Several months ago I re-read what David Halberstam had to say about the Washington Post in The Powers That Be, his monumental 1979 book about the rise of the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and CBS News.
As we celebrate the life and career of the Post's legendary executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who died on Tuesday, it's worth pondering the economic environment that made Bradlee's charismatic brand of leadership possible: private ownership.
The Meyer and Graham families had been the sole owners of the Post since the 1930s. But in the early 1970s, publisher Katharine Graham decided to take her newspaper public. Here's Halberstam:
The decision had instant ramifications after the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. As Halberstam writes, the Post could have been charged with a federal crime, which would have had serious negative consequences for the paper's upcoming stock offering. Yes, the Post was on the verge of becoming a public company. But because Graham and Bradlee continued to run it as a highly personal institution, they held firm and went to press. Here's Halberstam again:
In fact, the Post was often characterized as less engaging under Graham's successor, her son Donald, and the executive editor who followed Bradlee, Len Downie. Whether that's fair or not, there's no disputing the reality that public ownership finally met its limits in 2013, when Don Graham sold the Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Under executive editor Marty Baron, the Post is experiencing a revival, as Baron gets to expand coverage with the money that billionaire Bezos has proved willing to invest in the paper.
The New York Times Co.'s sale of the Boston Globe to financier John Henry in 2013 returned that paper to private ownership as well — and Henry and editor Brian McGrory have expanded the Globe's coverage of politics and the Catholic Church, among other areas.
Neither Bezos nor Henry has been entirely benevolent. Bezos is trying to cut pension benefits for his employees. Henry has made reductions here and there, and some staff members continue to endure unpaid furloughs first instituted by the Times Co.
Yet there's no question that both the Post and the Globe are better off in wealthy private hands than they were under the ownership of publicly traded corporations. News organizations are unique. The relentless focus on the bottom line that Wall Street demands inevitably hurts the journalism, which, in turn, harms the bottom line as the audience is driven away. Private owners can focus on the long term in a way that publicly owned corporations simply can’t.
They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Ben Bradlee was both. And we were the beneficiaries.