In the photo above we see Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee walking out of the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington after their historic win in the legal battle over publishing the Pentagon Papers. This photo, taken 42 years ago, captures a high point of an era that came to an end today.
I have known and liked Donald Graham and his family over the years; many of my friends in journalism have at one time or another worked at the Washington Post. My first reaction to news that the family had sold the paper is simple shock. But it is shock based not on my positive-but-not-deep personal connection to the paper and its people but rather on sheer generational disorientation.
Readers below about age 40, who have known the Post only during its beleaguered, downsizing-its-way-out-of-trouble era, may find it hard to imagine the role it once played. Over the past decade-plus, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have been the national newspaper organizations. It already seems antique even to use the word "newspaper" in such a construction, for reasons I don't need to belabor now. But their flagship daily print publications make the NYT and the WSJ similar to the Financial Times and different from the other remaining ambitious news organizations -- Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters, the broadcast and cable networks, NPR, etc.
There was a time when you would automatically have included the Post in that first-tier national grouping. Other mainly regional or local papers were strong -- the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and on down a nostalgic list. But more than any of the rest of them, the Post was fully in the national-newspaper derby and measured itself every day against the Times in talent level, depth and breadth of reporting, international coverage, sophistication, and all the other measures of a nationally ambitious operation. People who have started reading the paper in the past dozen years -- rather, who have not started reading it -- probably can't imagine this difference in stature. But it is dramatic, and real.
Someone will figure out later on how much of the Post's downward spiral was inevitable -- it can't be a coincidence that nearly all newspapers are feeling the same pressure -- and how much was the result of poor choices. By analogy: much of what has happened to the LA Times can be blamed on huge world-tectonic changes in technology, reading habits, residential patterns, and so on. But a lot still can be blamed on Sam Zell.
For now I mean only to say: this is a moment that genuinely surprised me. I think I'll remember where I was when I first heard the news -- via Twitter! -- and I am sure it will be one of those episode-that-encapsulates-an-era occurrences. Newsweek's demise, a long time coming, was a minor temblor by comparison; this is a genuine earthquake.
On the brighter side: 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. Foreign reportage, serious investigative or government-accountability coverage -- functions like these have always been, in economic terms, parasites that need to ride along on some profitable host body. In the old days, that was the fat, bundled newspaper, which provided a range of information to an audience with no technological alternative. We're in the un-bundled era now, and serious journalism has been looking for new host bodies -- much as higher education, museums, the fine arts, etc have also needed support beyond what the flat-out market would provide. The money required to run a news organization is, for this era's new wealthy, relatively modest. I haven't stopped to do the comparisons, but I bet that the investment Jeff Bezos is making (and will need to increase, if he wants to revive the paper) is modest compared with what a previous era's Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Fords decided to put into their universities and foundations.
So let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age's major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence. We hope it marks a beginning, because we know it marks an end.