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A family dynasty gives up The Washington Post

world Updated: Aug 06, 2013 12:32 IST

AP
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Don Graham, whose grandfather bought the venerable Washington Post at a 1933 bankruptcy sale, announced in a letter to staff Monday that the paper had been sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, closing the book on the storied paper's history as a family dynasty after seven straight years of declining revenue.

The paper faces questions about the future of the newspaper business "to which we have no answers," Graham told the staff.

It's another watershed moment for an institution that first published in 1877, with a circulation of 10,000, bounced among owners both Democrat and Republican in its young life and encountered near-death experiences along the way, before most famously conducting an investigation that unraveled a presidency.

Eugene Meyer, a California investor and member of the Federal Reserve, took the reins in the midst of the Depression, burnishing the paper's reputation and tripling its circulation before handing control in the 1940s to son-in-law, Philip L. Graham, a brilliant, brooding and mercurial figure who killed himself with a shotgun at his Virginia farm in 1963.

Control fell to his widow, Katharine Graham. And it was she who stirred the full fury of all the president's men when young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began unwrapping the Watergate saga that would destroy Richard Nixon's presidency - and inspire legions to take up investigative journalism for years ahead.

In one landmark revelation, the paper published a front-page story describing the 1972 burglary at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate offices as part of a massive campaign of spying and sabotage directed by White House officials and members of Nixon's re-election committee.

As told in Graham's memoirs, "Personal History," then-Attorney General John Mitchell, one of the implicated officials, let out a "primal scream" when told the story was coming, followed by an obscenity that The Post cleaned up for its readers. Graham, the amended quote read, is "gonna get caught in a big fat wringer."

Nixon himself vowed The Post "is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one." Ultimately, he did.

Before the cascade of Watergate reporting and throughout that episode, The Post was - as it remains - in pitched competition as a voice of national influence with The New York Times, still a survivor in the dwindling list of powerful family-owned organs.

In 1971 The Times and then The Post published explosive stories on the leaked Pentagon Papers, revealing the government's lies about the Vietnam War. Both fought attempts to suppress publication of the material. The case led to a victory for constitutional free speech rights in the Supreme Court and a Pulitzer Prize for The Times one year before The Post won honors for its Watergate scoops.

In 2008 alone, the paper won six Pulitzers, recognized for exposing mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, for its Virginia Tech massacre coverage, its series on private security contractors in Iraq, and more. Perhaps its darkest hour also involved a Pulitzer, won in 1981 by reporter Janet Cooke for a story that was fake.

Despite the awards of recent years, there was trouble brewing for the business.

Buckling from pressures felt throughout the industry in the digital age, the paper saw its paid weekday circulation drop 37 percent from 2002 to last year. Newsroom staff was repeatedly trimmed and some bureaus closed. The newspaper ran an operating loss of $54 million last year.

"We had innovated and to my critical eye our innovations had been quite successful in audience and in quality, but they hadn't made up for the revenue decline," Don Graham said in his announcement of the sale. "Our answer had to be cost cuts, and we knew there was a limit to that."

To Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University historian of the presidency and the press, Watergate was but the most spectacular example of a continuing Post tradition of holding the bureaucracy to account. The paper's recent in-depth account of the structure and spending of the intelligence community and its 2007 series on questionable management operations at the Smithsonian museum complex - leading to the resignation of its chief - came immediately to her mind.

"Losing The Washington Post to a distant owner is like losing a trusted relative you rely on for information and a sense of priorities for what is important close to you," Kumar said. "It is a sad, sad day."

In 2008, Katharine Weymouth, Katharine Graham's granddaughter, was named publisher and CEO of The Post, latest and last in the family line.

"This has been, this is, and this will continue to be, a family operation," Katharine Graham said.

Her words remain true in one sense: The Post goes now to a family, but not hers.