Go Mobile | RSS | SLS Website Fall  2014, Issue #91
Stanford Lawyer
Image from the article  Civil Liberties and Law in the Era of Surveillance Image from the article  IP Law and Innovation with Mark A. Lemley and A. Douglas Melamed Image from the article  Joan Petersilia: A Life’s Work Focusing on America’s Prison Challenges Image from the article  Debra Zumwalt, JD ’79; The Chief Legal Officer at the Farm Image from the article  Eduardo Bhatia, JD ’90: Leading Puerto Rico through Challenging Times  Image from the article  Trading at the Speed of Light Image from the article  The Juelsgaard IP and Innovation Clinic Image from the article  Bright Award for Environmental Sustainability
Legal Matters

The Future of Print and Digital News

A Discussion with The Washington Post Publisher

Illustration by Shout

Katharine Weymouth, JD ’92

sinking newspaperWhen Katharine Weymouth was named publisher of The Washington Post in 2008, she became much more than that. The fourth generation in her family to work at the iconic paper, Weymouth became part of a tradition—even if she had to encourage a break with tradition to save it. The granddaughter of the late Katharine Graham—the Post’s publisher for more than two decades who oversaw the rise of the paper to national prominence in the 1970s with publication of the Pentagon Papers and breaking of the Watergate scandal—Weymouth took over the reins of not only a family business but a national institution. The weight of that responsibility fell to her just as the newspaper business was navigating very uncertain times. She was dubbed “the last media tycoon” and quickly became a lightning rod for discussions about the demise of print. As online news aggregators were capitalizing on the quickly changing media landscape, the economy crashed and circulation of the printed Post dropped sharply.  And digital ad revenue was not growing fast enough to keep up with losses in print.  Weymouth and her management team had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the cost structure while maintaining the core of the paper—the newsroom. But Weymouth could see it was not a sustainable path. So she and her uncle, Post president Don Graham, turned to a leader in the very industry that was prompting print’s demise. In August 2013, they sold the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Soon after, Graham Holdings announced the sale of the 15th Street headquarters, home to the paper since the 1950s. The family business was breaking free of the past, choosing to step up efforts to innovate by inviting an outsider in—putting the paper and its dedication to unbiased journalism ahead of their ownership.

Perhaps the Post needed someone like Weymouth to help her family face the difficult challenges that advances in technology had brought the paper.  She grew up in Manhattan, removed from the family business and beyond circulation of the paper.  She wasn’t steeped in the family traditions in the way that her mother, uncle, and grandmother were.  While they were journalists, she chose law as her field, following the path of her grandfather Phillip Graham, who clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court before marrying her grandmother. And Weymouth enjoyed law and chose a traditional career path.  She summered at Williams & Connolly after her 2L year and during her 3L year she externed at the San Francisco DA’s office. After graduating from Stanford Law School, she clerked for Judge Chambers, LLB ‘32, and then accepted an offer from Williams & Connolly as an associate in the firm’s D.C. office. Her ambition was to eventually join the U.S. Attorneys’ Office and become a prosecutor—The Washington Post not anywhere on her career horizon.

But moving to D.C. brought Weymouth closer to the Post—physically and emotionally. She spent more time with her uncle, then the publisher of the Post, and her grandmother, who was still president of the company. When a senior partner at Williams & Connolly told the associates that the Post was short-staffed and that the firm had agreed to lend the paper someone, Weymouth volunteered. And so began her career at the Post, in the legal department where she felt most at home. She officially joined the Post in 1996 as assistant counsel and spent the next decade learning the business, moving from the paper’s legal department to Washingtonpost.com, the online publishing subsidiary of the company, and then back to the paper. She rose through the ranks of the advertising department—gaining experience in the vital revenue arm of the paper, where many of its challenges lie. She was vice president of advertising for The Washington Post when she was named publisher in 2008.

Weymouth has said that given its challenges of declining revenues and technical competition, the Post needed someone like her great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, who purchased the paper in 1933 in a Depression fire sale, rescuing it from folding.  She thinks that Bezos may be that person.  She was willing to throw family tradition to the side and suggest what had been unthinkable in media circles—sell the paper so that it would survive and, hopefully, thrive.

