Don Graham’s Next Act

**FILE** Washington Post Co. chairman and CEO Don Graham arrives at the annual Allen and Co.'s media conference in this July 13, 2007 file photo, in Sun Valley, Idaho.
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Aug. 7, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

As spec­u­la­tion over the fal­lout from the sale of The Wash­ing­ton Post con­tin­ues, few will feel the changes harder than Don­ald E. Gra­ham, the man at the helm of the news­pa­per for more than two dec­ades.

At 68, Gra­ham is about to un­der­go a start­ling trans­ition, from the man atop one of the most in­flu­en­tial pa­pers in the coun­try — and cer­tainly the most vis­ible in Wash­ing­ton — to a role that may be more akin to a suc­cess­ful loc­al busi­ness­man.

“He has al­ways been as­so­ci­ated with The Wash­ing­ton Post — it gave him entry in­to wherever he wanted to be,” said News­pa­pers & Tech­no­logy colum­nist Doug Page. “That will change.”

As Page put it, after the sale, “He can’t turn to his ed­it­ors on the ed­it­or­i­al page and say, ‘Do this.’ “

Of course, sev­er­al dec­ades at the top of the com­pany have also made Gra­ham one of the most im­port­ant power play­ers in Wash­ing­ton. He is on the board of dir­ect­ors for Face­book, after strik­ing up a close friend­ship with founder Mark Zuck­er­berg, nearly 40 years young­er than Gra­ham. And he re­mains a mem­ber of the Pulitzer Prize board, where he met his cur­rent wife, Aman­da Ben­nett, a former ed­it­or of the Phil­adelphia In­quirer. (Gra­ham’s 40-year mar­riage to Mary Wissler ended in 2007; the couple had four chil­dren, all of whom are now in journ­al­ism or so­cial me­dia.)

Gra­ham is also a trust­ee of the Fed­er­al City Coun­cil, a group of busi­ness lead­ers fo­cused on im­prov­ing life in the na­tion’s cap­it­al; a dir­ect­or of the Sum­mit Fund of Wash­ing­ton, aimed at build­ing up the Anacos­tia area and pre­vent­ing teen preg­nan­cies; and a lead­er of the Col­lege Suc­cess Found­a­tion, the Dis­trict of Columbia Col­lege Ac­cess Pro­gram, and the charter school pro­gram KIPP-DC.

“He’s a power play­er,” said John Zo­gby, founder of the polling firm Zo­gby In­ter­na­tion­al and a long­time Wash­ing­ton ob­serv­er. “His fam­ily is in­grained in the com­munity.”

Yet there’s no doubt that the trans­fer of own­er­ship from Gra­ham’s fam­ily, which has run The Post for 80 years, to founder and CEO Jeff Bezos might be seen as a tra­gic fi­nal act for Gra­ham, son of the news­pa­per’s dyn­asty build­ers, the late pub­lish­ers Philip and Kath­ar­ine Gra­ham.

But be­cause Gra­ham star­ted at the bot­tom be­fore rising to the top of his com­pany, he gets cred­it for do­ing all he could to save The Post from be­ing one of the biggest vic­tims of the seis­mic shift from print to di­git­al me­dia. It just turned out that his many and var­ied at­tempts to right the ship fell short.

“In some re­gards you could say the Gra­ham fam­ily de­cided they didn’t have the skill-set to op­er­ate The Wash­ing­ton Post in the fu­ture,” said Page.

Gra­ham ac­know­ledged as much in his state­ment an­noun­cing the sale on Monday. “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,” he said. “Our an­swer had to be cost cuts, and we knew there was a lim­it to that. We were cer­tain the pa­per would sur­vive un­der our own­er­ship, but we wanted it to do more than that. We wanted it to suc­ceed.”

As me­dia em­pires around the coun­try were crum­bling in 2009, Page lis­ted his can­did­ates for “worst chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of a pub­licly held U.S. news­pa­per com­pany.” Gra­ham was not among them.

“I al­ways thought he was a pretty good op­er­at­or,” Page said.

Gra­ham be­came CEO of The Wash­ing­ton Post Co. in 1991 and chair­man in 1993. Dur­ing his 20 years as chair­man, the num­ber of Post sub­scribers dropped nearly in half and the news­room staff was cut by a third, and 2013 was shap­ing up as the sev­enth straight year of de­clin­ing rev­en­ues.

“This has to be cat­egor­ized as un­charted wa­ters,” Zo­gby said. “News­pa­pers face new chal­lenges with every gen­er­a­tion. This is the next it­er­a­tion and prob­ably the most trans­form­at­ive.”

The $250 mil­lion sale to Bezos, an es­tab­lished lead­er of the di­git­al re­volu­tion, rep­res­ents the best hope for meet­ing the news­pa­per’s “enorm­ous chal­lenges of both rev­en­ue and rel­ev­ance,” Zo­gby said. “If he can’t do it nobody can.”

Gra­ham an­nounced the sale to The Post staff on Monday af­ter­noon “in a voice so full of emo­tion that he had to stop a few times to gath­er him­self,” wrote Dav­id Rem­nick, ed­it­or of The New York­er and a former Post re­port­er, in a blog post on Tues­day. And though Gra­ham will re­main chair­man of the oth­er Post hold­ings be­sides the news­pa­per, “I can’t help think­ing this: Don­ald Gra­ham’s heart is broken,” Rem­nick wrote.

Gra­ham has lived and breathed The Post since birth, and he star­ted his ca­reer climb at Har­vard Col­lege as pres­id­ent of the Har­vard Crim­son. He gradu­ated in 1966, was draf­ted the fol­low­ing year, and served as an in­form­a­tion spe­cial­ist for the 1st Cav­alry Di­vi­sion in Vi­et­nam un­til 1968, then be­came a patrol­man with the Wash­ing­ton Met­ro­pol­it­an Po­lice De­part­ment in 1969 and 1970. He be­came a re­port­er at The Post in 1971, just as Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein were start­ing the Wa­ter­gate in­vest­ig­a­tion that brought down a pres­id­ent and made the news­pa­per fam­ous.

After five years as a re­port­er, ad­vert­ising sales­man, pro­duc­tion su­per­visor, and in oth­er roles at the news­pa­per, Gra­ham was named The Post‘s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent and gen­er­al man­ager in 1976. He suc­ceeded his moth­er as pub­lish­er in 1979 and held the po­s­i­tion un­til 2000, when he be­came chair­man of both the news­pa­per and its oth­er prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing cable-tele­vi­sion sys­tems and the Ka­plan edu­ca­tion­al di­vi­sion.

Gra­ham’s de­vo­tion to journ­al­ism and pas­sion for his em­ploy­ees made him be­loved among The Post‘s staff. Colum­nist Gene Weingarten summed it up in an “open let­ter to Jeff Bezos” on The Post web­site Tues­day: “I think I speak for more than my­self when I say that the main reas­on I have high hopes for your stew­ard­ship is that Don Gra­ham said it was the right thing for the pa­per. He said you are the right guy. That was enough for me.”

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story gave an in­cor­rect first name for John Zo­gby.

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