End of an era at the Washington Post

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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The unexpected news startled the media universe in America, particularly print. After 80 years of owning and publishing the storied Washington Post, the Graham family decided to sell it to Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey Bezos for $250 million. Bezos, whose entrepreneurship has radically changed the publishing business and consumer habits assured the editors and staff of the paper that dominated the capital for four generations, that there will be no editorial changes, although he admitted that “there is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”

It is true that the greatness of the Washington Post lies in its past, when its bold investigations of the cover up of the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But it is still one of America’s premier newspapers, despite the fact that it has lost some of its sheen compared to the last two powerful national newspapers The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The acquisition of the Washington Post by a fabulously wealthy businessman known for his innovation is another stark reminder of the end of an era, the era of the multigenerational family owned metropolitan newspapers whose names were linked to America’s great cities such as the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and others whose domination of the news business and publishing lasted most of the 20th century.

The sale of the Washington Post brings to the fore the historic dilemma of the print media in a complex and ever-changing media landscape.

Hisham Melhem

The Grahams were members of an exclusive club along with other media families like the Sulzbergers, owners of the New York Times, the Bancrofts, owners of the Wall Street Journal (before it was sold to Rupert Murdoch), the Taylors, owners of the Boston Globe (before they sold it to the New York Times, the Chandlers, owners of the Los Angeles Times among others. The New York Times is still the last major daily controlled by the descendants of the original owners, the Sulzberger family. The chairman of the Times company Arthur Sulzberger was quick to assure everyone that “The Times is not for sale.”

Most of these newspapers enjoyed editorial autonomy in part because their owners could keep them financially solvent in part because they had other sources of income, but mainly because they were driven by professional consideration and the desire to maintain their legacies. This independence allowed the Post’s legendary publisher Katharine Graham in 1971 to challenge the government and publish (along with the New York Times) the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon study of the conduct of the Vietnam war that shocked the nation, which resulted in a historic decision by the Supreme Court denying the government the right to exercise pre-publication censorship. The Post’s investigative reporting into the Nixon Administration’s cover-up of the Watergate breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters made history when it led to the first resignation of an American president in the history of the republic.

Changing media landscape

The sale of the Washington Post brings to the fore the historic dilemma of the print media in a complex and ever-changing media landscape with the rise of digital technology, the Internet, cable television and social media, which altered in stunning speed the nature of gathering and disseminating news and commentary, and forever changing the old rules of sales and advertising. In the last few years many dailies and weeklies either declared bankruptcies or transformed themselves into the digital world, among them the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times and recently Newsweek magazine among others.

At the same time a plethora of internet “publications” emerged to revolutionize the spread of news and to heighten the crisis of traditional publishing. Among these new influential platform is Politico, The Daily Beast, Slate, and Salon. Eight years ago the influential web site the Huffington Post was established. Two years ago, the portal America On Line (AOL) bought the site for $350 million.

The Washington Post was sold few days after the New York Times Company announced the sale of the Boston Globe for $70 million to a wealthy businessman. In 1993, the Times bought the Boston Globe for a whopping $1.1 billion. The track record of those wealthy individuals who bought or controlled most shares in some of the old metropolitan dailies is mixed, and it will take some time before we can determine if this new breed of ambitious entrepreneurs such as Jeffery Bezos will include visionaries such as the famed wealthy of yesteryears, such as the Hearsts, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords who shaped the world of publishing, philanthropy, and education.

In the last decade or so, The Washington Post was seen by its peers as the last great sick man of print journalism. In 1993 the Post’s circulation reached 832,332 subscribers, now it is less than half a million. In the last few years a number of prominent journalists left the Post, among them the late great Anthony Shadid. The newsroom staff shrank from a thousand to 600.

Print journalism is still the best source of information, in-depth reporting and awe-inspiring investigative reporting; this medium will continue to struggle in an inhospitable world, while cognizant that its golden age lies in its past.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on August 8, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent forAnnahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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