WASHINGTON – It began with a bankruptcy sale in 1933, when a Republican businessman and presidential confidant reinvented himself as a newspaper publisher in the nation’s capital. It ended with an announcement that his descendants had sold the newspaper to an Internet wizard who lives in the Washington on the other side of the country.
In between, The Washington Post and the family collectively known as the Grahams became inseparable, indistinguishable. They were journalism royalty known around the world but remained as distinctly Washington as the cop on the beat. Which one of them was.
From Eugene Meyer to Philip Graham to Katharine Graham to Donald Graham to Katharine Weymouth, it was always a question of when power would shift from one generation to the next, not whether it would.
Until Monday. The Graham family — icons of both Washington and journalism for the newspaper they led — had made a startling decision. The Post, they said, would be better off with somebody else.
“We have loved the paper, what it stood for, and those who produced it,” said a letter from Donald Graham, The Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive. “But the point of our ownership has always been that it was supposed to be good for the Post.”
He added: “We were certain the paper would survive under our ownership, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to succeed.”
It was the same 80 years earlier, when Meyer, a wealthy native Californian, sent a representative to the steps of the Post’s former headquarters on E Street. His winning bid for the bankrupt newspaper was $825,000, and he was not disclosed as the new owner for 12 days.
He drafted the announcement of the sale and stated his intentions: “It will be conducted as an independent paper devoted to the best interests of the people of Washington and vicinity, and hopes to have their interest and support.”
By the time Meyer was 40, in 1915, his fortune was said to be in the $50 million-$60 million range. When he bought the Post, he was 57 and most recently had been chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
He stressed the “independent” part to dispel rumors that the paper would become a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. He said seven principles would guide the Post, the last of which was: “The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.”
Meyer poured his fortune into the Post and was an enthusiastic cheerleader. He was said to have tried to sell a subscription to the driver before he exited a cab.
But the real change for the Post came 21 years after the purchase, when Meyer and his son-in-law, Philip Graham, bought out its morning rival, the Washington Times-Herald. “For the Post, it meant a doubling of circulation, a morning monopoly and within five years the overtaking of the traditional advertising leader in Washington, The Star,” wrote Post reporter Chalmers Roberts in a history of the paper.
Graham was brilliant and charismatic, a former Supreme Court clerk with big ambitions and serious problems. He became publisher at 31, and Meyer arranged for him to hold more stock in the company than his own daughter, Katharine, because, he explained to her, “no man should be in the position of working for his wife.” Mrs. Graham did not object.
“I increasingly saw my role as the tail to his kite and the more I felt overshadowed, the more it became a reality,” Katharine Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “Personal History.”
Philip Graham struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1963; his 47-year-old widow was faced with the decision of whether to sell the paper or run it herself.
It was the beginning of a long career for Katharine Graham that coincided with — and came to symbolize — two powerful trends. The first was the role of women as leaders in American life. The second was the rise of Washington’s permanent elite, an orbit of the unelected that grew along with the federal city and exercised soft power on those who had hard power.
Graham became both the leading woman in American business and a center of connection and influence in Washington society. When Graham later penned her best-selling memoir, writer Nora Ephron wrote in a review: “The story of her journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century.”
Graham’s legacy at the Post was defined by her choice of editor, Benjamin Bradlee, and by a series of journalistic crises. In 1971, a judge had ordered The New York Times to stop publishing reports about the Pentagon Papers, a secret official history of the Vietnam War. The Post obtained its own copy. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’ ” Graham recalled saying.
She was best known for her support of Bradlee and two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, during their reporting on the Watergate break-in. That story, which had been scoffed at by big-name reporters at the Post and elsewhere, led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and became the most famous in the history of U.S. journalism.
“It was a small group of people on the metro staff against the world. Except we had the backing of Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who was an editor on the metropolitan staff during Watergate and served as executive editor from 1991 to 2008.
Katharine Graham later faced down a strike from the paper’s pressmen’s union in 1975, a tense period in which presses were vandalized and daily copy was ferried out by helicopter to other printing facilities.
In 1979, 33-year-old Donald Graham became the next generation to run the Post. “Today, as in the rest of my life, my mother has given me everything but an easy act to follow,” he said.
Donald Graham joked often about how he got his job, but he worked hard to expand what had been a life of privilege. He served in Vietnam and learned all aspects of the Post: He worked as a reporter, editor, advertising salesman, production supervisor, and in many other roles on the business and editorial staffs of the Post.
But before that, he became a police officer because, as his mother said, he wanted “to become acquainted with the city, its people, and its problems.”
As regal as Katharine Graham could be, Donald Graham was a down-to-earth publisher with better sources in the city and the region than most of his paper’s reporters. He prided himself on knowing the names of everyone who worked in the building.
“I hated getting into an elevator with Don, because I have a terrible memory for names,” Downie said. “He knew all the people from the ninth floor to the sub-basement.”
It is impossible to overstate how close the paper’s employees felt to the owners. When reporters picked up the check for lunch with sources, the standard line was: “The Grahams are paying.”
The fifth member of the family to run the paper is Katharine Weymouth, Donald Graham’s niece and a lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Weymouth was announced as publisher on Feb. 7, 2008.
“Our rate of success with publishers named Katharine has been outstanding,” Donald Graham said in making the announcement.
Weymouth grew up in New York City, the daughter of Katharine Graham’s daughter, Lally Weymouth. The stories she recalls hearing about the Graham family involved its influence in Washington: Phil Graham helping put Lyndon B. Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960; Ronald Reagan turning up at her grandmother’s birthday parties.
Weymouth inherited a very different business than what Donald and Katharine Graham had been given. Morning newspapers everywhere had long functioned as near-monopolies, making enough money to insulate owners and journalists from the grim details of profit and loss.
But the Internet had derailed that model, in Washington and everywhere else.
“The increase in digital income is not nearly as great as the loss in advertising income. And that’s the problem,” Downie said. He recalled hearing worries about the trend long before Weymouth took the publisher’s job. “She did not preside over this change. The change began well before her.”
At the same annual meeting where Weymouth’s promotion was announced, the company also revealed a new round of buyouts for newsroom employees. And it said it would close one of its two printing plants.
During Weymouth’s tenure as publisher, the problems at the Post — and other papers — have worsened. Post circulation fell from 638,000 on weekdays to about 450,000 for the first six months of 2013. The newspaper’s revenue dropped as well. The company’s newspaper division took in $801 million in Weymouth’s first year as publisher and $582 million in 2012 — a decline of more than 25 percent.
Weymouth’s early tenure was also marred by a scandal over proposed “salons,” where the Post would connect high-paying business interests to government officials. In 2012, she replaced Marcus Brauchli, the first editor she had hired to run the newsroom, with Boston Globe editor Martin Baron.
Weymouth said she and Donald Graham together decided that the Post needed a new owner who was more like her great-grandfather: wealthy enough to buy the paper and make it again a private company.
“What I said to Don (was) if the journalism is the mission — and it is — then you can make an argument that the Post (company) is no longer the best place to house the Post,” Weymouth said Monday.
Did she consider whether Katharine Graham, her grandmother, would have approved?
“It didn’t play a role. She’s not here,” Weymouth said. “Times have changed, and we need to do what we think is best for the Post.”
Weymouth will stay on as publisher, and she described herself as “actually pretty excited.” But for the first time in 80 years, the paper will be out of her family’s ultimate control.
“The Graham family legacy is not as important as The Washington Post’s legacy,” Weymouth said.