Katharine Weymouth on the 'Wrenching Decision' to Sell the Washington Post

Effort to Find a Buyer Began Late Last Year

By Published on .

The surprise deal to sell The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will end generations of ownership by the Graham family.

Katharine Weymouth
Katharine Weymouth Credit: Scott Gries

Katharine Graham was publisher of the paper when it broke the Watergate scandal in 1973. Her son Don is chairman and CEO today, and her granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth, is the Post's publisher.

Soon after the company announced that it had agreed to sell its flagship paper to Mr. Bezos for $250 million in cash, Ms. Weymouth spoke with Ad Age about the deal that had stunned the media world.

Advertising Age: Why did you decide to sell The Washington Post now?

Katharine Weymouth: I think, as Don said, it obviously was and is a very wrenching decision for the family. We care tremendously about this place and our lives have been intertwined with it. We've always focused on the fact that it is a mission and a public trust.

Don and I and the board started asking ourselves if the Post is the best home for the Post newspaper going forward and decided to explore the process of whether there is an owner out there who can bring new vision to the Post and a deeper technology bench, or assets, or managerial experience. Jeff is all of those things.

It was clear from the beginning that Don wasn't going to sell to [just] anyone, but rather would only sell if we could find the right home ... because we wanted to continue the Post for generations of readers to come.

Ad Age: I didn't realize The Washington Post was for sale.

Ms. Weymouth: Nobody did. It was not put on the auction block.

Ad Age: How did you keep this a secret? I'm shocked no one broke this story.

Ms. Weymouth: Yes, we're all shocked. It's shocking. We were worried that it was going to leak. We knew it would be very bad for everyone and demoralizing if it leaked, so we just tried to keep it to the smallest group possible.

Ad Age: Who knew about it?

Ms. Weymouth: Don, the board and I, and the people we had approached.

Ad Age: How long had you been searching for a new owner?

Ms. Weymouth: We decided to begin exploring at the end of last year. There was never really a point in time when we said we were going to sell it. It was a process and we decided to start exploring with the understanding that if we didn't find the right buyer we wouldn't do it.

Ad Age: Was a condition of the sale that you and other top leaders were to stay on?

Ms. Weymouth: Not at all. That would've been up to the owner. In this case, Jeff asked us to. But that obviously is a decision of the owner. In this case he asked us to. I'm honored that he did, and I've asked the team to stay on. I think they will, and I think they're excited about getting to know Jeff.

Ad Age: Does the $250 million that Mr. Bezos paid for the Post include any assumption of liability?

Ms. Weymouth: No. In fact, our pension is vastly overfunded thanks in large part to Warren Buffett [who owns a significant minority stake in the company]. There's nothing hidden in the deal. It is $250 million for The Washington Post and our affiliate companies.

Ad Age: Do you feel a measure of relief right now, or is there some sadness?

Ms. Weymouth: Of course there's sadness. This is a really hard day for the Graham family because we love it so much. It's a little bit easier for me because I don't have to leave. I get to stay with my team and the people who work here, but there's no question it's a sad day for the Graham family.

Ad Age: What kind of role does Mr. Bezos play in the future of the paper? Surely, he'll have some kind of influence.

Ms. Weymouth: He's our owner, but he's made it very clear: "Katharine, I have a big job and I am passionate about it. I'm the CEO of Amazon and I am going to run Amazon and I need you and your team to run the Post." From my point of view it's the best kind of owner. We hope and expect he'll be involved in giving us ideas and resources and asking us good questions. We want him to be involved, but he will not micromanage and he will not be involved in running the Post in a day-to-day basis. And that's why he wants the team and me to run it.

Ad Age: The sale does not include Slate.com, TheRoot.com or Foreign Policy. Why?

Ms. Weymouth: Jeff is buying the Washington-based assets that are based on the Washington story. That's what he wanted to buy. Slate and The Root have always been nationally focused, or in the case of Foreign Policy, internationally focused. Frankly, they've always reported to corporate so they've always been separate from us.

Ad Age: Do you think you can boost the revenue stream, which has been declining for the past seven years?

Ms. Weymouth: I don't think there are any magic bullets, and even Jeff doesn't have any magic bullets. I think the trends that are affecting the industry will continue to affect the industry, but I think with Jeff's leadership the Post will continue to publish great journalism and connect advertisers and consumers. Best of all it will continue to innovate, which is what Jeff is known for.

Ad Age: What's next for you and the Post in the days to come?

Ms. Weymouth: Don and Jeff are going to leave it to the lawyers to get the deal closed. That's the first step. My job is to talk to the folks who work here and to our readers and to our constituencies and our advertisers to make sure everyone understands that this might be an end for the Graham family but it's the beginning of a new and exciting era. And yes, I want people to do business as usual. We need people writing stories and selling ads and distributing papers and printing them. Although this is very surprising for everyone, I've asked everyone to -- as much as possible -- continue doing what they do.

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