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 Amazon.com 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.