Why 'Fake News' is Coming Soon to Your Hometown Newspaper
Unmarked No Longer
Why Should We Care?
Back in The Day, when the earth was cooling, newspapers were the primary means for people to find out what was going on in the world beyond their own lives. At their height, newspaper readership consisted of 63 million people in America. That period of time was in the 1970s to the 1980s, and those days are long gone, never to return. Today newspaper readership is where it was in the 1940s. With the advent of the Internet, 24-hour cable news networks, personal blogs, and professional Websites, papers just aren’t our only source of information any more. A 30-minute evening news program would only fill about three-quarters of the front page of your average 1970 newspaper. Today, by the time your newspaper gets thrown in your driveway at 6:45 a.m. it’s old news except for the really, really local information (high school sports and chamber of commerce awards) that nowadays only gets put in the hometown paper.
Back in The Day, newspapers were primarily owned by local families in those hometowns. Your small town newspaper today may still be a “Mom and Pop”. But the giants for the most part have been bought up – or sold out, depending on your perspective – by large corporate syndicates. Columbus, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; New York City (The Times – not The Post); and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., are the few big cities still boasting family ownership of their daily paper. Boston’s Globe is no longer family-owned, but the Sulzberger’s sold to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. In my book, that’s the next best thing.
And now, D.C. is off that list, bought recently by the founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos. Ironically his own hometown paper, the Toledo Blade, is on that shortlist of family-owned papers.
So why should we care who owns newspapers? In this day and age of bloggers, talking heads, radio personalities, and those in our population who only want to be exposed their “brand” of the facts; it is hard to believe there are still working journalists who care about the principals of the profession: objectivity and accuracy.
Columnist Kathleen Parker said it best, “Only family-held papers seemed to sustain the degree of loyalty to the journalistic ideals that attracted my generation of reporters to the field. Back in the day, we really did want to save the world.”
Carter Eskew of The Washington Post said, “Bezos built the greatest retailer in history understanding and anticipating what people want and giving it to them. But that’s an incomplete model for the news business. What people want is local, sports, human interest, gossip and rancorous and self-reinforcing debate. All that is great, but it needs to be put in service of what people and our democracy need: hard information, accountability, truth. That is what Bezos bought, and you can’t put a price on it. Now he must protect it.”
Is The Washington Post the ideal for journalism? Well, under editor Len Downie The Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes, the gold standard in the world of newspapers. Twenty-five wins is the highest number of Pulitzers ever won by any paper under a single editor.
(Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Joseph Pulitzer actually wrote for The Post while he was temporarily in the capital.) The newspaper has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes, including six separate awards in 2008, the second-highest number given to one newspaper in the same year.
Ben Bradlee, Downie’s reknown predecessor, has was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. He held that post for twenty-three of our nation’s most turbulent years (1968 – 1991). During his tenure The Post and The New York Times won a legal battle (1971) with the Nixon administration over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, revealing President L.B. Johnson’s political maneuverings with the war in Vietnam.
The next year Bradlee backed two never-heard-of reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, when they began investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel. It started out as a simple item on the police blotter one slow Saturday night. Under persecution from the Nixon administration, their reporting traced the break-in all the way to the Oval Office. As a result, President Nixon resigned in August 1974.
How the Watergate story began:
A Brief - but Interesting - History
The Washington Post was founded in 1877 by Democrat Stilton Hutchins and published its first edition on December 6. Printed at 914 Pennsylvania Avenue, and with an initial circulation of 10,000, the four-page paper cost three cents a copy.
Its first editor, Frederick Argyll Aiken, made a name for himself as a lawyer. Then he fled the legal profession after defending Mary Surratt, the only woman convicted of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
One year after being hired as editor of The Post, Aiken was dead of “fatty degeneration of the heart,” according to the official death certificate. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery in a plot named for a family named Eaton. Recently a group from the Surratt House Museum placed a marker on his grave in appreciation for his impassioned summation at the trial of Mary Surratt – the first woman ever hanged in America on July 7, 1865. Mrs. Surratt proclaimed her innocence right up to the end, as did the others convicted and hung with her.
Her son John claimed he conspired only to kidnap Lincoln and fled to Canada before the assassination. He remained there, in spite of his mother’s arrest, until he was brought back to the United States for trial in a civilian court, as opposed to the military court that convicted his mother. Beginning June 10, 1867, and including the testimony of more than 170 witnesses, the trial ended August 10 with a hung jury. The federal government eventually dropped all charges against Surratt. He walked free in the summer of 1868.
In 1889 Hutchins sold the paper to Republican Cabinet member Frank Hattan and former Democratic Congressman Beriah Wilkins. To promote the newspaper, the new owners requested John Philip Sousa, the leader of the Marine Band, to compose a march for the newspaper's essay contest awards ceremony. Sousa composed “The Washington Post,” which became one of his best-known works.
In 1905 it was purchased by John R. McLean, owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer, which was a publication with Democratic leanings. McLean died in 1916, and his son, Edward, moved the paper toward Republican issues. As a result circulation and advertising declined, and the paper headed towards receivership.
In 1933 a California financier who was also a member of the Federal Reserve’s board of directors, Eugene Meyer, purchased the paper at a bankruptcy auction. He improved the paper’s reputation and circulation tripled to 162,000 by 1943. Meyer handed the reins to his son-in-law, Philip Graham. In 1963 Philip’s widow took over upon her husband’s suicide, and Katharine Graham would lead The Post through the turbulent years of Vietnam and Watergate.
Mrs. Graham took the paper public in 1971 with stock selling on the New York Stock Exchange for $26 per share. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate holds 1,727,765 shares of the Washington Post Co., the largest non-family shareholder. Buffett invested $10.6 million in the Post after its stock fell in the wake of its publication of the Watergate stories. Buffett has also served on the Post’s board of directors for more than two decades, but his relationship with the paper will end with its sale. Buffett will receive about $53.5 million from the newspaper’s sale.
In 1979 after spending a year working as a D.C. police officer to become more familiar with the city and its residents, Mrs. Graham’s son, Donald, succeeded her as CEO. In 2008 her granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, became publisher. Those two Grahams continued in those roles under the new ownership.
Announcing the sale of his family’s newspaper, Donald Graham said, “No newspaper has figured out how to reach its large audience in way that makes money, but I believe that somebody will figure that out and that news in the future will probably be a reasonably profitable business.”
The Amazon.com creator offers the combination of financial strength and technology strength to a struggling industry. “I am sure there are people in the world who are as good as Jeff Bezos at figuring out the future of a problem and a technology,” said Graham, “But I don’t think there’s anybody better.”
A newspaper represents not just a business but a “public trust,” the late Mrs. Graham was known to say over the years. “The values that matter in owning a newspaper go beyond profit and loss.” In a letter to his new employees Bezos wrote that the values of The Post do not need changing. “The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.”
We’ll see. And faithful newspaper readers will be surely be watching – at least the few who are left.
Does it matter who owns a newspaper?
© 2013 Kathleen Cochran