Some smart questions about Jeff Bezos and the Post. But what’s the alternative?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.

Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.

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Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:

Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.

But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.

As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”

But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.

What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”

But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.

All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?

In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer:A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.

Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.

A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.

Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?

It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.

Politico’s look at the LA Times has some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Patrick Soon-Shiong came along too late to make the cut. In mid-2018, the celebrity surgeon bought the Los Angeles Times and several other papers for $500 million. My book about a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” had just been published.

Too bad. Soon-Shiong is at least as interesting as the owners I wrote about: Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and re-established the legendary paper as a powerhouse; John Henry, who slowly transformed The Boston Globe into a growing and profitable enterprise; and Aaron Kushner, who poured money into the Orange County Register only to fail at attracting enough advertisers and readers to pay for his profligate spending.

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Now Politico has weighed in with a lengthy story about the Times under Soon-Shiong that portrays his ownership as something of a mixed bag. He’s invested in the paper, reversing years of cost-cutting by its previous owner, Tribune Publishing (which for a time was known as tronc), and he’s put a highly regarded editor, Kevin Merida, in charge of the newsroom. But his interest in the paper seems to wax and wane, and his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, is portrayed as interfering in the newsroom.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by some of the wailing. The Politico article, by Daniel Lippman, Christopher Cadelago and Max Tani, claims that Nika Soon-Shiong has inserted herself into the process of endorsing political candidates as though that were somehow a bad thing. Now, the Times may be making some dumb endorsements, such as its decision to back Nika Soon-Shiong ally Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia, according to the Times’ own reporting, regards both Joe Biden and Donald Trump as “sexual predators.”

But a newspaper’s owners are free to insert themselves into the opinion pages as much as they’d like. A good owner will keep a distance from news operations, but the opinion section is their playground. John and Linda Henry are involved in the Globe’s editorial pages and no one thinks anything of it. Jeff Bezos’ lack of interest in the Post’s opinion operation is unusual.

Nika Soon-Shiong has also expressed her leftist views in a tweet (which she deleted) critical of her own paper’s crime coverage and in suggestions for story coverage. There is, for instance, this, which I find entirely benign, even salutory:

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Politico quotes Merida as saying that Nika Soon-Shiong has “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better,” and that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.” The fact-checker rates that statement as 100% true.

Patrick Soon-Shiong is a bit of an oddball. A profile in The New Yorker last year by Stephen Witt raised questions about his success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. But he has been a far better owner of the LA Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a throw-in that was part of the Times deal, than Tribune Publishing had been. Indeed, Soon-Shiong’s one unforgivable act as a newspaper owner was a non-act — his decision to do nothing to stop the sale of Tribune to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which of course began gutting its papers as soon as the deal was consummated.

Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Soon-Shiong, a billionaire, could have stopped the transaction and helped Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum with his bid to buy the chain. Instead, Alden wound up with Tribune, and Bainum has launched a digital nonprofit called The Baltimore Banner. In an interview with Brian Stelter, then of CNN, Soon-Shiong protested that he was a “passive investor,” adding: “I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.”

The Los Angeles Times is far better off under Soon-Shiong family ownership than it had been under years of Tribune mismanagement — mismanagement that would have turned into a rout under Alden. The Politico piece contains some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown.

One way forward for the sputtering Washington Post: Reconnect with local news

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.

What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.

Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.

Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.

In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.

The Washington Post is phasing out its once-revolutionary blue app

Forgotten but not quite gone

I was surprised — but not shocked — to discover recently that The Washington Post is phasing out its blue app, which at one time it called the “National Digital Edition.”

The app, which debuted in 2015, was an important part of the Post’s strategy during the early years of Jeff Bezos’ ownership. I wrote about it in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Available on phones and tablets, it provided readers with a colorful, magazine-like experience. The National Digital Edition was also cheaper than the Post’s other digital products; it was marketed to a national audience and omitted all news from the Washington area. That way, Washingtonians couldn’t save money by choosing the blue app unless they were willing to do without any local news.

