When people imagine how a newspaper works, their first thoughts are likely of The Washington Post, circa 1976, when Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford stomped around its newsroom in All The President’s Men. The movie about the Post’s uncovering of the Watergate scandal – which led to the resignation of then-president Richard Nixon in 1974 – brought newsrooms into the popular imagination in a way that had never happened before.
The paper was founded in 1877 with an initial circulation of 10,000 by Stilson Hutchins, who made his way to the nation’s capital from Missouri to start a paper to support the Democratic Party. Its early days were overtly political – when Republican Rutherford Hayes won the presidency over Samuel Tilden in a hugely contested election, the paper went out of its way to avoid referring to him as the president.
Its first ownership change came in 1889, when it was sold for $210,000 to a newspaperman and a former member of the House of Representatives. A company history written by the International Directory of Company Histories says the paper was earning about $100,000 a year profit through the end of the century.
When those owners died, the paper was handed to John R. McLean, who broadened its scope away from politics and toward more general-interest stories. His son Edward would own the paper next, but drove it into bankruptcy in 1933 following a series of scandals that chipped away at the paper’s credibility.
Eugene Meyer, a New York banker, bought it at an auction for $825,000 and staffed up, and in 1948 handed it to his daughter Katharine Graham and her husband Philip Graham after Mr. Meyer was appointed president of the World Bank by President Harry Truman.
The Grahams would become synonymous with the paper, also buying Newsweek and helping to build a national wire service. The company was thrust into disarray when Mr. Graham killed himself in 1963, but after his death, Katharine took over.
The 1970s saw the paper gain a place at the top of the world’s journalism industry. It joined with The New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam war. And in 1972, it would break the Watergate burglary story that is still seen as one of the most powerful examples of the power of the press.
The company had also gone public, raising $33-million in an initial public offering that ensured the Graham family remained in control of the publishing empire. That paved the way for Katharine’s son Donald Graham to take over in 1991 after decades of steady profit, although diminishing returns would mean eventually selling to an Internet pioneer whose fortune was built in a business that would be impossible to imagine in 1889.
Jeff Bezos bought the Post this week for $250-million (U.S).
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