CAMPAIGN INTERNATIONAL: Washington Post trades on its reputation to make a mark on the new-media landscape. There’s more to the Washington Post than the Watergate expose. Alasdair Reid looks at the group

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.

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

global) politics.



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

terms.



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

assassination.



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.



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