An upheaval in the family
WASHINGTON — When the Washington Post Writers Group came courting several years ago, inviting me to join the company’s syndicate, I remember well the pitch: We’re a family.
By then I had been syndicated for more than a decade by the Tribune Co. and was struck yet again by the layers of irony implicit in the words such media organizations use to describe themselves. Syndicate. Family.
Thank God no one kissed me.
In the Post’s case, the term was more than metaphor. The paper, which has been in the Graham family for 80 years, was literally a family. The idea appealed to me. Only family-held papers seemed to sustain the degree of loyalty to the journalistic ideals that attracted my generation of reporters to the field. Back in the day, we really did want to save the world.
And, of course, drink.
There were other attractions to the Post group. My previous syndicate, to which I am forever grateful, was an enormous enterprise where I was but one of scores of “products” that a handful of salesmen had to sell. Most significant, the top executives were primarily businessmen rather than journalists.
At the Writers Group, in contrast, the top guys — editorial director Alan Shearer and senior editor James Hill — are veteran journalists with close to 100 combined years of institutional memory. The stable of writers is relatively small and, if I do say so, the best in the business. Editing is top-notch, owing in no small part to one fellow whose name will not be familiar to many — Richard Aldacushion, editor/fact-checker extraordinaire.
We writers worship Richard. One columnist made his name a verb. “To be Richarded” means to be subjected to his gimlet eye and, on occasions too numerous to count, saved from humiliation. We are, indeed, a family and each column is our baby. It doesn’t take a village to write a column, but it’s helpful to have a few affectionate aunts and uncles reading over one’s shoulder.
We may not be perfect, but what family is?
Although the syndicate is separate from the newspaper, we all live under the Post banner, dwell in the same building, occupy the same pages and pixels — and all have enjoyed the aura of the literal family, the Grahams. Their announcement Monday that the paper is being sold to Amazon creator Jeff Bezos wasn’t just a news shock. It was a gut-punch of familial disruption. Children of divorce are familiar with the feeling.
Nothing will change in the immediate future, we’ve been told. And truly, for me, nothing will. Even though I’ve enjoyed being part of a family I admire, I have been an independent operator for most of the 25 years I have written my column. Only my muse — the fire-breathing deadline monster — has kept me company.
When you walk in the door of the Post, you gulp the air of history and feel the presence of journalism’s greats. Bob Woodward of Watergate fame is still around knocking on doors and writing books. Ben Bradlee — Ben Bradlee! — walked these very hallways. Katharine Graham, the matriarch-publisher who shepherded this institution through some of the nation’s most significant political moments, held court a few floors up.
And now her son Don Graham and granddaughter/publisher/namesake Katharine Weymouth have made the decision no one thought they’d ever see. The family paper is to become the private enterprise of an online retail entrepreneur. Then again, who better to adapt an old form to a new shape?
On Monday, when they called the staff together to deliver the news, Weymouth and Graham explained what has long been known: The publicly held company simply doesn’t have the necessary resources for innovation and survival in the Internet age. It is a familiar story these days, but the sting is nonetheless fresh when it is one’s own. Divorce is also commonplace, but this fact is of little consolation when one’s own family falls apart.
Bezos has been lauded from all quarters as a good guy whose values are in line with “the family’s.” There’s no questioning his entrepreneurial vitality.
When one’s personal fortune hovers around $25 billion, one can afford to dabble in such things as space travel, 10,000-year clocks and even newspapers.
All things change. Children grow up, parents die, families adapt and evolve. With therapy — and perhaps a little cash infusion — this one will, too.