Though the Post now belongs to Bezos, Weymouth is staying put as publisher—at least for now. But there’s nothing more certain than the certainty of change, particularly in the world of news today.  So while Weymouth celebrated with her reporters two Pulitzer Prizes in April, including the prestigious public service medal for a series of stories that exposed the National Security Agency’s massive global surveillance programs, she knows that good management and accolades are not enough to keep talent at news organizations today.  Given the challenges, it will likely take technical innovation—and the strong commitment to the traditions of journalism for which Weymouth’s family is so well known—to keep the Post going for the next generation of readers.

Philip Taubman (BA ’70)

For Philip Taubman, the gravitational pull of newspapers also started with his family.

“I grew up in a newspaper household and spent a lot of my childhood hanging out at The New York Times,” he says. His father, Howard Taubman, was the paper’s music and then theatre critic, and the family home was filled with that world. When Taubman arrived on Stanford’s campus in 1966, he dropped off his bags in his room at Wilbur Hall—and headed straight for The Stanford Daily office, pen in hand, ready to report on the movements for political and social change that marked that time. He spent much of his next four years at Stanford in the Daily office and knew he would be a journalist, but he chose to study history. “I thought that understanding historical trends and understanding history in various parts of the world were indispensable to being a thoughtful journalist.”

While studying history may have aided Taubman in his journalism, it was journalism that gave him a front-row seat to history that few ever experience. During a career spanning some 40 years, nearly 30 at the Times as a national security specialist, with stints as Washington and Moscow bureau chief and deputy editorial page editor, Taubman has had access to newsmakers and decision makers alike, recording history, often as it was unfolding.

The changes in the world since that time have been head-spinning: The Berlin Wall came down, the USSR dissolved, and the world of communications—including journalism—has been radically transformed by the Internet.

Taubman retired from the Times in 2008 and returned to Stanford to teach and focus on his own writing. He reconnected with a physicist he had first met when he was a student, Sidney Drell. He learned that Drell had joined forces with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry (BS ’49, MS ’50), and Sam Nunn to advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The effort hit a nerve in Taubman, who had been one of the few Americans to cover a Soviet nuclear test (in Kazakhstan in 1988). The jolt of the underground blast had almost knocked him off his feet, making him “viscerally understand the brute force of a nuclear bomb.”  And he was working for the Times in New York when the World Trade Center towers were attacked in 2001—rushing to its headquarters on that tragic morning to help get the paper out. So he spent four years researching post-9/11 nuclear threats and traveling with and interviewing the five men. He published his second book, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, in 2012. (His first book, Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage, was published in 2003.)

Hoover Institution senior fellow and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (center), and SLAC National Accelerator Center professor emeritus Sidney Drell (right) in a discussion moderated by alumnus and former New York Times journalist Philip Taubman (left); Photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Hoover Institution senior fellow and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (center), and SLAC National Accelerator Center professor emeritus Sidney Drell (right) in a discussion moderated by alumnus and former New York Times journalist Philip Taubman (left); Photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Today, Taubman enjoys spending time with aspiring journalists—teaching and encouraging them, despite dire predictions about the future of newspapers. He recognizes that the profession has changed dramatically over the last decade, saying, “I’m not sure I’d get hired today.”  But still, he feels optimistic. “I tell students who ask me that opportunities are opening up.” He mentions friend and former Times colleague Bill Keller and his recent move to The Marshall Project and other online journalism startups. “It’s a different business than when I was in it, certainly than when I got into it, but there are tremendous opportunities. They’re just different kinds of opportunities now. The key is to combine journalism skills with digital skills.”

For Taubman, though, there’s nothing like sitting down and getting ink on his fingers.  He particularly enjoys visiting places where daily newspapering is still strong. “I love being in London, heading to the nearest newsstand in the morning, and going back to my hotel room with eight or nine newspapers tucked under my arm. It’s magical.”

- By Sharon Driscoll


TAUBMAN Tell me a little bit about what the Post meant to you growing up. Here you are, part of this famous family in American journalism—your grandmother and grandfather ran the paper, your uncle then was publisher. 

