An oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, 1980 to the present

A project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

The Riptide blog

The Washington Post Relies on Riptide to Explain the Forces that Forced the Paper’s Sale

When we started working on Riptide last winter, we hoped it would be a future resource for researchers and reporters alike trying to understand what happened to the legacy news business when it ran into the digital revolution. We had no idea it would be used so soon, but we’re glad it was available when The Washington Post set out to explain why Don Graham decided to sell the paper to Jeff Bezos this summer. When Graham declined to give an interview to his own paper, reporter Steve Mufson turned to Graham’s interview in Riptide.

As Jeff Bezos prepares to take over, a look at forces that shaped The Washington Post sale

By Steven Mufson, Published: September 27

On April 4, Donald E. Graham sat for a videotaped interview about how the Internet and digital technology had hammered and transformed the news business. Cradling a coffee cup emblazoned with the word “Washington,” Graham sat next to his desk, with three Herblock cartoons on the wall behind him and a photo of a young Warren Buffett on the table next to him.

Graham gave a classic performance, telling stories of bygone times in his disarming aw-shucks manner, dispensing compliments to colleagues and rivals while mixing in his sober, analytical view about the reporting-intensive newspaper business — and his failure to come up with a way to sustain it

“One of the questions that faces places like the [New York] Times and The Post is: Is there any kind of a plus to a news organization in having really high-quality reporting and editing?” he said at one point. “I’m pretty sure the answer to that is yes, but we have not figured it out.”

He added, “If somebody said to me there’s a way out for newspapers, but you’re going to have to lose $100 million a year to get there four to five years from now, I would sign up for it in a minute.”

But no one said that to him and unbeknownst to the three veteran journalists interviewing him that day for Riptide, a journalism history project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein center, Graham was trying to figure his own way out — of the daily newspaper business. Quietly, he was shopping around for a buyer, one without a political agenda but also one with a sense of stewardship about the paper — and pockets deep enough to buy the franchise and cover losses if necessary.

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos ultimately agreed to buy the paper himself for $250 million, also acquiring El Tiempo, Express, the local Gazettes, and Robinson Terminal, including Robinson’s 23 acres of undeveloped land in Charles County, Md.

You’ll find Mufson’s entire story here.

September 28, 2013, 9:59 pm

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