(USA TODAY) --It is a stunning separation.
For years, The Washington Post and the Graham family have been as deeply intertwined as it is possible for a news outlet and its owners to be.
In fact, the storied newspaper almost seemed like part of the Graham family. Generation after generation served as its steward. The Grahams flat-out loved that paper.
And so the news late Monday afternoon that the paper was being sold to Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos came as a shock. It must have been a deeply painful decision for Post Co. CEO Donald Graham.
But despite its legendary history, its courageous and inspirational role in publishing the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate secrets, its continuing if diminished commitment to quality journalism, the paper is hardly immune to the profoundly disruptive impact of the digital era.
The loss of print advertising and paying customers, as at newspaper after newspaper across the country, has been devastating. In its story on the sale, this fact jumps out: In the past six years, the Post Co.'s publishing operations - that's pretty much the Post - suffered a 44% decline in in its operating revenue. Think about it. That's almost half in just six years. That's a serious spiral.
The paper has had an unenviable juggling act, constantly slashing the size of its staff while, commendably, pursuing journalistic excellence. In recent months. the paper has seemed more hard-edged and compelling under the leadership of new Executive Editor Marty Baron, who will stay on under the new regime.
A body blow to the Post was the reversal of fortune of its Kaplan education unit. For years a cash cow that subsidizes the high-end journalism, its precipitous decline was a serious setback for the company and the paper.
Clearly, the identity of the buyer was crucial. Bezos has extraordinarily deep pockets - he's worth more than $25 billion, which sounds like real money, and which is essential if the Post is to remain a powerful journalistic force. He has a reputation as a patient businessman who can stand up to the fabled and often damaging impatience of Wall Street. And he and Graham are friends.
Most important, Bezos comes with the blessing of investor nonpareil (and newly minted newspaper magnate) Warren Buffett, who has called him America's finest CEO. Buffett's fingerprints are likely all over this deal. He has long been a major investor in Post stock and a close adviser to the Graham family.
"Every member of my family started out with the same emotion - shock - in even thinking about" selling the Post, the paper quoted Graham as saying. "But when the idea of a transaction with Jeff Bezos came up, it altered my feelings."
The sale is the second in three days of a venerated newspaper to a wealthy individual owner. On Saturday, Red Sox principal owner John Henry bought The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.
For many years the trend was in the opposite direction, as large companies bought up newspaper after newspaper. The big worry was concentration of ownership, of too much information controlled by a smaller and smaller number of entities.
Yet, while newspapers have been maligned for years, consigned by savants to the dustbin of history, a new cluster of buyers has emerged in the last couple of years. Buffett, who once famously declared he wouldn't buy newspapers "at any price," has acquired more than 30 dailies. Aaron Kushner, who made his money in greeting cards and as a Web entrepreneur, is pouring money into his acquisition, the Orange County Register in Southern California. A group of local heavy hitters purchased Philadelphia's Inquirer and Daily News.
After the Post's sale, attention now turns inevitably to The New York Times. Like the Post, the Times has long been family owned, by the Sulzbergers. Its commitment to quality journalism is unmatched. And it did the entire newspaper business a serious favor when it started to charge for digital content in 2011.
But it is subject to the same maelstrom that forced the sale of the Post: Witness the fact that at one point it had to turn to a controversial Mexican billionaire for a bailout. There are periodic flurries of speculation about the sale of the Times, perhaps to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who already has his own media empire. (A company spokesman waved off an attempt to talk to Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. about the Post sale and the future of his own newspaper.)
When I worked at the Post as deputy metro editor back in the 1980s, I remember how Graham, then publisher, would make frequent visits to the newsroom. He took pride in knowing members of the staff, no matter how humble their role. After a major snowstorm that had many Post staffers working long hours, he convened an informal lunch, just to hang out with them.
So making this move had to be tough.
"The Post could have survived under the company's ownership and been profitable for the foreseeable future. But we wanted to do more than survive," the Post quoted Graham as saying. " I'm not saying this guarantees success, but it gives us a much greater chance of success."
He did it because he had to.