WEYMOUTH Having grown up in New York, I was much further removed from the Post itself. I knew that my grandmother was this influential businesswoman and I admired her, but I didn’t really think a lot about what she did.  I mean, we couldn’t really get the Post in New York.  As you know, my mother is a journalist; her boyfriends were all journalists. So, I grew up more around politics and journalism. And through my mother and my grandmother—I got exposed to a lot of interesting people.  But really, other than being brought down when I was nine to help break the strike and roll papers, I didn’t have any exposure to the Post and I didn’t really think about it as a career for me. For me, the question was would I go into journalism like my mother, or not.

TAUBMAN Interesting. So I guess my bias is showing, but it seems fair to say that you grew up with The New York Times.

WEYMOUTH Yes, The New York Times for sure and in fact I was an intern there. I was in college, so it must have been 1987. I worked for the national editor. Then I worked at Condé Nast for a summer. But my mother’s boyfriend Eric Breindel was the editorial page editor of the New York Post, so we were a New York Post family as well. In high school I was voted “most likely to become the publisher of the New York Post”—and it shows in my bias for entertaining headlines.

TAUBMAN And was there a thought or plan on your part, or the family’s part, that you would eventually gravitate toward The Washington Post?

WEYMOUTH No. Not at all. In fact, my plan was to spend a few years at Williams & Connolly [LLP] and then go to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and become a prosecutor. So that’s what I would have done. And there was no plan on the family’s part either. Don [Graham] had started talking about the Post when I was in law school—not so much about me going to it, but just talking about his job and what he did. And we got along well.  So after I had been at Williams for a while, Kevin Baine sent a note around to the associates saying that the Post was short-staffed and the firm had agreed to lend the paper someone for three months. And it wouldn’t count against you on the partnering track if you went. It was perfect timing for me because I’d just come off a trial and it allowed me to commit to three months, but no longer. So I thought, okay, I’ll try it and see what it’s like to work for a family company and go back to Williams & Connolly if I want to.

TAUBMAN So, now you’re at the Post and you’ve done your three-month gig there. What was your thinking at that point in time about staying on?

WEYMOUTH Well, needless to say, seventeen years later, I did stay. You know, I think I had been scared about “what if I’m not good at it or what if people don’t like me.” I thought the Post was an amazing place; I just didn’t know what it would be like to come in as a family member.

The legal office was a great place to start because I got a little bit of everything—from employment law to working with the newsroom, to working with the business side, and even production. So, it was a great place for me to get a feel for all the departments. And people have such an affection for my family—my grandmother and Don—that, at least to my face, they were very welcoming. And it turned out to be fun, so I stayed.  

TAUBMAN And for a while at least, you were directly applying your legal knowledge, right?

WEYMOUTH Yes, for four years. I did two years at the paper and two at the dot-com business.

TAUBMAN What aspect of the law were you utilizing in those roles?

WEYMOUTH I had been doing litigation at Williams & Connolly. If there was litigation [at the Post], we would tend to farm it out, because it was a small office.  So the job involved more reviewing contracts, negotiating contracts, working with the business side, and occasionally working with the newsroom to vet a story or whatever. And this was right during the dot-com explosion, so at the dot-com site, it was particularly fun, doing all these deals with different partners for Washingtonpost.com and beginning to see that world explode.

TAUBMAN So at what point along the way here did it become clear to you, and clear to Don, that you might be his successor?

WEYMOUTH You know, it’s hard to say. I don’t know that there was ever really a moment. I was always very clear and Don was always very clear, so we were on the same page in that; I didn’t ever want any favoritism. I didn’t come in saying,  “I want to be publisher and how do I get there?”  I wanted to prove myself along the way and if there ever came a time when I wasn’t doing a good job, or wasn’t adding value, or if I thought I wasn’t learning, then I would go do something else.  Don never called anyone and said, “You know, I’d really like Katharine to get some experience in the advertising department. Can you put her there?” And I didn’t want him to.  I’ve made my own relationships and people have made me job offers, and I’ve moved from the legal side to the business side and proved myself there.

TAUBMAN Did you direct ad sales?

