Yesterday's announcement of the Washington Post's sale to Jeff Bezos did send shockwaves across the city. The event was palpable as only events of great and real impact can be in Washington. From my desk in a downtown office roughly equidistant from the Post and the White House, I felt a silence muffle the capital at 4:41, the very moment I was reading the breaking news of the Graham-to-Bezos handoff.
After a long intake and release of our collective breath, we all hit the keyboards, smart phones, and pads with the fervor of telegraphers warning an unsuspecting town about a bursting dam upstream. Anxiety reigned; heralds of cataclysm, like the Four Horsemen, coursed up and down all available social media bandwidth. I was tempted to go across the street to Lafayette Park to see if our resident gloom and doom protester was exulting at the arrival of her end-of-days vision. But then a funny thing happened: the smoke of the Bezos'-funded detonation cleared, and the Post was still standing, not a window out of place, not a square foot of its façade disturbed. So much for the Apocalypse. And yet, a dam had almost burst; the Post's leaking revenues undermined its foundation to the point of failure, as we all knew tacitly they would. Had it not been for Jeff Bezos' last-minute pour of financial concrete, the whole structure would have given way.
James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic about the sale, said, "For years anyone thinking about the future of news has realized that, completely on its own, what we consider 'serious' journalism has never been a viable business." I suspect that if a poll were taken among "serious" journalists -- and by that term I mean working writers, editors, and photographers (what is left of them) in newsrooms large and small, electronic or brick and mortar -- many would agree with Fallows. For that group, profit (other than a paycheck), has not been a big motivator, although the Post's Gene Weingarten does encourage Bezos to "roll up your sleeves and be the guy who finds a way to make conventional journalism succeed financially."
Of course we want our owners or publishers to keep the business in the black, but that's not why we show up every day; it's simply the reason we can show up every day. Most of us got into journalism because we enjoyed the craft of it, the pleasure of expressing ourselves, and the satisfaction of illuminating the world of what we hope are attentive readers, viewers, or listeners.
The Post's customers -- consumers of the paper product and/or the e-version -- are not overly concerned with the Post's fiscal health. Our concern is for the paper's continued ability to inform us, to reveal details of the world around us to which we would not be privy otherwise, and to do so accurately and reliably. If that takes more money, fine, but please let the paper chase be about the news, not the dollars.
The unwritten terms of the sale of the Post to someone who has Bezos' unique brand of future vision should have a codicil urging him to respect and nurture the core of the Post's true value--the folks behind the ink or electrons, and the readers for whom the Post remains a binding force; linking us with our communities, our government, and our world.
Lauren Ashburn, founder of the Daily Download, and one of Washington's most knowledgeable media observers, concluded her recent column on the Post sale in terms all Post aficionados -- from the news room to the breakfast table -- can understand:
In major financial transactions, it's not often that the baton is passed from one well-intentioned good guy to another. While business is business, it seems the two [Bezos and Donald Graham] have found kindred souls in each other. And that can only bode well for the future for this hometown, family-loved success story.
I'm hoping that Bezos is attuned to that sentiment, and by all accounts, he may be.