Sell Washington Post to Michael Bloomberg? Not so crazy an idea

The New York Times, whether on global warming, the newest iPad or corruption in Mongolia, outdoes the Washington Post all too often. Underfunded for a hyper-competitive Internet era, the Post newsroom stints on local reporting, too. WaPo’s numbers could be much better. Future Grahams and others may not show the patience of Donald and kin. And the current miserliness toward the newsroom—not just the reduced head count in general, but also the management-promoted exodus of many of the Post’s most brilliant staffers for cost reasons—is not a good sign.

Should the Grahams go out in style and sell the Washington Post newspaper, including its online part, even if the family and allies keep the TV stations along with Kaplan and the rest of the Washington Post CompanyJack Shafer, a Reuters media-blogger and an alum of the Post-owned Slate, laid off in an economy move, is pushing this not-so-wild idea with a buyer in mind. For months I myself had been thinking similar thoughts, abeit not with the newspaper-only angle. Yes, why not see if Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire New York mayor and owner of the news service named after him, might be game to restore the Post’s old shine? The Post’s national and international operations could mesh well with the Bloomberg news service (part of Bloomberg L.P.), a name already familiar in the Post’s pages. What’s more, as Shafer sees it, Bloomberg gets along swimmingly with Post Company CEO and Chairman Donald Graham.

Now here are a few caveats. Hizzoner is 70 years old; the good news is that his mother was 102 when she died last month, and Methuselah genes mix well with ambition. The negative here is that Charlotte Bloomberg’s husband revealed his mortality half a century ago. Iffy. Another issue is whether Michael Bloomberg could give a WaPo takeover enough loving attention while lording it over city hall. I’m optimistic even if his term goes on through the end of 2013; his current businesses are hardly about to keel over without his close attention. That augurs well for succession planning. Yet another concern, to me anyway, would be Bloomberg’s politics. He is no right-wing kook, no Scaife, and is clueful on many social issues, including, yes, the fuss over sugary drinks,  but I dislike his fiscal tightness and pandering to the corporate community. Still,  just how progressive has the Post been politically under current management compared to the past; even then, Nicholas Von Hoffman notwithstanding, the Post was no Nation. If Michael Bloomberg kept news and outright opinion separate—the goal of the Post despite lapses—that would help. Shafer thinks Bloomberg would not impose his views on Post’s news side. I myself would still wonder about possible conflicts of interest from Bloomberg’s Wall Street connections; the only true test, given the stakes here, would be a real takeover of the paper.

More positively, a WaPo with Bloomberg’s resources could afford to undertake more investigative journalism,  more systematically monitor the government at all levels and, gasp, maybe even do hyperlocal properly. Now a mere extension of  the Allbritton family’s WJLA, the old does not count as a valid hyperlocal precedent despite the talent of its people and many other positives, given the site’s underfunding, its corporate-politics challenges, and its frequent neglect of such bread-and-butter topics as local schools.

Speaking of possible changes at a better-financed WaPo, it could restore the Style section—really a magazine in disguise, at least in the past—to its full glory. Also, the Post should team up with public libraries, newspapers throughout the world, and other organizations to come up with a Facebook alternative with proper privacy setting in place, more so than Mark Zuckerberg and friends care to offer. It could be an efficient way for the Post and others to keep up with readers and their communities and also make people more aware of newspapers’ existence day by day, story by story.

With Bloomberg’s resources, all kinds of experimentation would be more doable than under the Grahams, who could still serve the company as advisors and maybe otherwise.

Simply put, the best way to save WaPo, long term, as well as preserve and grow the Grahams’ wealth, might be to sell the Post to the right person or people if good corporate governance can be guaranteed ahead of time for the future, including assurances of sufficient local participation so that, at least in terms of D.C.-area coverage, the Post is still a Washington paper in spirit. I know some are already questioning whether Donald Graham would or should sell, and there’s also the little detail of whether Bloomberg himself would be open to the idea (reportedly he was not that gung ho on the possibility of buying out the New York Times). But Graham and other shareholders should not dismiss Jack Shafer’s proposal just because it comes from outside The Family.

Other possible uses for Bloomberg money: Financing of a takeover of OverDrive for a nonprofit corporation serving America’s libraries, as well as help for the Digital Public Library of America.

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David Rothman

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