WEYMOUTH Actually, my first real job on the business side was that; I was director of the Help Wanted—what we now call the Jobs section—in print and online. It was my first job managing people and running what was then a large business—a roughly $100 million business. And it was an amazing experience. I remember Don saying, “Katharine, you can tell how the economy is doing by looking at the size of the Help Wanted section.” Which, back in the day, was true. Today, tragically, it’s not.

TAUBMAN Yes, very true. It’s very sad in some ways. Did you have any doubts at the time that you became publisher about how you would be received by the staff and the newspaper, particularly the newsroom? I know Katharine Graham took over in very difficult circumstances and she talked a lot about it in her memoir, about how she was uncertain of how to proceed. 

WEYMOUTH Of course. I don’t know who wouldn’t. It’s a big job and I took over at a tough time [in 2008]. And then of course, it became much tougher after the economy fell off a cliff. But I have to say, I had doubts about every job that I took. And I did what I’ve always done—try my best and learn and surround myself with smart people.  I hadn’t worked in the newsroom and Don and I talked about that. But at the time, honestly, I felt—and I think Don felt—that the newsroom was running great. That was not where the problem lay. The problem was on the business side and that was where my expertise was useful. Eighty percent of our revenue at that time came from advertising. And I had spent 10 years or so growing up in the advertising department. So, really, the bulk of my time in the first several years was focused on the business side.

Photo by Michael Ventura

Katharine Weymouth, JD ’92, seated beneath a photo of her famous grandmother, Katharine Graham (left); Photo by Michael Ventura

TAUBMAN When you look back at the financial rapids that journalism hit because of the dawn of digital journalism, how would you allocate responsibility for the financial difficulties that the Post faced, between misreading of any kind on your part or Don’s part versus the structural changes taking place in the world of information? 

WEYMOUTH  Don was one of the first executives to really embrace the Internet. He knew how important it was. He has said that the reason he set up Washingtonpost.com was for the Classifieds business—he knew that it was going to migrate from print to online. We all knew it. And our hope was that we could get ahead of it and build really great digital products for Classifieds. Which I think we did. But, of course, the margins aren’t there the way they were for print, because there’s a ton of supply.

So, from my perspective, if you look around, not just to the Post but also to pretty much any newspaper that I can think of around the world, we’re all facing the same problem. And I think it’s easy to say, “Aha, newspaper executives are a bunch of bumbling idiots, they didn’t see it coming.” But at the Post, we did see it coming; we built digital newsrooms and were quick to put our journalism online.

TAUBMAN Can you talk about the challenges of digital and how you’re meeting them?

WEYMOUTH The Graham family made a decision, as has been written about many times, to stay local, although we are a national brand and report on the nation’s capital and whatnot. But with the Internet, more than 90 percent of our traffic comes from outside the capital and that’s because of the brand that my grandmother and Don built. So now we have all these tools, and our journalism is everywhere. That part is exciting. But on the business side, the margins eroded, the Classifieds went away, and the Classifieds had funded a significant portion of the newsroom and allowed us to build a really big newsroom. It’s just not an easy problem. For a lot of people news is a commodity unfortunately. I wish everybody said, “Yahoo News isn’t good enough for me; I want to get a trusted source like the Times or the Post” or whatever. But that’s not the reality, so we now have to compete with people who can re-write our content, and we can do the same, of course. So it’s a world of aggregation and curation.

It’s also a world where we believe that trusted, quality, original journalism is important—and I think a lot of readers do too. But somebody has to pay for it. It’s a better business model if you can aggregate somebody else’s journalism, right? I mean, if you don’t send someone to Sochi and just link to our headlines, that’s a better business model. That’s not what we do, so there’s the challenge. It really is the business side, not the journalism.

TAUBMAN For a long time, it looked as if the acquisition of Kaplan had given the Post a cash cow, in a way that would subsidize the newsroom and allow the newspaper to weather the dot-com turbulence. Tell me the thinking behind Kaplan. Did it become a crutch, in that it was both undermining and helping you?

