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
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.
What would you do over?
I would’ve understood earlier how critical technology is in this new world. [But] I don’t focus on regrets. I focus on moving forward. You must experiment and try new things.
Talk to us about “Salon-gate,” the proposed series of private dinners or salons at your house in 2009. Prominent persons would have paid $25,000 to $250,000 to attend up to 11 such events, where they would have gotten to meet with Post journalists. You received a lot of criticism over that.
There never was a dinner. There was simply a flier. Yes, I wouldn’t do it. I view it as a blip on the radar. But out of it came a fantastic conference business. That was my goal all along. I believe it’s OK to try things and make mistakes. My grandmother said, “You will make mistakes.”
It has been widely noted in the media and in the newsroom that you received large bonuses (more than $600,000 in 2012, with $2.4 million in total compensation) even as the newsroom staff was being reduced and news bureaus closed. Any comment?
That’s a question for the board and the compensation committee. I’m held to results. I delivered. The year I took over, the Post lost well over $100 million. I got us in the black in two years. I think it’s OK to be paid for delivering results.
When you hired Marcus Brauchli, formerly with The Wall Street Journal, to become the Post’s executive editor in 2008, you were quoted as saying, “That’s my first big decision. If I do it right, that person will be around for a long time.” Why did you go outside the paper, and why did you replace him?
My focus was on transforming us for the digital age. I was looking for an editor over both print and the Web. I thought Marcus was a great choice. He oversaw the transition of the newsroom. He created a terrific team. He oversaw some fantastic coverage. But I think Marty Baron [the former Boston Globe editor who was hired at the end of December 2012 to become the Post’s executive editor] is the right editor to take us forward.
The New York Times reported that Brauchli resisted more newsroom cuts.
Marcus was a terrific editor. He oversaw the integration of the newsroom [with the website], hired great talent and oversaw great coverage. Marty Baron is the editor who will bring us into the future. I hired Marty because of his stature as an editor.
Will there be more staff reductions?
Our focus is on serving our readers, not about [staffing] numbers per se. During Watergate, the golden age, the staff was a lot smaller than it is today. Our goal is hiring the best reporters and editors and producers for video. [Staffing] we will have to assess over time. We are trying to cut costs but not coverage. We will keep [foreign] coverage as robust if not more robust. We’d rather have our journalists on the street. We don’t want reporters to be spending a lot of time in buildings, physical offices; we want them out reporting.
You abolished the position of the ombudsman, who responded to reader complaints and also wrote a weekly column of criticism and commentary assessing Post coverage. Now there’s a reader representative who simply restates what readers are saying on a particular subject in his online posts.
The world has changed a lot. We need to change, too. The ombudsman became obsolete because there are now tons and tons of media critics. That role is not necessary anymore.
How do you read The Washington Post? On what platform? And when?
I do all of it: I read it on my iPad at night, the [print] paper in morning, I go online during the day. I watch the Post videos. I’m the classic of my gender—I do not read sports first; I read the front page, Metro, Style, then sports.
How do you like living in Washington compared with Manhattan?
I prefer it. I love living here, raising kids here. I love the skyline. Washington has the culture, and much better restaurants over the past 10 years.
Why did you choose Chevy Chase, D.C., instead of, say, Georgetown or Potomac?
Georgetown I couldn’t afford, and parking there is difficult. It’s important to me to walk places, like Starbucks, the dry cleaners, Safeway. I needed space for three children and three dogs—I have lots of pets [I was] talked into by my children. I take [the dogs] to Lafayette [Elementary School field] and to Rock Creek [Park]. We are not a cat household. My son and I are allergic. My kids are 9, 11 and 13, two strong girls and a boy in the middle. I feel lucky.
It can’t have been easy for you. You’re a single mother, and one of your daughters is now recovering from a horseback riding incident.
It was my youngest daughter who fell off her horse and broke her arm badly. After multiple complicated surgeries over two years, she has regained use of her arm, but still is not able to use her left hand. She is incredibly strong and funny, and doesn’t let it get in her way at all.
What do you do in your copious spare time?
I don’t have any. I try to hang out with my kids. I run and travel. I love to travel out West, where we can hike during the summer and ski during the winter. This summer I took the kids to South Africa, and we went on a wonderful safari. I love to cook. When I cook, I like to try new things. My favorite is a Washington Post recipe for white chocolate crème brûlée. I make a lot of fish, and I love making summer soups. I love to read.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading [An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943] the first of Rick Atkinson’s trilogy [about the American role in the liberation of Europe during World War II]. I just read Traps, by Jeff Bezos’ wife [MacKenzie]. It’s her latest novel, and it’s about four women from different walks of life. I am so in awe of her, taking care of her husband, raising four children and writing novels.
As a single mother who’s also the Post publisher, what’s your daily life like?
I definitely do a lot of juggling. My kids are at two different schools in three different buildings. On the mornings I am in town, I wake up at 5:50, go for a 2-mile run with my friend Carolyn, end at Starbucks—couldn’t live without it—come home, make breakfast for the kids and lunch for one, take the dogs out, feed the dogs, put drops in one dog’s eyes, drive the kids to three different drop-off points, and get to work by 9:30. My day is typically filled with meetings.
At the end of the day, if I don’t have a business dinner, I go home to have dinner with the kids, catch up with them, make sure they have done their homework and put them to bed. Sometimes we have a family night watching Homeland or Scandal. Otherwise, like every other single parent, I pay the bills, run the house, fill out the school and camp forms, make the doctor appointments, make the play dates, schedule the activities, buy the groceries, cook, put furniture together, and I’m not too bad with a cordless drill.
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post writer, is a longtime contributing editor at Bethesda Magazine. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.