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The Proprietors

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

| Tue Mar. 14, 2006 4:00 AM EST

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.)

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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.

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