The offer by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, to buy The Washington Post for $250 million is a reminder of the important place the Post has occupied in the life of the nation since it made its lasting imprint during the Watergate scandal.
The story of the Post’s recent travails is the story of journalism in the early 21st century — how print newspaper revenues and circulation have declined as Internet-based services have expanded, how the corporate model for profit-making is changing, how the sound and fury of opinion journalism whirls noisily about the steady center of fact-based, community journalism.
The decision by the Graham family to sell to Bezos comes as worrisome upheavals continue in the media world. David Simon, formerly a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun and subsequently creator of the TV show “The Wire,” has written an eloquent statement warning that the billionaire Koch brothers have shown an interest in buying a string of papers from the Tribune Co., including the Sun, as well as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
“The original sin of American journalism is having listened to Wall Street four decades ago, when it was first suggested that out-of-town ownership by publicly traded chains were the optimum means of assuring profit and viability,” Simon wrote.
For a time newspapers were a lucrative source of profits for corporate owners, but as profits shrank newspapers have had to cut back personnel, closing down bureaus, scaling back ambitions. In the meantime, the rise of the Internet has fostered a cacophonous world of opinion journalism that has caused some to question whether objective journalism is possible.
For Simon, it is essential for a newspaper to be embedded within its community. “Wall Street is very good at manufacturing short-term profit and little else,” he wrote. “But for a newspaper to serve its community with care and precision and dedication, the newspaper must be of the city and a part of the city — and beholden only to that city.”
In Simon’s view good journalism “needs to be unaligned and indifferent to ideological cant and partisan politics; it needs to be about the acquisition of unaligned fact.”
The Koch brothers are conservative ideologues who could well threaten the independence of venerable newspapers that have been institutions in their cities for generations. But what of Bezos? His politics are not well known. Early word about the purchase of the Post suggests he hopes to reinvigorate its role as an independent voice in the city it covers, which happens to be the nation’s capital.
We depend on the Post, as we did in the days of Watergate, to ferret out the truth behind the manipulations of both Democrats and Republicans. Can a newspaper be saved by a public-spirited tycoon? Tycoons have owned newspapers before, and, in theory, the values that sustain newspapers may be better represented by civic-minded individuals than by corporations that are loyal only to Wall Street. But what if the tycoon is concerned more about profit than the public good? The crucial factor is whether the owner of a newspaper understands the ideas of independence and community. The Times Argus, a small player compared with papers like the Post, remains independent because for years it has been owned by one family that is part of the community it serves. Changes in the industry have taken a toll, but like other papers, The Times Argus has made adjustments and established itself in the world of new media.
The point is that in either Washington, D.C., or Barre and Montpelier, Vt., readers need to know that reporters and editors have undertaken what David Simon called a “delicate and professional endeavor” without fear or favor. It is “the only way to maintain an open and honest society,” he said.
Money can buy companies, but whether Bezos or the Koch brothers understand the serious calling they are venturing toward will be judged by their readers. The health and vitality of our open society are at stake.
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