In a stunning move, Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham announced on Monday that his family has agreed to sell its storied newspaper to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The price tag: $250 million.
“Every member of my family started out with the same emotion — shock — in even thinking about [selling]," Graham said. “But when the idea of a transaction with Jeff Bezos came up, it altered my feelings.”
The Graham family bought The Washington Post in 1933.
Like many newspapers in the Internet era, the Post has struggled to maintain its print circulation — and has watched its profits dwindle. Its daily circulation fell 8.3 percent during the fourth quarter of 2012 and first quarter of 2013. The Post now has a daily circulation of 473,000 copies, making it the seventh largest newspaper in America, but just three years ago its circulation was 578,482. As for profits, they plummeted 83 percent during the first quarter of this year.
“The Post could have survived under the company’s ownership and been profitable for the foreseeable future," Graham continued. "But we wanted to do more than survive. I’m not saying this guarantees success but it gives us a much greater chance of success.”
In a separate statement, Graham said he decided to sell "only after years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post." Bezos’ "proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach and his personal decency," he added, "make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post."
In a memo to Post staffers, Bezos said the newspaper — perhaps best known for breaking news of the Watergate scandal — would not change its values under new ownership.
To the employees of The Washington Post:
You’ll have heard the news, and many of you will greet it with a degree of apprehension. When a single family owns a company for many decades, and when that family acts for all those decades in good faith, in a principled manner, in good times and in rough times, as stewards of important values – when that family has done such a good job – it is only natural to worry about change.
So, let me start with something critical. 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 will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.
I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.
There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.
Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post – as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States – is especially important. I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost. While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.
I want to say one last thing that’s really not about the paper or this change in ownership. I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man.
Katharine Weymouth, Graham's niece and the publisher of the Post, wrote in a memo to staffers, "We have found an owner who will continue the tradition that the Graham family started. Since then, and most especially over the past four decades, The Washington Post has earned a worldwide reputation for tough, penetrating, insightful, and indispensable journalism."
In March, Weymouth said the company was exploring a sale of its 63-year-old headquarters in downtown Washington, made famous in the 1976 Watergate film "All the President's Men."
She added: "Our mission does not change. Nor do the values that have been at the core of The Post’s enduring strength over many decades."
Reaction to news of the sale was mixed online.
Honestly, I don't think I've ever been more shocked by a piece of business news than this Bezos - Washington Post sale.— Nick Wingfield (@nickwingfield) August 5, 2013
Inside the NYT, littered as it is with former Posties, this is huge and unimaginable news.— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) August 5, 2013
Based on your previous purchases, Jeff Bezos, you might also like:— The Los Angeles Times— The Orlando Sentinel— Newsweek— Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder) August 5, 2013
For 1/4 of Instagram, Jeff Bezos is now in a position to make history. And make it he will.— Steven Levy (@StevenLevy) August 5, 2013
The Globe staff learns about @WashingtonPost's new owner during a newsroom-wide meeting about our new owner. Weird.— Martine Powers (@martinepowers) August 5, 2013
bezos' chili bowl— Rembert Browne (@rembert) August 5, 2013
Please rename it "Kindle Print." Please rename it "Kindle Print." Please rename it "Kindle Print." Please rename it "Kindle Print."— J.P. Freire (@JPFreire) August 5, 2013
Jeff Bezos buys Washington Post. News to be delivered within 3-5 days.— Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks) August 5, 2013
Yahoo News producer Max Zimbert contributed to this report.