The desire to compete as a journalistic enterprise on a national or international level — to do so comprehensively and consistently — seems to have been beaten out of the Post. The disaffection on the newsroom floor is audible and undisguised.
Katharine Weymouth has said to people in the newsroom, “One of our biggest problems is we have three people at the top of the paper, none of whom give a shit about Sports, Metro, or Style.”
“The Washington Post is a local newspaper,” [Post investor Warren] Buffett says. “I mean, it has national reach, but the grocers that advertise in it, they’re not going to get national ads. . . . One of the things that’s existed over time which I’m sure you’re aware of is that the newsroom, kindled by what happened at Watergate, liked to think of themselves as national. And they are national, in an important respect, but they’re not national as a business. And they don’t have a business model that works nationally.”
Buffett told me that, since acquiring his 10 percent stake (which is now more than 20 percent, because of share repurchases), he has never bought a share in the Post Company.
I asked [Don Graham] why the Post had become such a symbol of decline in people’s minds. Graham smiled widely, put his hands up, and said, “Come. On! It isn’t 1989. I don’t have a magic bullet to make the past 20 years go away! It has been a challenging time for newspapers. The Post has responded to that challenge about as well as we could have. We are putting out a really good paper. We have a very ambitious news site, and we are trying a lot of things.
More after the jump
Vanity Fair release
SARAH ELLISON ON THE EMBATTLED WASHINGTON POST
New York, N.Y.—“I wouldn’t. I can afford to be sentimental,” Warren Buffett tells Vanity Fair when asked if he would ever sell his 20 percent stake in The Washington Post Company. Contributing editor Sarah Ellison sat down with Buffett, publisher Katharine Weymouth, editor Marcus Brauchli, and C.E.O. Donald Graham, among others, to talk about the storied past and troubled present of a newspaper that lacks a clear identity and strategy for the future.
Of who will succeed Graham as C.E.O., Buffett tells Ellison, “Don wants to pick somebody in the family. There’s no question about that.” Ellison reports that Graham is beloved in the newsroom. “He starts most days with an hour of reading the paper—BlackBerry in hand, so he can e-mail the writers of stories he likes.”
“The Washington Post is a local newspaper,” Buffett says. “I mean, it has national reach, but the grocers that advertise in it, they’re not going to get national ads. . . . One of the things that’s existed over time which I’m sure you’re aware of is that the newsroom, kindled by what happened at Watergate, liked to think of themselves as national. And they are national, in an important respect, but they’re not national as a business. And they don’t have a business model that works nationally.” According to Ellison, Katharine Weymouth has said to people in the newsroom, “One of our biggest problems is we have three people at the top of the paper, none of whom give a shit about Sports, Metro, or Style.”
Ellison reports that John Harris of Politico “talks openly about reporters and editors who have left the Post, not through buyouts but simply for other outlets.” Brauchli defends his staff, claiming, “If you look at the ledger we have gained as much as we have lost.” A former editor tells Ellison, “He was an unknown in Washington when he arrived, and he’s a little shy. What makes that problematic at the Post is that the ghost of Bradlee, even 20 years later, is so huge.” The editor denied knowing the details of the sponsored, off-the-record salons featuring Washington Post reporters that the newspaper was selling access to for $25,000 to $250,000, but according to Ellison the damage may already be done.
Tensions between Weymouth and Brauchli were exacerbated when Stephen Hills, Weymouth’s deputy and president of the Post Media Group, suggested in a meeting that the newsroom was bloated, according to several people present at the time, and, as Ellison writes, “advanced the view that the Web site should be able to attract more traffic, citing the example of the Huffington Post. . . . Brauchli appeared livid, and the two had a heated exchange.”
Buffet tells a story that illustrates the Washington-centric outlook of legendary publisher Katharine Graham: “We were flying one time to Omaha on United Airlines, back when I used to fly commercial,” he recalls. “I said to her, ‘Kay, that pilot looks a little inexperienced.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure he’ll really be able to fly to Omaha.’ So, I said, ‘Do me a favor. Would you mind drawing a map of the United States that we could help him with, showing where Omaha is?’ Well, she started drawing a map, and of course she got as far as Chevy Chase, Maryland, and she didn’t have the faintest damn idea. So I grabbed this thing, and I was going to keep it, but she got it back from me before it was over. She practically ate the thing to keep it away from me.”
The Berkshire Hathaway chair explains why the pre-digital newspaper model once fit into his investment strategy: “In newspapers, the basic rule was survival of the fattest, and the trick was to be bigger than the other guy because at that point you had more help-wanted ads, you had more automobiles for sale, you had more people if you lost your dog who might find it if you ran a classified ad. And you got more dominant because to most people—this kills people in the news business—the most important news in the newspaper are the ads.”
The April issue of Vanity Fair will be available on newsstands in New York and L.A. on February 29 and nationally and on the iPad, Nook, and Kindle on March 6