WEYMOUTH  I would challenge that—the phrasing isn’t quite right. I know externally that was the perception. When my grandmother bought Kaplan in—when was it?—’84, Kaplan was losing roughly $40 million a year, and it was the newspaper that subsidized Kaplan.  But Don’s vision, and my grandmother’s, was that every company [within Graham Holdings] should be self-sustaining. So, for a time, the Post subsidized Kaplan as it grew and acquired companies. But it couldn’t    continue forever. It had to stand on its own feet. And then, of course, it did—it grew into a $2.2 billion behemoth.

So, because the Post company diversified—and Kaplan is big but we have our cable stations and our TV stations that actually throw off a lot of cash and are good businesses—we were able to weather the storm when lots of other newspapers were forced to declare bankruptcy. We didn’t have to do that. We could cut costs and we cut costs aggressively, but we preserved our mission. Which is our journalism.

What Don had said to me in ’08, he and the board said, “We will give you three years to get back to profitability”—which was a gift, and we got back to profitability in two years. So, I would say that Kaplan did not become a crutch because we knew that we had to stand on our own two feet, which is ultimately what led me to approach Don with the choices that I thought we faced and what we had to really have a conversation about—“What are we looking at as we look ahead?” and “What is going to be best for the Post?”—which led to the decision to sell to Bezos.

TAUBMAN I want to come back to that, because it’s a big issue. But before that, I want to talk a little more about the IT revolution and the effects that it had and is having on the Post. There’s such a vast array of opportunities in the digital age, from tweets to electronic books. What is it that the Post wants to emphasize, going forward, as its role in disseminating information?

WEYMOUTH Looking at it from the customer side, so the reader perspective. What is the problem that we have to solve for people? In my view, it’s that we’re all being flooded with information. Constantly. From every device. Our job is to sort through it, so that people have a trusted, smart source that can say, “Okay, the Farm Bill is going to pass” but “here’s what it means, here’s why you should care.” There are tons of facts out there, but the question is not whether people can get the facts—of course they can—but what does it all mean? Why should I care? It’s about sorting through the world, but making it entertaining for people.  Sometimes, they watch the Oscars, or they want to know what Michelle Obama wore, or they want to know what’s happening in Syria, or Sochi. And sometimes they look for the story in pictures and sometimes in tweets.  I think our job, if we do it right, is to put out good interesting stories—and sometimes there’ll be short, little blog posts. You know, Jeff Bezos loved Max Fisher’s “9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” So it’s Dan Balz, it’s Chris Cillizza, it’s Rosalind Helderman, who just did the big investigation into gifts to McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia. And of course it’s local reporting for people who live in Washington. But for me, it’s sorting through that information and giving people the tools they need to live their lives. And if they want to read about sports outside of Washington, they’ll go to ESPN. And if they want to be entertained, they may go to BuzzFeed. But that’s not where we’re going to live.

TAUBMAN Right. Within the spectrum of where you do want to live, talk a little bit about decisions and your thinking behind them.  For example, the Post’s network of national bureaus was shuttered, but you maintain a robust foreign correspondent corps. 

WEYMOUTH And I would argue that we’ve maintained extremely robust national coverage as well. Frankly, the decision was to shut the physical offices, but we send our national reporters wherever they need to report, just as we do our foreign reporters. So our approach to national stories is like our approach to foreign coverage. I know the perception was “oh, they’re ratcheting back on their national coverage,” but that really isn’t the case at all. We simply decided to close the bureaus to cut back on our costs. It didn’t change our scope of coverage.

TAUBMAN  I’ve watched over the years, the staff cutbacks of a lot of newspapers, including the Post. The size of your newsroom shrank quite a bit, but your newspaper continues to be excellent. How do you manage to produce a great newspaper with a much smaller staff?

WEYMOUTH It’s in large part due to having a fantastic editor and fantastic journalists. So I can’t take any credit for that. That’s thanks to Marty [Baron] these days and Marcus [Brauchli] before him and Len [Downie, Jr.]  before him, of course. You know our newsroom was able to grow a lot when we had more than $300 million in classified ads, but we had to cut in order to stop the hemorrhaging, when we didn’t have that kind of money. But, our mission has always been to serve our readers and users. We wanted to maintain the biggest newsroom we could afford to maintain and, as Bezos said when he was here, if we do it right, the number of journalists cannot equate to the quality of your coverage and I don’t think it does. It has to be about the talent that you have and how good they are, and we have got to have one of the larger newsrooms in the country— possibly the world. And I am just blown away by the talent that we have here and what they do. And now what they do 24/7! That’s the other thing that’s changed. You don’t just get your story at 8, file it, and go have dinner now. They’re on 24/7.

