Katharine Weymouth’s resignation completes the close of the Graham era at the Washington Post

Katharine Weymouth (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Katharine Weymouth (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In a word, unsurprising. Katharine Weymouth’s announced resignation today as Washington Post publisher simply completes the ownership change initiated a year and a month ago when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the paper.

Neither Bezos nor Weymouth were commenting (even to the Post) about the circumstances and timing of the change, though the New York Times reported it was initiated by Bezos. My guess would have been that she had agreed to stay on for a transitional year as part of the sale, but perhaps she was trying out for a longer tenure with the new owner.

It is hard to call Weymouth’s six-plus years as publisher a success, but I wouldn’t say she failed in the job either.  She took control at the worst possible time in 2008 as the deep recession accelerated the precipitous decline of print advertising, especially at metro papers. She oversaw rapid-fire experiments with new revenue sources and a series of strategies for digital growth.  None of her initiatives turned the enterprise around — but then, who in a similar situation did?

This has been the era of “Riptide” (as a Harvard study project by three former media executives was titled).  A strong legacy brand may have been as much a liability as an asset in competition with digital disruptors. Staying afloat was an accomplishment.

Weymouth’s legacy will be twofold.  In December 2012, she took a clear-eyed look at her tenure and at the Post’s prospects and persuaded her uncle, CEO Donald Graham, that it was time for a new owner, a new vision and new capital to support a transition that will take years more.

Around that same time, she hired Martin Baron away from the Boston Globe as editor.  Knowing Baron well, I am not unbiased, but he is certainly one of the best editors of his generation, if not the best.

I heard of Weymouth (without knowing much of anything about her) more than a decade ago.  Someone told me that none of Graham’s four children was interested in succeeding him in the family business, but a niece was and was moving through business jobs at the paper in preparation.

Graham had done a similar apprenticeship (as have various Sulzbergers at the New York Times).  But a tour of departments with increasing responsibilities doesn’t exactly get an heir apparent ready the way it once did.

My own limited impressions of Weymouth were formed in several visits to Poynter in St. Petersburg (where her father is an accomplished architect) and several appearances at the annual conference of the Newspaper Association of  America, where she seemed to enjoy asking the questions as a moderator more than answering them.

A sharp intelligence was evident, but she was not much on the vision thing in public forums and revealed little about what she saw as the Post’s biggest business challenges or how she planned to deal with them.  Easy for me to say, but I am not sure, in retrospect, what the benefits of greater candor would have been.

Most accounts of Weymouth’s time (including the Post’s own this morning) will rate as her greatest blunder a plan to put advertisers together with Post editors and reporters in “salons.” at her home. I think that’s a bad rap.

A mashup of an events strategy with her grandmother’s legacy as a dinner party hostess, the effort launched with bad optics and was withdrawn.  But the Post quickly got back in the events business (where sponsorships are an easy sell compared to conventional advertising). Weymouth’s version doesn’t strike me as all that different from Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s widely praised development of a-list events as an important revenue stream.

Amanda Bennett, a seasoned top editor as well as Don Graham’s wife, was ready with an effusive tribute to Weymouth, posted as a comment minutes after Poynter Online’s news story about the change.  Bennett’s focus is on Weymouth’s “courage” in fighting the good fight, then knowing when to take the painful step of ending family control.

The morning line on Weymouth’s successor, Frederick Ryan, seems to include musings about whether his early career as a Reagan aide augurs a Post move to the right editorially.  I doubt it. Bezos is no ideologue and, especially on foreign affairs, Fred Hiatt’s editorial page is fairly conservative already.

To my mind, the more relevant factoid is that Ryan comes from Albritton Communications,  a longtime Post competitor.  Way back in the day Washington Star provided decades of second-paper competition to the Post before it was sold by Albritton and subsequently shuttered in 1981.

Fred Ryan, Jr., (Photo by John Shinkle/POLITICO

Fred Ryan, Jr., (Photo by John Shinkle/POLITICO

More recently, without a legacy newspaper culture to work through, Albritton successfully launched Politico (of which Ryan was the founding president and chief executive) in 2007 — the very model of a smooth pivot to digital at a time when the Post was still stopping and starting, trying to find its way as a print + digital business.

Related:
Katharine Weymouth at Poynter in 2010: ‘You just keep plugging away’

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