When I was in high school, one of my classmates tried to get the Washington Post to buy an ad in the literary magazine. She was turned down. But the rejection came with a hand written note from Donald Graham, then the paper’s publisher. If he bought the ad, he explained, he’d have to say yes to every other teenager who came his way. But, he added, “some time when you’re just a bit older, I want to talk to you about coming to work here.”
It’s a good bet Jeff Bezos would never have sent a note like that from his Seattle abode. Which I was sort of surprised to find was one of my first thoughts when I heard about the Post’s sale today to the billionaire Amazon owner.
People who know more than I do about the media business will argue about whether Bezos is the kind of tech-savvy innovator who can help revive the organization or the kind of vanity tycoon who will run its reputation into the ground. But in a fast-changing, money-saturated Washington, the departure of the Graham family from the paper is also meaningful for other reasons.
Any newsprint sentimentalist can tell you that there was a time not so long ago when grand publishing families roamed the earth—the Bancrofts, the Chandlers, the Copleys. For the most part, they’re gone now. In fact, in a year when the newspaper narrative has focused on noblesse oblige locals playing white knight as they buy hometown papers away from floundering chains, the sale to an out-of-towner seems a mite out of step. Jeff Bezos may save the Post, but he’s not a Washingtonian. (Or at least not a Washington, District of Columbian.)
In another way, though, the Grahams’ exit feels appropriate at a moment when Washington is newly aware of its abruptly increased wealth and the ugly new class that dominates the city’s elite. Like most other places in the country, Washington over the past half-century has seen its local department stores, banks, and supermarket chains subsumed into national firms, and watched the hometown tycoons who ran them fade into obscurity. In their place is a new elite whose status seems less permanent, and whose ongoing jockeying for power, as chronicled in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, reflects that.
This is not to mourn the passing of the old, hereditary elites of Washington or any other place. The Grahams have been public-spirited stewards of their paper—if not always brilliant business mind. But plenty of their fellow members of D.C. "cave-dweller" population of natives were not so high-minded, countenancing segregation, busting blocks, overcharging customers, and otherwise behaving like entitled cretins. Still, it was nice that at least some of the capital’s permanent class were permanent not as the product of smarmy lobbying and party-promoting relationships but because they had real skin in the game in the form of a newspaper that was rooted in the life of the physical place.
As a Post subscriber, I’m agnostic about the sale. As a D.C. native, I’m a bit wistful.