The Washington Post is probably the most evocative brand in the
newspaper business. This is the title that broke the story of the
century, brought down President Nixon and was propelled into popular
culture as the archetypal ’publish and be damned’ newspaper courtesy of
All the President’s Men.
For this reason the Washington Post Company - although a modest media
owner with only a handful of newspapers and magazines and a couple of US
TV stations - exercises a disproportionate influence on US (and arguably
The Post’s supposedly fearless character is forged in the image of its
owner, Katherine ’Kay’ Graham. A mover and shaker in Washington society,
she took control of the paper following the suicide of her husband in
1963. She confounded all expectations - not only in taking a firm hold
of the reins but also in turning the title from a sleepy parochial
journal into one of the world’s great newspapers. Like Rupert Murdoch in
the UK, she was at the forefront of the fight to break the US print
unions; unlike Murdoch, she found the idea of editorial interference
distasteful, letting her editors get on with what they did best.
Watergate was the prime example of that - and Graham stuck to her
principles at a cost. When she stood up to the bullying tactics of
Nixon’s aides, the government responded by sabotaging the company’s
attempts to expand its television interests.
Although Graham is no longer in charge, having moved upstairs to become
executive chairman, the liberal management legacy lives on - as
evidenced by a recent squabble with the Post’s stablemate, Newsweek.
A few weeks back, the Post’s political commentators rounded on
colleagues at Newsweek, accusing them of helping President Clinton’s
alleged cover-up in the Monica Lewinsky ’Zippergate’ affair. Newsweek
didn’t need another dent to its credibility. At home and abroad, it has
traditionally been overshadowed by the market leader, Time, but has
started to fight back by investing heavily in editorial, reinventing the
news weekly formula. The strategy has worked in the advertising market,
with Newsweek beginning to outstrip its rival in ad pagination
The Lewinsky affair could be damaging, especially as it comes in the
wake of the furore surrounding Primary Colors, a supposedly intimate
journal of Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Newsweek’s senior
editors took no credit at all from lying in a vain attempt to protect
the anonymity of the book’s author, the chief political columnist, Joe
Klein, who has since resigned.
Like Time, Newsweek is a global magazine and has made great efforts to
crack the Asian market through local-language versions in Japan and
Korea. However, it is not the company’s only international property: it
is also joint owner (with the New York Times) of another of the world’s
great newspaper brands, the International Herald Tribune.
Established more than a century ago by Gordon Bennett (the man who sent
roving reporter Stanley to track down Livingstone) as the belle epoche
journal for Americans in Paris, the IHT has spent the past two decades
remodelling itself as the paper of record for the global village. It now
prints in 16 locations around the world.
Despite set-backs under the Nixon-Ford administration, the company
diversified steadily during the 70s and 80s, adding TV and radio
stations, cable networks and local newspapers - often with
less-than-impressive results. Under Donald E. Graham, who succeeded his
mother as chief executive in 1991, diversification was moved up the
agenda once more, again with patchy results.
Although Newsweek embraced new technology early on, publishing CD-Rom
editions, for example, it has proved troublesome for the company as a
whole. In 1995 it wrote off dollars 28 million after admitting that its
investment in the CD-Rom specialist, Mammoth Micro Products, was a
mistake. But it is determined to be a player in online publishing
through its Web subsidiary, Digital Ink. As you’d expect, the Post has
its own Website and is now creating a spin-off ’online community guide’
for the Washington DC area.
Digital Ink’s other services include Legi-Slate, an online service
covering legislative and regulatory activity. Meanwhile, the company’s
trade and technical magazine division, TechNews, is expanding vigorously
and developing online services.
Surprisingly, movement on the television front has been slow, although
it has had some success with a re-examination of the JFK
Other recent initiatives include the launch of a TV production arm and
the announcement of a joint venture with the Washington cable channel,
Newschannel 8. Hardly the biggest deal in the world - and the company
all but admitted that it has very modest ambitions in television.
That does not diminish the group’s importance as a media owner. Its
influence over US hearts and minds cannot be underestimated, nor its
reputation for exposing conspiracy. Perhaps its biggest challenge will
be to remain relevant in a world that is becoming increasingly bored
with conspiracy theories.