This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:
In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.
The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.
It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.
A couple of good-news items from The Boston Globe.
First, the paper is reporting that it has passed the 100,000 level for digital-only subscriptions, a benchmark the paper’s executives had originally hoped to reach by the end of June. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.
When I interviewed Globe editor Brian McGrory for “The Return of the Moguls” nearly two years ago, he said the paper would start to look like a sustainable business if it could hit 200,000. My mother always told me that the first 100,000 is the hardest. But the Globe’s digital presence is in the midst of getting an upgrade as it adopts The Washington Post’s Arc content-management system this fall. If the Arc transition goes smoothly, then perhaps another circulation boost will follow.
Second, the Globe is announcing today that it has finally replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who left for the Post nearly a year ago. The Globe’s new critic is Murray Whyte, currently at The Star of Toronto, whose arrival in Boston, I’m told, was delayed because of immigration issues.
In an email to the Globe’s staff, deputy managing editor for arts and newsroom innovation Janice Page and arts editor Rebecca Ostriker call Whyte “a truly extraordinary writer” who “brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters.” The full text of their message follows.
We are delighted to announce that Murray Whyte is joining the Globe as art critic, starting next month.
Murray was born in Winnipeg and grew up partly in Calgary, and he will completely understand if you have no idea where those places are (directly north — way north — of Minnesota and Montana, respectively). He’s spent the better part of two decades in Toronto, and the last 10 of those as the art critic at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, where he is a recent winner of Canada’s National Newspaper Award, the country’s highest journalistic honor.
As Globe readers will soon learn, Murray is a truly extraordinary writer. He brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters. He does not focus on art for art’s sake, but rather connects art to what can make a difference to people living in the world — to society, to ideas, to our culture as a whole.
Murray’s eclectic background also extends beyond arts journalism, including a stint as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, he may be the only journalist in North America who has reported from the oil sands in northern Alberta and Uranium City in Saskatchewan as well as the Venice Biennale.
But the visual arts have always been in his bones. As a journalism graduate student at New York University, his refuge was the Museum of Modern Art, where he could exult in the stillness of Mark Rothko or the luminescence of Claude Monet. Art museums, he says, are his version of a walk in the woods — a rejuvenating, almost transcendent communion with the sublime.
He’s also a huge hockey fan — another kind of sublime — and would appreciate any spare tickets when the Calgary Flames come to town, because surely, he says, there can’t be anyone else here as interested in the progress of Dillon Dube on left wing this year. Can there?
Murray will be making his home in the Boston area with his wife, photographer Sian Richards, and their two children. He’ll arrive at the Globe in mid-November. Please join us in giving him a very warm welcome.
Janice and Rebecca
Following a soft launch, The Boston Globe today is going public with its new app for tablets and phones, powered by Arc, The Washington Post’s content-management system. I’ve been playing with it since Tuesday, and I have a few very preliminary observations.
— It’s fast and attractive in a Post kind of way. The icon for the app is a white “B” on a black background, and the look and feel are similar to the Post’s black app. Stories load quickly, pictures are big and the type size can be easily adjusted.
— The organizational scheme is intuitive and makes sense. Across the top is a navigation bar that lets you choose from among Top Stories, Sports, Metro and the like. One of the choices is Marijuana, a hint of the paper’s expanded coverage of all things pot that is said to be in the works. Click on “Sections” at the bottom and you can drill down to more specific coverage. Again, this will be familiar to Post readers.
— Unlike virtually any news app I’ve ever used, you can’t swipe from one story to the next. Instead, you have to click the back arrow to return to whatever section you’re browsing. Stories load quickly enough that this amounts to a minor annoyance, not a major one. But it needs to be fixed.
— Stories appear in seemingly random order, even in the Top Stories section. As I scroll through the section right now, I see a few news stories followed by some sports, then back to news, then some more sports. The Top Stories sections of the best newspaper apps — those offered by the Post and The New York Times — are divided into sections and have a curated feel to them. The Globe needs to do better.
— As with the Post, there is no Today’s Paper listing of stories. That’s actually one of my favorite features of the Times’ app, since I might read a few stories on my way to work and then pick it up later during the day. A newspaper as a fixed record of the day’s most important events may seem old-school, but stories you might want to read tend to disappear from continuously updated apps. There’s a Today’s Paper listing at the Globe’s website, which works fine on a phone, even if it’s slow. I’d like to see that migrate to the app as well.
Based on first impressions, I’d give the Globe’s app a “B.” Given that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have bet the farm on selling pricey digital subscriptions (currently just shy of 100,000), the tech side ought to keep working and get it into the “A” range. There’s a lot to like, a few things that need to be improved and one shortcoming — the inability to swipe from story to story — that is just plain unacceptable.
Update: A Facebook commenter says that you can swipe with the Android version. I’m an iOS user. But that suggests the problem won’t be too difficult to fix.
If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:
As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”
I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas. Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had been pressuring Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the postal rates paid by the retail giant Amazon to deliver its packages. According to the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, Brennan has pushed back repeatedly, even showing the president slides to demonstrate that the Postal Service’s arrangement with Amazon and several other companies is a plus for the money-losing agency.
But Trump would not be appeased, and the reason seems obvious: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. And Trump — motivated, as always, by his personal need to assert dominance over anyone he perceives as an enemy — wants to punish the Post for its tough coverage of his campaign and his presidency. As an unnamed “Republican close to the White House” recently told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair: “Trump doesn’t like The New York Times, but he reveres it because it’s his hometown paper. The Washington Post, he has zero respect for.” Sherman reported that the people around Trump have been plotting other actions against Bezos as well — such as canceling a contract for Amazon to supply cloud computing services to the Pentagon and mobilizing Republican state attorneys general to investigate Amazon’s business practices.