TAUBMAN I got out just in time!

WEYMOUTH Somebody recently pulled the statistics and during Watergate our newsroom had roughly 275 people, and it grew over time to almost 1,000 in the 90s. Today it’s about 640. So it was much smaller during Watergate than it is today. And you know, it wasn’t a 24/7 newsroom back then. They weren’t blogging and tweeting and on the radio and on TV.

TAUBMAN When you look ahead, given the challenges in the business, what is your strategy to maintain the success of the Post both journalistically and economically?

WEYMOUTH I think a lot of it is just a continuation of what we have been doing. A lot of this is still a business and although it is now owned by Jeff Bezos and he has deep pockets, it is still his money. The gift to us is that he’s a patient man with a track record of investing for the long term. He cares about what we do — that’s why he bought us. And he’s been a visionary in the digital retail space. So that’s the gift to us and I think it will allow us to invest. We have the number-one penetration of any major metro in the country, in our region. But we have to build the digital newsroom of the future, for generations to come. That’s what we need to do. So we are going to invest very heavily in expanding our coverage, in being aggressive, in breaking news, in great analysis and interesting stories. We’re in the nation’s capital. It gives us a license that another city paper wouldn’t have. A story that we do might often be a Washington story, but it’s also a national story, or an international story.

So the gift that we have now is that we can invest and we’re going to expand our coverage, while also making sure that we’re cutting costs wherever we can. But that’s my job—to build the digital newsroom for the future.

TAUBMAN How difficult was it for the Graham family to decide to sell the paper?

WEYMOUTH Very. It’s something that none of us ever envisioned. I’m sure my grandmother didn’t envision it; I certainly didn’t envision it when I took over. But as we said when we sold the company, it was a decision that was extremely hard to make, but we had to make it because it couldn’t be about our family—it was about the Post. When my great-grandfather bought the Post, he articulated his principles. It was always clear—much like as in the book about The New York Times—that it was and it is a public trust. It’s not something for anybody’s vanity or power or whatever. Our goal was making sure that the Post was going to thrive for generations to come, and we didn’t want to keep cutting. We felt that we didn’t have the tools to get where we needed to get. Don knew Bezos, and Allen & Co. helped us, of course.  So he found the equivalent of my grandfather in 1933—a guy with deep pockets who cares, who bought us for the right reasons, and who does have the right tools to help us get there.

TAUBMAN There’s a lot of curiosity about Bezos’ role at this point. He has tremendous resources to help the Post, but in terms of practical things—I know it’s still early in his tenure as owner—what’s different about the Post today? Is there anything different because he’s there?

WEYMOUTH It’s hard to say. Yes and no. The biggest difference is that we’re a private company. We don’t have to worry about quarterly earnings; we don’t have to file all the paperwork and whatnot. So that’s a real gift. The other major difference is that he wants to invest and it’s his money and he can choose to do that. It’s not public money—we’re not using shareholder money. He is our shareholder. So those are the two biggest differences. It’s still very early, but I think as he has done with other companies he’s bought, he is going to be, and is, involved in helping us set strategic direction, and he’ll definitely be involved in product. But he is not running this company, as he made clear when he came to Washington to talk to our employees. He has a job [at Amazon], it’s a big job, and he bought us wanting the management company to stay in place and manage it and operate it.

You couldn’t get a better buyer—involved, but he’s not going to be living in Washington, has not sent a group to sit here, etc. Although it is funny because as soon as it was announced that he bought us, he got credit for everything that we did. Marty would hire someone for the newsroom and it would be like, “Oh, great Bezos hire.” We’re like, “What? He didn’t even know!” But it’s funny. That’s what happens.

Katharine Weymouth, JD ’92, breaking the news of the sale of the Post; Photo by Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post

Katharine Weymouth, JD ’92, breaking the news of the sale of the Post; Photo by Marvin Joseph – The Washington Post; Photo by Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post

TAUBMAN Are there things on the digital side that you can begin to imagine that might come out of his ownership? Smart ideas about how to disseminate information and make money while you do it?

