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Don’t Believe Everything You Read

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Posted on Aug 13, 2013
AP/Evan Vucci

A visitor views the front page of The Washington Post, displayed outside the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a day after it was announced that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought the paper for $250 million.

By Bill Boyarsky

Reports and comments about the sale of The Washington Post and the future of The New York Times have been accepted in an embarrassingly uncritical manner by a media business that should know better.

One story that deserved skepticism was the Post’s own report of its sale quoting parent company CEO Donald Graham and the man who bought the newspaper from him, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. They said that Publisher Katharine Weymouth and executive editor Martin Baron would stay and there would be no layoffs.

There were also comments from some well-known Washington Post journalists, speaking with more hope than knowledge, that the sale of the paper heralded a new era, bringing the publication into the 21st century.

And finally, no one seemed to doubt the words of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Co., and Michael Golden, the vice chairman, when they said in a statement, “Will our family seek to sell The Times? The answer to that is no. The Times is not for sale.”

The news media, in reporting all this, ignored a fundamental rule of journalism and life: Bosses lie.

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As a victim of one newspaper sale and an observer of others, I’ll bet that Bezos will dump the present Post brass; that the Bezos era will be one of pain, uncertainty and aborted changes, unless he somehow stumbles on a winning formula. And, finally, the same family-shareholder pressures for immediate big bucks that forced the sale of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and probably the Post may drive even The New York Times into the hands of new owners.

There was a sad familiarity to Post journalists’ comments about the sale of their paper. My colleagues and I had the same deluded feelings when the Chandler family, the owners of the Los Angeles Times, sold their Times Mirror Co. to Tribune Co., which owned the Chicago Tribune and other publications.

“Thank you, Katharine Weymouth, for joining your uncle Don in the thankless task of downsizing the Post without stripping it of its greatness,” Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote Thursday. “Thank you for helping him make the wrenching decision to sell. And thank you for staying as publisher after the paper changes hands—ensuring that the remarkable work of a remarkable family goes on.”

The Post’s Bob Woodward said on MSNBC last week, “We need to be shaken up. I think [Bezos] will do that. He’s an original. This isn’t Rupert Murdoch buying The Wall Street Journal. This is someone who believes in the values the Post has been promoting and practicing, so I don’t see any downside.”

Gene Weingarten, another columnist, reflecting uncertainty, wrote an open letter to Bezos on Aug. 6, saying, “I think I speak for more than myself when I say that the main reason I have high hopes for your stewardship is that Don Graham said it was the right thing for the paper. He said you are the right guy. That was enough for me.”

They sound as gullible as we were when the Chandlers, torn by family feuds and the desire to cash out, sold Times Mirror Co. We listened hopefully at a staff meeting in the newsroom while executives from Tribune Co. talked of our glorious future. We bought into it. We had no idea that Tribune Co. itself would soon be sold to a real estate vulture named Sam Zell, who used employee pension funds to help finance the deal and then drove the enterprise into bankruptcy.

The circumstances were not exactly the same. The Times publisher, Otis Chandler, a leading figure in journalism, had been ousted by family members who thought he was too liberal and who wanted to bail out with their money from an increasingly troubled newspaper business. But there is a similarity—the dynamics of old newspaper families and their many cousins, along with other shareholders.

Perhaps the Graham family, growing larger with each generation, is like the Chandlers, watching the value of the Post shrink and demanding that Donald Graham ditch it while it was still worth something. Did the Grahams and other shareholders grow sick of years of declining circulation and advertising?

Think of that when you read assurances by Sulzberger and Golden that The New York Times will not be sold. The Times’ corporate structure gives the family control of the enterprise, supposedly a firewall against a sale. We at the Los Angeles Times thought its corporate structure did the same. And it did until the revolt of the Chandler cousins.

Interestingly, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported that Sulzberger sold 50,000 shares of Times stock at $12 a share Thursday. A Securities and Exchange Commission filing noted that Sulzberger continued to own 173,675 Class A shares in company stock. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The New York Times Co., said that the stock sale “is part of Arthur’s normal estate planning.”

The newspaper business, as we have long known it, is finished. That’s what Bezos, himself, said in an interview with German publication Berliner Zeitung, as translated last week by the website TechCrunch. “There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in 20 years,” Bezos said. “Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won’t be normal in 20 years.”

Journalism in the world of Bezos and other new owners probably will be unlike anything we have today. News will come to readers in forms as novel as the Internet was 20 years ago. It will be gathered by journalists as adept in statistical analysis as they are in interviewing. Their lives will be defined by speed, pressure and the challenge to try something new. Consumers will have to pick their way through a variety of voices larger than we have today.

That’s a positive view. A negative—and possibly more realistic—one is that the new world will be run by money-grubbing cheapskates willing to sell out to advertisers, corporate big shots and powerful politicians.

It will be great if the next generation of proprietors, including Bezos, has the will, courage and money to lead the way with pride and class. But employees and readers alike should be skeptical of these new bosses and what they say. The fact that Bezos turned down an interview for a Post profile Saturday, a chance for him to provide some answers, was not a good sign.


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