Above: Katharine Weymouth, continuing her “Who Says Publishers Can’t Be Sexy?” campaign
The highlights of Lloyd Grove’s Portfolio piece after the jump…(and do not forget to click on this stunning graph, which really hammers home the tough spot the Washington Post is in…)
“The numbers suck in our business,” the 42-year-old granddaughter of legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham declares.
“That may mean that we have to make some choices about what we can cover and what we can’t–and those are going to be hard choices.”
At a lunch with Post editors and reporters, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer confidently predicted that in 10 years “there will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form” and “no media consumption” except via the internet. Weymouth’s maybe impossible mission: to change that future–or at least figure out how the Post can survive in it.
It was probably not an omen, but shortly before she was named publisher, Weymouth was mugged at gunpoint on a Washington street. It was midnight, and she and a female friend were leaving a dinner party at the home of a Post colleague. “I always feel like I’m a tough chick and nobody is going to mess with me,” Weymouth says. “We were paying no attention to our surroundings, which we should have been. This guy comes around the corner and says, ‘Your purses.’ Then he pulled out a gun, and we realized he wasn’t joking.” Emerging from the ordeal stripped of cash, credit cards, and Weymouth’s Washington Wizards basketball tickets–but otherwise unscathed–they retreated to a lounge, where Tim the friendly bartender served them margaritas on the house to steady their jangled nerves.
The numbers do suck: The Post’s circulation and advertising are down and dropping, the cost of newsprint is through the roof, and advertising revenue from the Web isn’t growing nearly fast enough to stanch the bleeding. In 2007, the Post’s print-ad revenue plunged 13 percent from the previous year–from $573.2 million to $496.2 million (a decline hardly offset by an $11.5 million hike in the website’s revenue, an 11 percent increase over the previous year). Average daily circulation has dropped to 673,180 from a peak of 832,232 in 1993. The staff was cut earlier this year through a round of voluntary buyouts, the third since 2003, a move that cost the company a record $80 million in severance payouts. Over the past five years, the newsroom’s head count has shriveled from about 900 to less than 700, and the threat of layoffs still looms. It’s a sad, scary time. At a recent farewell party for the latest group of buyout recipients, several of them Pulitzer Prize winners, Don Graham was choked up.
…she says, “I think the evidence will tell us you’re right. There are days when I look at the front page and think we’ve done a better job, and there are days that I think, You must be kidding me!” The staffers laugh. Weymouth goes on, “There are days on Saturday that I think maybe somebody is trying to not have people buy the paper.”
But in her short time on the job, she’s made it clear that she’ll involve herself in all aspects of the operations that define the brand, an approach that’s symbolized by her decision to move the publisher’s office to the fifth-floor newsroom to make herself “accessible”–a highly unorthodox step strongly discouraged by her immediate predecessor, Post Co. vice chairman ÂBoisfeuillet Jones Jr., one of Don Graham’s oldest friends from Harvard.
“Bo hates my idea of moving, hates it, and has tried repeatedly to talk me out of it,” Weymouth tells the Style staff. “But I don’t like to be stuffed away in a cubby. I don’t know how many of you have been to the official publisher’s office on the seventh floor. It’s like a dreadful funeral coffin.”
Two and a half months after Weymouth became publisher, the section’s assistant managing editor, Susan Glasser, was removed from that position and given another one outside the newsroom, working for Don Graham on special projects. Glasser’s tense relationship with many of her reporters was already under scrutiny from her bosses. (Glasser had no comment.) Yet there’s little question that Weymouth weighed in with her concerns, which likely accelerated Glasser’s reassignment and prompted embarrassing coverage from rival news outlets, notably a detailed story about the episode in the New York Times.
Whatever Weymouth does, Liz Spayd, a Washingtonpost.com editor who is also a veteran of the downtown newsroom, predicts that the new publisher will move forcefully and fast.
“Hold on to your hats, cowboys,” Spayd says. “We’re going for a ride.”