The Washington Post and the End of the Golden Age

A dispatch from the days when the newspaper was a newly minted monopolist in its hometown.

waPost Adam Glanzman flickr.png

Adam Glanzman/Flickr

In "Why the Sale of the Washington Post Seems So Significant," my colleague James Fallows writes that "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." He is right, although of course I know all about Watergate, and the Post's role in the Pentagon Papers. I am grateful both for those and for more recent journalistic classics: Citizen K Street, the newspaper's masterful series on the rise of lobbying, for example. And especially The Peekaboo Paradox.

Curiosity sent me searching the Internet for more. One of the most interesting articles I stumbled upon: a January 1984 Washington Monthly piece by Tim Noah, "Monopoly Profits and Broken Promises." It begins as a lament about the demise of The Washington Post's onetime rival: The Washington Star evidently ceased publication in 1981, giving the Post a local monopoly.The next paragraph illustrates how drastically the journalistic landscape has changed:

Two years after the fading of the Star, the talk these days on the Post's newsroom floor seems to dwell less on how to be "responsive to the needs of the community" than on how to divide up the newspaper's impressive new profits. Washington Post Company stock  has shot up  117.9 percent in the last two years; company profits for the first three quarters of this year are up 170.7 percent from the comparable  period in 1981, largely thanks to the fact that The Washington Post is now a monopoly newspaper.

These riches were put on lavish display last winter when the Washington  Post Company spent more than $1 million to celebrate Newsweek's 50th anniversary. Among the festivities was a sumptuous black-tie dinner that the company threw in New York to impress Newsweek advertisers, followed by pious recitations from Lauren Bacall, Hume Cronin, Jessica Tandy, and James Earl Jones on what it meant to be a journalist,  and a multimedia celebration of Newsweek's first 50 years produced by Lohrne Michaels, the man who gave you "Saturday Night Live!'

The rest of the article is a scathing critique of many aspects of the newspaper, many of which I doubt I'd have shared even at the time, but what I really can't imagine is a world that informed these words:

Enormous salaries and perks adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars are routinely lavished on top management. Meanwhile, the Newspaper Guild, which has never had much reason to worry about the ability of the Post's reporters and editors to keep a roof overhead - the average salary on the newsroom floor is $43,500 [$94,640 in today's dollars] has acquired a new militancy in its clamoring for higher cost-of-living increases, higher minimum salaries, and more overtime. The only thing labor and management seem to agree on is that, so long as the usual contributions to the United Way  and assorted other charities are made, the Post's profits shouldn't weigh heavily on anybody's conscience.

Newspapers making so much in profit that liberal pundits thought that they ought to feel guilty about it! The balance of the lengthy article touches on many topics, at one point arguing that the Post ought to have responded to its problematic monopoly status by starting an afternoon paper to compete with itself -- "at worst the Post would have lost five or six years on the proposition." Also, the newspaper's employees evidently once asked for "a 28-hour work week with double-time pay for overtime and a 13-week paid vacation every 5 years." I was 4 when that article was written.

How times change.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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