WASHINGTON — The sale of The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos rocked the world of journalism, but it was also a shock to the community where it’s published: The hometown newspaper of the nation’s capital city is no longer locally owned.
The Graham family, which controlled the paper from 1933 until the announcement Monday of the sale to Bezos, has been known for its engagement in local affairs, pushing for urban renewal and education reform, among other causes.
While some local leaders say they are saddened by the sale to an out-of-town businessman, their feelings are mixed with hope that Bezos — who plans to continue living in Seattle — will safeguard the paper’s journalistic traditions.
“I was not prepared to see my hometown newspaper, which has outlived its rivals, sold to somebody from across the other side of the world as far as we are concerned,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s longtime congressional representative and a third-generation Washingtonian. “It might be called Washington, but it’s not the same thing.”
The paper’s sale was such a closely held secret that it’s not clear whether there were any potential local buyers. The Post reported that investment firm Allen & Co. met with about half a dozen suitors, but it did not name them.
Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, praised the Grahams’ deep personal investment in the community, but noted that the realities of business are unavoidable.
“The Grahams were so engaged in the District of Columbia and this region and really cared about this city,” she said. “Having somebody local replace them would have been nice, but in the world of business, you have to take the best deal that you can find.”
Mayor Vincent Gray said in a written statement that he was “honored to have worked with Don Graham and the Graham family,” while also praising Bezos as “a pioneer and a visionary.”
When Eugene Meyer bought the Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, he laid out his vision for a civic-minded paper. Philip Graham, Meyer’s son-in-law who succeeded him as publisher, printed a series of articles in 1952 lamenting urban blight in the nation’s capital. With the culmination of the series, Graham brought civic leaders together to form the Federal City Council — a group that continues today, seeking to bridge the gaps between the local government, the federal government and the private sector to improve the city. His son, Donald Graham, remains a trustee of the council.
Before he became publisher, Donald Graham worked for a year and a half as a D.C. police officer to become more familiar with the city and its residents. He is also the chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program.
His niece, Katharine Weymouth, is now publisher, and Bezos has asked her to continue in that role.
As its hometown daily slips out of local control, Washington is experiencing what many other American cities have undergone since newspaper chains began to develop and spread their reach in the 20th century. Only a handful of major newspapers are still owned by local families, including the Columbus Dispatch and the Toledo Blade and Bezos’ hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times. The New York Times, still controlled by the Sulzberger family, last week said it was selling The Boston Globe to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.
The Post will continue to be family-owned — just not by a local family.
Sally Quinn, a longtime Post writer, wife of former executive editor Ben Bradlee and a prominent Washington hostess, has long lamented the decline of the city’s social and philanthropic scene, in which former Post publisher Katharine Graham was a major figure. But Quinn said securing the newspaper’s future was more important than maintaining local ownership. She and her husband are encouraged by the sale to Bezos, she said.
“Local doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve got someone with integrity who cares about the journalism,” Quinn said. “Washington was a small town then, and in some ways it is now, but communications and the media have changed so much that nothing is local anymore.”
Ted Leonsis, a former AOL executive who owns the Washington Wizards and Capitals, suggested in a blog post that Bezos may be motivated more by public service and philanthropy than by profit.
“You can put your name on a building or a hospital. You can fund scholarships. You can make a documentary film to catalyze change,” Leonsis wrote. “And now you can buy a newspaper or print publication … to make a virtual charitable gift to help serve your community.”
David Alpert, a former Google project manager and the founder of the urbanist blog Greater Greater Washington, said Bezos could show his commitment to the city by maintaining robust local coverage.
“I think the effect of the Post has been more in its ability to inform people. Certainly what the Graham family has done is important, but they’re not leaving,” Alpert said. “I don’t think there’s any reason that should mean that we lose a family of people who care about the region. Maybe we’ll gain one.”
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