When my wife and I were young parents in the late 1970s and I was working as a Metro reporter at The Washington Post covering Prince George’s County and Maryland politics, we had a favorite saying we would utter whenever we bought new shoes and clothes for our two gradeschool kids: “Thank you, Mrs. Graham.”
As the years and decades went by, my scrapbooks and boxes of journalistic stuff included various little notes written in blue ink on Washington Post memo pads. All of us received them, no doubt—every reporter who worked there. They were written by Don Graham, who had succeeded his mother as publisher. Words of praise and encouragement about a story. It could be a big story or a small one, on A1 or buried in the Metro section, or Sports, or Business or Style, but Don had read it. He read everything, every day, and if he liked it he sent along a note.
They would land in your box in the mailroom in a dark, tan interoffice envelope that was long and thin, or, if you were a correspondent elsewhere in the country or the world, through the postal service in a small, white Washington Post envelope with his name scrawled above the paper’s logo. Some people called them Donnie Grams. I always called them Graham Grams. They were vital.
Now the last string connecting the Graham family to the Post has been cut with the announcement on Tuesday that Katharine Weymouth, Mrs. Graham’s granddaughter and Don Graham’s niece, would be resigning as publisher. No surprise. We could all see it coming from the day last August when Don Graham sold the family newspaper to the king of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. His new guy seems generic. Fred Ryan. Came out of Southern Cal. Worked for Reagan. Helped found Politico.
I have no idea what the future promises from this team of Bezos and Ryan. I believe Don when he says that he sold the paper he loved in order to save it. I believe that Katharine stayed on for the last year to make the transition to the new world as smooth as possible. I believe that it is possible that Bezos and Ryan might figure out how to transform the Post into a profitable digital enterprise that can take on a mighty global mission.
I understand the inevitability of change. For the past few years I’ve been researching a book on Detroit, and no subject could more impress upon me the cycles of life and death, composition and decomposition, decay and rebirth, than the fortunes and misfortunes of that great city. Some change is unavoidable, some is necessary, some the unfortunate result of mistakes and misunderstandings and human failings. Some of what has happened at the Post was caused by forces far larger than an individual newspaper, and some was the result of decisions made by the Graham family over the years. So be it.
I’ve often said of myself and other journalists that the obvious becomes obvious only when it is obvious. It took many of us a long time to adjust to the transformation of our industry, perhaps too long. And now, for my own part, I can say that it took me a long time to comprehend that the Graham era at the Post is finally and fully over.
As much as I love the Post and so many of the people who work there, the truth is that I care less about the saving of it than I thought I would. I am not even sure what saving it means. What I care about more is the loss, the ineluctable sense of something that cannot be replaced by profits or clicks. Maybe clicks are the new Graham grams. How many hundreds or thousands of electronic readers clicked on your story? Whether they liked it or not is irrelevant, and lord knows you are not likely to wade into the profane cesspool of the comments section to try to find out. And I doubt that a Ryan Gram or Bezos Gram, as unlikely as they are, would fill the void, even if delivered by drone. The Post under the Grahams was maternal and paternal and uneven and beautifully flawed. But most of all, it was deeply human.