Katharine Weymouth, the most powerful person at The Washington Post, was making her way from the elevator bank across the dingy lobby to the exit of the building, a big brutal concrete thing on 15th Street NW. Fred Hiatt, the paper’s editorial page editor, was at the door right before her and almost let it close on her before he realized who she was. There was a big lurch, and with all his arms and legs, he kept the door from slamming on the new publisher.
“Thanks,” Ms. Weymouth said. “Getting a coffee and some sunlight!”
“Yeah,” Mr. Hiatt said.
Ms. Weymouth has been the New Publisher of The Washington Post for almost six months now. If you didn’t know her, a superficial look on this Friday afternoon would hardly offer the profile of the stereotypical press baron. She’s thin, blond, young for this gig at 42. On this uncharacteristically comfortable summer day in Washington, she was wearing what she called a “Summer Friday” look: a billowy and translucent green-and-white silk blouse from Milly with a wide scoop neck held together in a little tie, with a camisole inset visible underneath. The sleeves ended just about an inch or so off her shoulder, held together by tight elastic, exposing tanned arms. She wore white pants and a plastic white watch covered in rhinestones forming a skull and crossbones pattern. They were a gift from her mother, Lally Weymouth. Her white hite flip-flop heels put her over the 6-foot mark.
The tail end of a long week. And as she walked with a reporter to the nearby Starbucks, she talked about how she planned to spend it: Her three kids, aged 8, 6 and 4, were going to her ex-husband Richard Scully’s house to free her up for a ladies’ night out. This is an annual affair, and a big one, held at a house in Washington.
When she’s blown off all that steam and comes back in on Monday, she once again becomes the scion of one of America’s last great newspaper families. And right now, being a newspaper family is not always a great business proposition.
It was her family—chiefly, Phil Graham, her grandfather, and later his wife, Katharine, who made The Washington Post a quality newspaper. For the past half century, they have molded and shaped it. It was they who brought the paper public; they who established its national and international profile.
What her predecessors did not do—what nobody has been able to do, yet—is figure out how this business will survive in the 21st century.
After 11 years with the Post’s advertising and legal departments, she has spent the past six months in meetings with reporters and editors in the newsroom.
“I have not worked in the newsroom,” she said as she settled herself in with her iced coffee. “That’s what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to get an idea of the issues that they’re focused on.”
And so she made the controversial decision to move her offices to the fifth floor, where the newsroom is.
“The message I got loudest and clearest was that people fully understand the challenges facing our industry,” she said. “But they’re hungry for a sense of, what are we doing about it? Are we just sitting here and praying it’s just going away or are we actually going to take steps to do something about it?”
Well, are we?
“I wish I could say, ‘Here’s the magic bullet! I’ve solved it all! That’s why I took this job, and we’re done, let’s go home,’” she continued. “But that’s not the case.”
Ms. Weymouth’s position is not identical to those of her predecessors. About three years after The New York Times brought its Internet and print staffs together to integrate the newsroom, The Post is trying out the same thing. There, the divisions between the two were even deeper than at The Times; this transition has not been, and will continue not to be, an easy one. They still operate from different buildings.
Nor is the overall environment for publishing the news the same.
Editorially the newspaper is riding high. This year, the paper pulled in six Pulitzers, the largest number in the paper’s history. Its newsroom—including online and digital—of nearly 800 is still one of the largest in the country.
But in other ways, that’s just proof that getting the product right is not the last word in this business.
In the past few months, the paper offered buyouts to 100 of its employees in its third round of job cuts in five years. Those who took them included superstars like Tom Ricks, the dominating Pentagon reporter; and Robin Wright, a foreign correspondent. The Post Company’s newspaper division’s operating margin was down 92 percent in the first quarter versus the same time last year, and the company’s operating margin was below 1 percent.
And if Ms. Weymouth projects confidence about the future of the organization, she’s upfront about the lack of specific ideas in the industry, and in her own building, for fixing the business and making the news make money again.