Part of the problem with dragging the news business into the 21st century is that newspaper people are so damned conservative. That’s right, conservative.
Some journalists who work in print may harbor liberal political views, but we are conservative about our own trade. We like it the way it has always been. Gruff editors hammered into us how it should be, and we have passed the hammer.
While magazines experimented with new ways of presenting their wares and developing new voices, especially in the 1920s, newspapers clung to the past. Horizontal layout — the headlines running across the page rather than sitting astride vertical columns — was considered radical enough.
Even the sensational papers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were sensational within bounds. The carved-in-stone rules of the trade were not challenged — like one that says headlines must have verbs, and another that says the first line of a headline cannot end with a conjunction or a preposition.
The most revolutionary of American newspapers was probably The New York Herald Tribune. In its last decade, even as it was dying a decades-long death from extraordinarily poor management, it became a laboratory for new journalism with certifiable newspaper geniuses like David Laventhol, Eugenia Sheppard, Red Smith, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Clay Felker. Working at the paper was like working for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater: great stuff was going on.
The Washington Post has had its share of dazzling reporters and columnists — and benefited from some of its Herald Tribune hires, including Laventhol, who created its much-imitated Style section. I was lucky to have worked for both papers.
The Post has shone in the coverage of politics, interpretative foreign stories and big investigative stories. Watergate gets the kudos, but there was good, even great, investigative work before and after it.
The Graham family presided over the Post in its golden period from the 1960s (it bought its morning rival, The Washington Times-Herald, in 1954) to maybe 2005. The Post never achieved the global recognition that The New York Times enjoys, but it was a close second — and on many days, the Post was clearly the better newspaper.
The Washington Post Co., which is controlled by the Graham family and which owned the newspaper, is less of a success story. After its acquisition of Newsweek magazine in 1961, it faltered as a dynamic media entity, even though the newspaper was hugely profitable.
It failed to become a major player in television, although it owned stations. It failed to expand its magazine franchise. And it missed out on cable TV, which has been so important to the growth of old-line publishers Scripps Howard and Hearst.
The Washington Post Co. bought and sold many properties on the fringes of its core business, but with little success, except for Kaplan Inc. — the for-profit education company — which was very profitable until the student loan imbroglio.
In the 1990s the Internet, like an invasive species, began choking the life out of the Post. But the company didn’t know how to respond. It failed to create a credible website and watched two English newspapers, The Guardian and the Mail, build up huge Web presences in the United States. Helplessly it also watched an upstart company, Politico, staffed with Post veterans, take hunks out of its political franchise. As recently as last year, the Post could not establish whether it needed a pay wall on its website.
Now the Graham family, headed by Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive officer Donald Graham, has done something very brave in the egotistical world of publishing. It has admitted: We do not know what to do.
Jeff Bezos, the inordinately wealthy founder of Amazon, has bought the paper. Does he know what to do? Nobody knows.
Nothing Bezos has done suggests that he either understands or reveres newspapers. But he can afford to be radical and he is not bound by newspaperdom’s reverence for the way we used to do it, our conservatism.