon since he took charge in 2000, unembarrassed by its hard-right cheerleading for the Iraq war. (There was a stretch of several months when hawks outnumbered doves there by more than three-to-one.) There’s a reason why this month’s sepia-tinged stories about the Washington Post hark back to the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee.

The vicious circle of dwindling ads, declining news, disaggregation, and shrinking dead-tree circulation will not be reversed if new money tries to do more of what the old money failed to do successfully—retrench and shift digital. Attention, the ne plus ultra of popular journalism, has scattered. For twenty years, intelligent people at the papers have been hoping and praying for “a new business model.” It has not arrived. Very likely it’s not hovering in the wings. The old hats contain no new rabbits. Editors and reporters know it, and gamely hang on day-to-day. It’s a safe—indeed, definitional—assumption that when an institution is not viable, it will not live much longer. The future of better newspapers is in the hands of new wealth that may not know what it wants but is not in the historical preservation business and unlikely to make many of today’s newspapermen and –women happy. The destruction or self-destruction of high-profit journalism is guaranteed. Whether it proves creative or not is anyone’s guess.

Todd Gitlin is a Professor of Journalism and Sociology and Chair of the Ph.D. Program in Communications at Columbia University. His latest book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

  1. All facts about Meyer come from the biography by Merlo J. Pusey (Knopf, 1974).

  2. Quotes from Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, The Trust (Little, Brown, 1999)pp. 31, 33, 34.