All of this is, needless to say, deeply transgressive. If a Democratic president acted like this, the Republican majority in Congress would be calling for hearings, and whispers of impeachment would be in the air. And if this were an isolated instance, it would be a major news story for many days, if not weeks. But because Trump lurches from one outrage to another, often over the span of a few hours, the latest eruption in his ongoing war against the Post has been all but drowned out.
Take, for instance, Trump’s latest obsession: demanding information on the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. His improper interference in an investigation of himself (you could call it obstruction of justice, in the lay sense if not necessarily the legal sense) has already resulted in the outing a confidential informant, possibly at some risk to his life, and to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s twisting himself into a pretzel to avoid resigning and thus to keep special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on track. “It’s an incredible historical moment,” Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, told Charlie Savage of The New York Times. She added that Trump’s latest action was “the culmination of a lot of moments in which he has chipped away at prosecutorial independence, but this is a direct assault.”
Or consider a Washington Post column by Max Boot, a leading anti-Trump conservative, who attempted on Monday to document the political norms Trump had violated in just the previous week. It’s a breathtaking list, ranging from Trump’s lifting of sanctions against the Chinese cellphone firm ZTE right after China provided a $500 million loan for a Trump business venture in Indonesia to a Times report that the Trump campaign was offered help by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Trump’s assault on democratic norms is all the more dangerous because the response is so tepid,” Boot wrote. “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves.”
Perhaps the best way of looking at all of these incidents was expressed by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic. Rather than multiple Trump scandals, Serwer wrote, there is really just one mega-scandal: “the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.”
That strikes me as a good way of thinking about Trump’s assault on the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. He has no respect for the First Amendment or for the role of a free press in a democratic society. It’s all about his needs and wants, and nothing else matters.
Sexual harassment and The Boston Globe
In case you missed it, Emily Rooney, Adam Reilly, and I discussed on “Greater Boston” Tuesday an accusation that Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sexually harassed Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at the Globe’s free Boston.com website. On Monday, Sargent tweeted out a copy of an inappropriate text she said McGrory had sent her. You can watch our discussion and read Emily’s synopsis by clicking here.
Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”
Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.
1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.
But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.
2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.
3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.
In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.
Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.
Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:
We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.
Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.
I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.
A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”
At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore. When Post reporter Carl Bernstein asked one of Richard Nixon’s thugs, John Mitchell, to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell famously responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” And here was Bezos, all those years later, pledging to stand tall in the face of threats from the powerful — as tall as Katharine Graham had in the 1970s. It was a promise that is now being put to the test.
President Trump, of course, has attacked the “fake news” media relentlessly. Last week, he turned his attention, as he sometimes does, to the Post.
In a subsequent tweet, Trump claimed that Bezos should be required to register the Post as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. He also referred to the paper as the “Fake Washington Post.” For those of us who are connoisseurs of such things, that’s a major improvement over his previous derogatory nickname, the “Amazon Washington Post,” though still not quite a match for the truly inspired “Failing New York Times.”
Of course, it’s easy to mock Trump. But his attacks on the Post go beyond buffoonery — they potentially represent real trouble. Imagine what would happen if the Trump administration launched an investigation into Amazon with the intent of harming the Post. The supine Republican Congress wouldn’t do anything but vaguely express concern. The Fox News-led right-wing media would bray for the Post’s demise.
And yet Trump isn’t Nixon. I don’t mean Trump isn’t as bad as Nixon; give him time, and he could prove to be worse. I mean that, stylistically, they are very different people with diametrically opposite ways of looking at the world. Nixon, for all his faults, fundamentally understood the legitimacy of the institutions he was seeking to undermine. He acted in secret, and the actions he considered taking against the Post — hitting the paper with a criminal complaint in order to undermine its public stock offering, challenging the licenses of the TV stations it held — would have hurt the Post in real, measurable ways.
By contrast, it’s hard to know how seriously to take Trump’s threats, based as they are on falsehoods so blatant that they can only be called lies. Amazon is not costing the post office money; it’s actually a boon. The Post is not a lobbyist for Amazon; Bezos has allowed the paper to operate independently, keeping his distance from both the news operation and the editorial pages. Trump is right about Amazon’s harming brick-and-mortar retailers, but it has paid state and local taxes just like any other company for some years now.
Also in contrast to Nixon’s skullduggery, Trump voices his threats in public. And that’s the key to what is really going on. Trump understands that in the current media environment, he doesn’t have to harm the business prospects of his enemies in the press (although Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair, reports that he might try to go after the Post). He merely has to delegitimize them in the eyes of the 35 to 40 percent of the public that continues to support him. The Post, the Times, and other news organizations are benefiting from the “Trump effect,” as anti-Trump audiences are rewarding them not just with clicks but with paid subscriptions. Trump doesn’t care as long as he is able to convince his followers that he and his sycophants at Fox News and Breibart are the source of all the reality that they need.
In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, at a time when it looked like Trump was going to lose, Bezos spoke out against Trump for suggesting he wouldn’t respect the results of the election unless he won. “One of the things that makes this country so amazing is that we are allowed to criticize and scrutinize our elected leaders,” Bezos said. “There are other countries where if you criticize the elected leader you might go to jail. Or worse, you may just disappear.”
In fact, Trump is making his enemies in the media disappear — not to all of us, and certainly not to the majority who are appalled by his presidency. But he is making the mainstream media disappear to his followers and replacing them with himself as the ultimate arbiter of reality. The Fake Washington Post and the Failing New York Times aren’t going anywhere. For the Trump minority, though, they have ceased to exist.
Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.
Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.
Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.