The blue app had a lot to do with the Post’s meteoric growth in digital subscriptions, especially after the paper offered it to Amazon Prime members for free for six months, earning hosannas from a wide cross-section of media observers. Media analyst Ken Doctor, a recent guest on our “What Works” podcast, called it “potentially game-changing.”

Even as the Post was marketing the National Digital Edition, though, it continued to evolve its black app and, of course, its website. Those provided readers with a more traditional experience, including a home page, which the blue app lacked, as well as local and regional news. At some point, too, the Post abandoned its different pricing schemes. The blue app, despite its attractiveness, always seemed a bit lite, and eventually most people just moved away from it.

I hadn’t checked the blue app in ages until the past week. When I did, I got a message that said “this app soon will no longer be available” and pushing me toward the black app instead.

The National Digital Edition served its purpose, boosting paid circulation at a time when Bezos was trying to catch up quickly with The New York Times. As of last October, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Post’s circulation was around 2.7 million. That’s well behind the Times’ 10 million (which, to be fair, includes subscriptions to non-news products such as its cooking app and crossword puzzle), but it’s impressive nevertheless.

Can The Washington Post differentiate itself from The New York Times?

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2017 by TEDxColumbiaUniversity.

The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.

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Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.

You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.

Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.

We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.

It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.

The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.

It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.

In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.

Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

Alden’s latest move may be the final act in Warren Buffett’s newspaper misadventure

Warren Buffett. Photo (cc) 2011 by Fortune Live Media.

The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.

Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.

I wrote about Buffett’s track record as a newspaper owner in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” Here’s an excerpt.

***

When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.

Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.

“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”

Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

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The sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

Why revelations about Alden’s acquisition of Tribune should force a do-over

Photo (cc) 2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Could Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing be headed for a do-over? Julie Reynolds, who’s been reporting on the hedge fund’s evisceration of newspapers for years, has written a fascinating story for the Nieman Journalism Lab suggesting that the $633 million deal may have been illegal.

Alden, which already owned 32% of Tribune’s papers, pledged to pay $375 million in cash in order to bring its share up to 100%. But Reynolds reports that Alden didn’t actually have the cash, a fact that may have been known only to the three members of Tribune’s board who were affiliated with the hedge fund.

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As soon as the transaction was consummated, Alden forced the papers to borrow about $300 million. That included $60 million from Alden’s other newspaper chain, MediaNews Group, at an eye-popping interest rate of 13%. As everyone predicted, Alden has gone on a cost-cutting rampage, offering buyouts throughout the chain.

Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of Tribune’s largest paper, the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, “The scale of talent leaving the Chicago Tribune is staggering.

Reynolds also reports that the full Tribune board may have been left in the dark about a private meeting that Tribune board member and Alden founder Randall Smith had with Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum last year.

You may recall that Bainum had initially worked out an agreement under which Alden would buy Tribune’s nine major-market dailies and then sell one of them, The Baltimore Sun, to Bainum, who planned to donate it to a nonprofit organization. After Bainum concluded that Alden was trying to gouge him, he tried to put together a bid for the entire chain. Most if not all of the papers would have been spun off to local buyers. But he was never able to put together a firm offer, and the board went with Alden instead. Alden is keeping all nine papers, including the Sun.

As Reynolds notes, the Tribune board spurned Bainum’s higher offer because the financing was not in place — and ignored the reality that Alden’s wasn’t in place, either. She writes:

Given the healthy profits Tribune has generated over the last several quarters, the cuts are there for just one reason: to achieve higher margins for Alden. Randall Smith will get richer while communities served by Tribune are starved of the information they need.

If Reynolds is correct in asserting that laws were broken in order to pave the way for Alden’s acquisition of Tribune, then the punishment ought to be more than a fine and a slap on the wrist. The sale should be voided and the Tribune board should be forced to vote again.

Maybe this time Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, can be persuaded to stop Alden. As a 25% owner of Tribune before the sale, Soon-Shiong could have said no. Instead, he abstained, and did it in a manner that allowed the transaction to go through.

I’m also lighting up the Bat Signal again for Jeff Bezos.

Previous coverage.

The Washington Post chooses its first female executive editor

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Knight Foundation.

The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.

Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.

Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?

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