WEYMOUTH Yes. He’s obviously brilliant and is very involved in his products—the Kindle, etc. As was published when he came to visit, he is very interested in digital news. He’s an investor in Business Insider, and he’s very interested in the tablet experience. I’m not at liberty to talk about specific things we’re working on, but there is no doubt that the best thing is we’ll be allowed to throw some spaghetti against the wall—to try some stuff and learn from it, launch some stuff and if it doesn’t work, say, “Okay, what did we learn from that?” And he is, as I’m sure you know from reading about him, obsessive about the customer experience, which I think is something that the newspaper industry has not been great at and something I think we will benefit from. Everything from how quickly does your site load, to what are the headlines like, do people like them, can people find the content they’re looking for? And that’s something that we—we as an industry and we at the Post—could do more of and get better at. So I have no doubt that there’s a ton that Bezos will bring to the table.

TAUBMAN Let me ask you a question that I am often asked about the Times.  Will there be a print edition of the Post in 10 years? In 15 years?

WEYMOUTH That’s become a parlor game. Not just about us, but everybody. Nobody knows. But if I had to guess, I would say yes. The real answer is as long as there are consumers who want it and will pay for it and it makes economic sense for us to print it, we will print it. And people have been long predicting the demise of newspapers. One of my favorites is from Michael        Kinsley who, I think it was in 2006, predicted the imminent death of papers. And they’re still here. People have been predicting our deaths forever. But if you look at the statistics, people are still deeply engaged with the newspaper, and far more so than they are with digital content. Our typical reader still spends an average of 30 minutes a day with The Washington Post. And I’ve met some who say 3 hours and there are some that say 5 minutes. But people are engaged with the printed paper and, in my opinion, nothing yet has replicated what’s great about it: the ability to browse quickly, the fact that there are marketplaces in the newspaper. Women know that Saturday in the Post is home furnishings day. If you want to buy something, that is the place to look.

I actually still think there’s a lot that’s incredible about print and it’s gotten a bad name. So, if it’s up to me, I’m betting that it’s going to be around for a long time. But we can’t be religious about it. What if there are no consumers?  I don’t know that my kids will subscribe to a newspaper. If they want to be reading it on their phone, they’ll be reading it on their phone. Our goal is not to have a paper per se, it’s about getting the information onto the devices that our readers want to have it on.

TAUBMAN I know when people at Stanford, myself included, ask a room full of students, “How many of you read a hard copy of a newspaper?”—It’s zero.

WEYMOUTH Oh, I’m sure. But you know what’s funny about that?  The school newspaper—they read it in print. They want it in print. And you know, when I went to Harvard, I’m not sure that anyone read the hard copy of the Times or the Post either.  But there’s no question that the next generation is all mobile and digital, and we’ve got to come up with a business model that will support it.

TAUBMAN Right. In the old days, when one thought of competition for the Post, it was The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. What’s your competition today?

WEYMOUTH Honestly? Everyone! We compete with anybody’s smartphone. Somebody said that the worst decision recently for printed newspapers was when the FAA decided you could use your phone on flights, but that was when a lot of people would read a paper! So, we’re competing with devices, because a lot of it is about time. We’re competing with—on a journalistic basis—everyone. The Atlantic, POLITICO, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Yahoo News, Google News. I mean, really—you name it. And I suppose it depends which vertical you’re talking about, but we have competition facing us on the Classifieds and jobs and politics and news.

So the question now is how do we stand out? What is unique and distinguishing about the Post? And in our case, it’s our journalism. It’s the talent that we have here and the stories that we break and the analysis that we do and the bloggers that we have.  I went to a Harvard business class and was asked a great question: “If your business went away tomorrow, who would miss you and what would they miss?” It’s so simple—if nobody would miss you, then you have a problem.  And I firmly believe that if The Washington Post went away, it’s not just that we who work here would be sad, I think that millions and millions and millions of people would miss what we do. So, I think we have a business for a long time to come.

