On Tuesday Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos agreed to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million after 80 years of Graham family ownership. TIME spoke with veteran Post journalist Bob Woodward about the deal merging a west-coast internet billionaire and the capital’s preeminent newspaper.
How did you find out?
I was aware for some time that there were discussions. I’m not exactly sure [how long] because it came in stages. I’m just not going to be able to say when I had found out.
Were you involved in the negotiations?
No, I wasn’t involved…
Do you have confidence that Bezos can lead the Post in the Internet age?
Yeah I do. I know him a little. He’s an original. Step back: Go to 100,000 feet. What do we need, not in the Washington Post, but the United States news business? We need a renaissance for reporting. A renaissance for reporting where we do more of it, we dig into things. We don’t know what really goes on in the White House, hedge funds, banks, foreign governments. How does Congress really work? If somebody like Bezos is willing to come along and put the money into a reporting renaissance that could be a giant change.
Does the Washington Post need to be profitable to be successful?
I’ve always thought it’s important that a newsroom be profitable so it sustains itself. It’s all about reporting, the depth and the level of effort. If you look at Bezos’ history, he is willing to spend billions and billions of dollars to expand and build what is necessary—the infrastructure, all the things he has done at Amazon. Well, the infrastructure in reporting is the quality of its information. If a news organization really started explaining things and getting into them in a way that was singular, I think that becomes—I’m being the optimist here—that becomes marketable and profitable. It should.
Do you think that Bezos has the same values as the Post?
Yeah, I do. He bought it not through Amazon but through his personal fortune so it’s not a corporation. I know from conversation that he believes in the values of an independent, aggressive media. He said it in his statement: the job is to work for the customers, or readers, not the owners.
Will newspapers be able to succeed in print?
Not necessarily as newspapers on paper, but through the Internet, sure.
Can you share a story about what Katharine or Don Graham was like as an owner?
Just to step back for a moment, so much of this [deal] is about money. In other words, does the newspaper have enough money? Does a news organization have enough money to support its reporting efforts? And that just shrunk dramatically for the Post. I can recall an instance in the late 1970s, when Katharine Graham was the publisher. She said that the Post had had a really good year financially and made lots of money. And I said, ‘Well I thought it was a good year in terms of the news also.’ And she said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. In the long run it does, but in the short run it doesn’t. What the Post is about [is] the business and the sale of advertising…It is a business and we have a product and people know it.’
This is true. When we would have a really good story, going back to Watergate or anytime, they didn’t sell more copies on the newsstand, except maybe a few more. So what happened is the advertising revenue just moved to the Internet. I’ll tell you an example. Eric Schmidt, who was CEO of Google at the time, was [at my home] for dinner with my wife [Elsa Walsh]. And we had known Schmidt for some time. I said to him, ‘It’s going to be on your tombstone: “I killed newspapers.”’ And he said, ‘No, I love newspapers.’ And I said, ‘But you’re taking all of our money!’ And he said, like a good CEO, ‘It’s our money now.’
Which is exactly right…Don Graham has realized that. They wound up selling Newsweek for a dollar. So the question was who to sell it to, and what values does that person have? And they found Bezos. I was on television this morning and cited a speech that Bezos had given in 2004 in which he said, ‘Whenever something big is done inefficiently, it creates an opportunity.’ And that’s the definition of the news business now. Every news organization collectively is inefficient. Whether he [Bezos] has a plan, I don’t know. I expect he will shake things up.
It’s a big deal, and it’s sad. Don Graham and the Grahams are models. For somebody at my end, the reporting end, they are, they were, they have always been our supporters.
I knew things were in the works, [but] you never know what’s final or what’s going to happen, who or how much. And they told me in the morning yesterday, which was August 5th, 2013, and I thought back to August 5th, 1974. So that’s 39 years ago. That day the Nixon White House released the transcripts of conversations which turned out to be what they called the ‘smoking gun’ tapes that irrefutably tied Nixon to the Watergate cover-up. And those tapes really ended his presidency. And he resigned that week. And I just thought, ‘Wow, 39 years. What a change from that moment to now, the Washington Post is being sold.’
As I say it’s sad. It’s not the Grahams giving up in any way. The institution needs to survive. It’s repotting the plant in a very significant way. And so I think in the sense they [the Grahams] helped make it, the Washington Post, more likely to survive and flourish. Not just kind of exist.
39 years later…
It’s a long time. It’s a transition from the moment where the newspaper had such a role and such influence in events to being a commodity of sorts.
But at the end of the day it’s always been a business?
Yeah. And it should be. I think that’s the message.