An interview with the Washington Post publisher in the Post Bezos Era
Katharine Weymouth, seated beneath a photo of her famous grandmother, Katharine Graham (left), says she wished she had “understood earlier how critical technology is” to success in today’s media world.
Photo by Michael Ventura
(page 1 of 2)
With the sale of The Washington Post last fall to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the Graham family ended its 80-year control of the newspaper. But one family member remains in place. At Bezos’ request, Katharine Weymouth, 47, a member of the fourth generation in the family to be associated with the Post, is still at the helm as publisher.
Weymouth, who assumed that position in 2008, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. A graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law School, she went on to join the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly before going to work in the newspaper’s legal department, on its digital media operation and as vice president for advertising.
A granddaughter of the late, legendary Katharine Graham and niece of former publisher Donald Graham, Weymouth is a single mother (she’s divorced from lawyer Richard Alan Scully). She lives with their three children in a four-bedroom house in Chevy Chase, D.C., that was built in 1920.
Following the newspaper’s sale to Bezos for $250 million, she sat for an interview in her sixth-floor office in the Post building, which would be sold nearly two months later to Carr Properties for $159 million. The office overlooking 15th Street is adorned with family photos and her children’s artwork; her desk and coffee table previously belonged to her grandmother.
How did you wind up with your grandmother’s furniture?
When they renovated her office after her death [in July 2001], they offered me her office furniture, and I loved the idea of working at her desk. I like to think I get some osmosis from her furniture. I became close to my grandmother once I moved to Washington [in 1993]. We used to have fun Friday night dinners, just the two of us, and she often took me as her date to events. My grandmother’s housekeeper still works for me.
Did you want to be publisher?
I grew up surrounded by journalists…[but] that was never my goal.
You were the one who suggested to your uncle, Don Graham, that the paper be sold. The story goes that you brought it up when you were both sitting on a bench.
It’s been portrayed as a seminal moment. It was really Don and I talking every week. It was more of an evolution of a conversation we’d been having all along.
Were you surprised to be asked to stay on as publisher? Will you be in this position a year from now? There’s speculation you won’t.
I was not surprised to be asked to stay on. Jeff Bezos is humble enough to acknowledge that he is new to this space. I will continue as long as he’s willing to have me. There is understandable speculation about that, but it is pure speculation.
If you had a second career choice, what would it be?
I have no idea. I focus on the career I’m in.
You were a lawyer before you were a publisher.
I went to law school for not a good reason. I needed a practical skill. My mother was nagging me to go to graduate school. But I also felt law school would give me a lot of good options—and I loved being a lawyer. At The Washington Post, I did employment law, vetting news stories, software contracts.
It was a fantastic place to see different departments. I did that for two years here, and then spent two years at [washingtonpost.com].
What can Jeff Bezos do that the Grahams couldn’t?
I personally believe there’s no magic bullet. If there were, someone would’ve found it, how to transform for the digital era. But we are in a great position. We have a credible brand, deeply engaged readers, [and we] cover Washington. And now we are owned by someone with deep pockets who cares what we do and is willing to invest for the long term.
What has changed now that the Post newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos?
People have stopped wearing ties, that’s the biggest change around here. …He hasn’t yet told us what to do, not that he would. He’s buying it for all the right reasons: It’s an important institution. He said, “I’m an optimist by nature and, yes, I’m optimistic about the future of the Post. If not, I wouldn’t join you.” Can he bring something to the table? He clearly does have deep pockets. By itself, that’s not enough. He is obsessively focused on the reader’s experience.
Have you and he discussed changes you might make under his ownership that you were unable to or didn’t make before?
I do not anticipate any dramatic changes. He has made it clear that he wants to build on what we do best, with a deep focus on serving our readers…[while] experimenting with new ways of presenting our journalism digitally that will create even more compelling experiences for our readers and users.
What is your proudest accomplishment since becoming publisher in 2008? And what’s your biggest challenge going forward?
My proudest accomplishment is something I cannot take credit for: the journalism we have published over the past five years. From the coverage of the financial meltdown that started in 2008, to our coverage of Afghanistan, Iraq and China, to our coverage of our local governments, crime, schools and the arts.
Our challenge is building on what we have been doing: continuing to publish award-winning, compelling journalism for our readers in a digital world. We want to meet our readers where they are—on any device, 24 hours of the day, with coverage they simply cannot find anywhere else.