TAUBMAN Let me ask you about some people that got away—one recently, and others a bit ago—and how you feel about that. I’ve read that John Harris and Jim VandeHei proposed something akin to POLITICO and the Post did not want to invest in it. So they left. Then you just saw Ezra Klein leave. Can you tell us your thoughts on those things?

WEYMOUTH I just want to correct you on one score. They left before my time as publisher, but Don very much wanted to invest in what VandeHei and Harris wanted to build and tried desperately to get them to stay, because they’re so talented. But they wanted to do it as a complete stand-alone and that’s what Don didn’t think made sense.

And, yes, Ezra recently left. And we’re sorry that Ezra left. He was and is really smart. He built a terrific thing, but we’re going to build on Wonkblog. The great thing is he came and he built a team. We’ve now replicated that in different verticals. We learned a lot from what he did and we’re going to invest in it. And, frankly, we’ve always been a place where people come; we grow them, we hope they have a great experience with us, but then some do leave. That’s always happened. Sometimes they go to the Times or they want to write books, and it’s happening more and more today. Ezra wanted to do his own thing. You know, I knew that when he came he wasn’t going to be getting a 20-year pin. What we hoped was we’d keep him for as long as we could and we’d learn from him and build something great and I think we have that.

We’ve always seen ourselves as kind of scrappy. We’re going to invest in new talent and bring people up. But people are going to rotate out. And Marty has hired a ton of journalists, both on the digital side and in the newsroom. Jim Tankersley (BA ’00) and Robert Costa on the political side and many others.  So you lose people and you hire new talent.

TAUBMAN It’s often said that the Obama administration has initiated more leak investigations than any prior presidency. There have certainly been a lot. Does that concern you? What’s your thinking about that?

WEYMOUTH  I’m not sure how qualified I am to speak about that, so I’ll give you my personal opinion. Yes, obviously, we’re always concerned that the press is free to report on what we think the public should know, and the Snowden documents were a good example of that—and the WikiLeaks before that. And we always balance that—as does The New York Times and any other serious publication—with what’s really in the public interest and what’s going to jeopardize national security. I’m sure if I were president, I would want to keep everything quiet and confidential—that’s kind of a natural tension going back to the Pentagon Papers. Which is why freedom of the press presumably was established in our Constitution. And we have a good system that allows people to go to court to fight for documents. I’m on the board of the Associated Press as well, and it faced the DOJ this year.

So, we watch to make sure that the government isn’t overstepping what we believe should really be confidential. But it’s a natural tension that will always be there. The next president will, I’m sure, want the same thing. And certainly, the Obama administration has been very aggressive, which is a little bit ironic for a liberal administration, but it is what it is.

TAUBMAN I think I read that when Bart Gellman was first in communication with Edward Snowden, he essentially told Snowden that the Post would be interested in seeing the material that Snowden had, but he couldn’t guarantee that all of it would be published. Did you get involved in the discussions? I know at the Times when there’s an issue involving very sensitive, classified material on intelligence sources and methods, and whether to publish or not, the decisions are made in the newsroom, but the publisher is brought into the conversations. 

WEYMOUTH Yes. It’s exactly what you just said. The general counsel, Marty [Baron], and I spoke about it and I absolutely endorsed Bart [Gellman] working on it and our publishing it.

TAUBMAN And looking back at the pieces that the Post has published based on Snowden documents, is there anything that you regret publishing?

WEYMOUTH No. I think that Marty and Bart and the editors did a really nice job balancing what is in the public interest and as you’ve seen—with not just us, but The Guardian as well—it created a conversation that I think was important and that, even the president has acknowledged, was important for us to have. And we’ve seen some changes as well. So I think it’s actually the classic case of government over-reaching but the press can present the facts and information and allow a public discussion to take place where we ask, “Is this right? Are we comfortable with our government listening and getting this much data without a discussion?” And the answer is no. I think we all want to be safe but there are limits, so I think we did exactly what the press is here to do, while also balancing national security.

TAUBMAN Well, I guess that takes us to the end of the hour. Thank you so much.

WEYMOUTH And thank you.

Categories: , , ,

Comments RSS 2.0

Leave a response / post your comment

Leave a Reply