My first job in journalism was phoning in the Northwood High School basketball scores to the Washington Post, a task typically performed from a pay phone outside a fast food joint in Four Corners, Md. My pay was $4 per game, enough for a burger, fries and a shake.
That was in the 1960s, and a lot has changed. After years as a newsroom employee, I now own and operate my own, albeit small, publishing company.
And suddenly, the Washington Post has announced a new owner, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon. As soon as the $250 million check changes hands, members of the Graham family and its relatives will not be the majority owners at The Post for the first time since the Great Depression.
I’ve never met Bezos and only once met Donald Graham. But I think my early career activities at the Post make me enough of a stakeholder that I can offer some advice to the the newspaper’s new chief. So here are Henry Dubroff’s 10 rules to Jeff Bezos for making the transition from tech guru to publishing titan.
1. Set your news team up to win. It’s really simple, as countless people have told you already. You back up your troops and your troops win Pulitzers. That makes everybody look good. It’s actually not that easy, but when you are The Washington Post, you have a big head start.
2. Make haste slowly. Newsrooms are tradition-bound organizations that evolve in their own time. They don’t move quickly, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
3. Know your readers. Outside the newsroom, everything about newspapers is upside down. Consider that newspaper delivery people know more about their customers than most websites — who has an alarm system, a dog, an obsession with classic cars or a habit of staying out all night.
4. It’s all about Sunday. I was business editor at The Denver Post in 1995, when we had our best year ever. Forty percent of advertising revenue and more than 100 percent of profit was in the Sunday newspaper. Even cut in half due to digital competition, that’s a heck of a franchise.
5. You are the new face of The Washington Post. At Amazon it’s possible to lie low and just go on 60 Minutes every couple of years to show the flag. But when you own a major newspaper, you have to be in the role or the other media will feast on your lack of engagement. It’s probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on, so enjoy it.
6. There are values and there are agendas. Everybody respects a newspaper owner who imposes certain values on the publication — values like integrity, upholding the First Amendment, speaking up for those who have no voice. But nobody likes an owner who has an agenda and slants the coverage to meet his or her pet causes.
7. Watergate put the Post on the map. But sports and style built the franchise. Even in an era of ESPN and nonstop celebrity chatter on HuffPo, the writing in the sports and style sections thrills, delights and entertains. Can it be captured and monetized digitally? Well, you are paying $250 million to find out.
8. Local news was never the Post’s forte. That’s the deep, dark secret. Covering politics, public policy and, most of all, government failures and leaders with flaws is what the Post does. But it never really got the DC street vibe, local business news or suburban coverage. That’s just not in the newspaper’s DNA.
9. Keep your own counsel. Newspaper owners are pack animals who are slow to adapt to change, and then do really dumb things like put all their content online for free. What gives me hope about you, Jeff Bezos, is that if you think something sucks you might just say so and do something different.
10. Keep your cool. Crazy things happen in newsrooms, in part because really good reporters find out things that influential people really did not want them to know. As the owner, you learn to adapt, take the heat, call in the lawyers if necessary, then shrug your shoulders and move on to the next crisis. The drama goes with the territory.
And finally, if you need somebody to cover Northwood games on Friday nights, I’m your guy. I’ll do a bang-up job for $4 a game — plus plane fare from Santa Barbara.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]