‘Tough Calls’

03.10.13

Washington Post’s Katharine Weymouth Offers the ‘Story Behind the Story’

Katharine Weymouth defended her rocky tenure to a small gathering this week, from her decision to ax the beleaguered paper’s ombudsman to canceling the Sunday Book World. Eleanor Clift reports.

Katharine Weymouth hasn’t had an easy time of it since taking the reins at The Washington Post. A series of decisions she made as publisher shook confidence in her ability to maintain the quality journalism and independence that had made the paper one of the high priests of journalism since the Watergate era. And she fell into a trap all too common for executives, regardless of gender, of seeming tone deaf to the public impact of the changes she was making, however necessary and meritorious.

Telling what she calls the “story behind the story,” Weymouth spoke candidly to a small gathering on Monday at the American News Women’s Club, an organization formed in 1932, the year before Weymouth’s great grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post for $833,000. It was the fourth newspaper in a five-newspaper town, “and it wasn’t all that good,” she said. Meyer didn’t turn a profit until 1947, and his mission statement, “Our objective is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained,” is prominently displayed in the lobby of the Post building on 15th Street in Washington.

Weymouth has floated the idea of selling the building, which no doubt makes financial and aesthetic sense, but a generation of Washingtonians who camped outside during Watergate waiting for the newspaper hot off the presses will see it as a loss. Weymouth points out that the presses are no longer in the building, which is outdated and dark. And besides, her grandmother, the legendary Katharine Graham, “hated the building,” writing in her memoir that she regretted not going ahead with a renovation designed by the architect I.M. Pei in the 1960s because it was too expensive. “If possible, we want to stay in the District,” Weymouth said.

“If possible” is the businesswoman in her talking, not the heir to a proud journalistic tradition. Weymouth took heat recently for canceling the Post’s ombudsman, a job held by a succession of prominent outside journalists tasked with scrutinizing the paper’s coverage. The role was created in a different era, she said, and added that the paper has its own internal critics, as well as “a bazillion” outside media reporters scrutinizing the Post’s coverage. “If you look at the new media players, not one of them has an ombudsman,” she notes. “Part of my job is to make the tough calls.” She doesn’t think the ombudsman will be missed, she says, “and if I’m wrong, we can reinstate in a couple of years.”

When her uncle, Don Graham, first broached the idea of her succeeding him as publisher, Weymouth was reluctant, worried she would fail and that she knew nothing about the business side of journalism, “and what if I didn’t like it and wanted to walk away.” What she didn’t know is the economy was about to fall off a cliff and that the role she would play as the namesake of her grandmother would be very different from what she imagined.

She says she gets tired of all the “kvetching about our fate, when will the last newspaper hit the last stoop.”

Her uncle told her that you can tell the state of the economy by looking at the want ads. In 2000, those ads earned the Post $150 million, and if the old business model hadn’t collapsed, would bring in $300 million. Instead, this year it will probably be $20 million, she said, calling it “a microcosm of our challenge.” Though the Post has the top job site in Washington, competitors like Monster and Craigslist have siphoned off much of the revenue. “That money is not coming back,” says Weymouth.

“We get criticism as an industry that we didn’t get it, that we didn’t see this coming,” she says, “but it’s hard to disrupt” a business model that worked so well for so long. It fell to her, the new kid on the block, to yank the Post out of its comfort zone and confront the hard realities of economics in the digital age. “I care deeply about journalism, but we need to be a business,” she says.

Readers were angry when she canceled Book World, a Sunday supplement, and when she started charging subscribers extra if they wanted the TV supplement, one irate gentleman pouted, “Are you going to charge us next for the sports section?”

“No, we’re not,” she assures her audience, “but we have to make rational decisions.” She says she gets tired of all the “kvetching about our fate, when will the last newspaper hit the last stoop.” She wonders why this seems to be such a preoccupation in the world of print when the audience for the nightly news network shows has fallen precipitously, and they don’t spend every evening worrying about how many viewers they’ve lost, she says.

“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I still get the hard copy,’” as though they’re part of some vanishing breed, she says. Print may be on the way out, but Weymouth doesn’t want sympathy. “We’re no longer a newspaper in the morning, we’re a 24/7 newspaper organization,” says the woman voted most likely in her Manhattan high school to be publisher of the cheeky New York Post. At 9 years old, she crossed the picket line, rolling newspapers during the 1975 pressmen’s strike, an early lesson in doing what it takes, even when it’s not popular, in the service of the larger cause.