The Proprietors

A generation of family owners in newspapers?responsible for a truly Golden Age?is passing on.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

At a private dinner some years ago, guests were asked to frame their toasts as advice to the honoree, who was about to become editor of a major newspaper. “Please your proprietor,” was Ben Bradlee’s elegant but cryptic counsel.

Whatever Ben meant exactly, he certainly succeeded in his tenure as executive editor of the Washington Post. Bradlee and Katharine Graham were one of the most successful publisher-editor teams in history. What they understood was their respective obligations to the institution and each other. (Graham often joked that the success of the Post was the product of both Woodward and Bernstein, the great reporters, and Woodward and Lothrop, the department store that was one of the paper’s biggest advertisers.)

Graham’s death in 2001 and the death in late February of Otis Chandler, who in his 20 years as publisher of the Los Angeles Times turned it into one of the country’s best newspapers, are melancholy reminders that a generation of family proprietors in newspapers—responsible for what may be remembered as a truly Golden Age—is passing on. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of the New York Times, recently celebrated his 80th birthday and is now the sole survivor of the triumvirate that in the second half of the twentieth century navigated business and editorial challenges to secure the family franchise as a model of what great newspapers and successful businesses could be.

This is one instance where the glow of hindsight is not misleading. When Graham inherited the Washington Post in the mid-1960s after the suicide of her husband, Philip, the Post was a good paper but hardly a national leader. It was in a group below the New York Times, along with the Pulitzer family’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Knight and Ridder families’ papers, the New York Herald-Tribune, McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, and a few others. When Otis Chandler took over the Los Angeles Times in 1960 it was considered dreadful. Chandler’s obits recalled the story about S. J. Perelman of the New Yorker, who once asked a train porter for a newspaper “and unfortunately the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times.” “Punch” Sulzberger took over the New York Times in the same era and, while the paper was certainly estimable, it was fusty in spirit and often dull in content.

By the time these three turned over their direct leadership in the 1980s, their papers had been transformed into arguably the most comprehensive and creative newspapers America has ever had. They covered international news with distinction and national news with care. The Washington Post created the now universal Style section. Writers flourished at the Los Angeles Times as the paper evolved into the multi-section daily which gave it a platform for national distribution and advertising that paid for its huge commitment to the news. Moreover, all three led the papers as public companies, with fierce family self-interest coexisting somehow with shareholder value and the concerns of employees.

Were they perfect? Critics could doubtless find fault in one or another ways. But for their time, I think they were superb, finding means to balance the quality and development of the news side with the demands of the business side for growth and revenues.

In one short period between 1971 and 1974, Graham was handed one major test after another of her leadership. In June 1971, the Post received the Pentagon Papers and was preparing to publish them after the New York Times had been ordered to stop. The Washington Post Company was on the verge of going public and Graham’s lawyers and business advisers warned her that she would find herself and the company in a legal morass that could take untold time to resolve and undermine the stock. Bradlee’s message to his publisher was certainly straightforward (if not immediately pleasing). He said the newsroom would revolt unless the papers were printed. They were, of course.

At the height of Watergate, the Nixon administration made it clear that the Washington Post Company’s television licenses, up for renewal, might be at risk. And Attorney General John Mitchell’s threats of physical abuse (remember his line about what part of Mrs. Graham he would put in a wringer?) had to have been troubling at least in a business sense. But she never wavered from support of Bradlee and the newsroom. With the Washington Post Company trading today in the range of $775 per share, it is fair to ask what the value of the company would be if Katharine Graham had stopped coverage of either the Pentagon Papers or Watergate.

The Post and Times companies are still controlled by the Graham and Sulzberger families and their guiding principles, adapted to the realities of today’s business challenges, seem intact. The Chandler family gradually ceded oversight after Chandler stepped down in 1980 and the Los Angeles Times, while still a great newspaper, is now owned by the Tribune Company. The Ridder family heirs have had to put the papers up for sale. The Pulitzers, the Binghams of Louisville, and the Taylors of Boston are all gone, with the papers now corporately owned. What all those changes highlight is that the leadership of Kay Graham, Otis Chandler, and Punch Sulzberger, while paragons for their era, did not guarantee the future. Still, it is an undisputable fact that these three were proprietors worth pleasing.