Publishing Heir Takes Reins of 'Washington Post'

There's a new publisher at The Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth. Weymouth, granddaughter of the paper's legendary publisher Katharine Graham, joins the paper at a time when newspapers across the country are struggling. She discusses her family history and her thoughts about reinvigorating the newspaper.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. From time to time we like to bring you conversations of newsmakers from an array of professions.

Today, she is the publisher of one of the most influential newspapers in the country, the fifth member of her famous family to hold that post since her great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought The Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale in 1933. But if that looks like a traditional route to a top publishing job, look again, because Katharine Weymouth is anything but traditional. She is just 41 years old, the single mom of three, and she's presiding over not just a newspaper, but a multi-media empire, and she's with us now. Thank you so much for coming.

Ms. KATHARINE WEYMOUTH (Publisher, The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you were named publisher - and I should mention your full title is chief executive of Washington Post Media - it was made clear that you were not getting the job because you are Washington Post's Chairman Donald Graham's niece and Newsweek's Senior Editor Lally Weymouth's daughter and the late, great Katherine Graham's granddaughter. So why do you think you got the job?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Well, I think Don was being gracious in saying that, and I like to think that I earned it to a degree, but obviously, I am a member of the family and the oldest grandchild, and so I also am fully aware that I was lucky enough to be born into this family and given lots of opportunities that brought me here.

MARTIN: They weren't going to give it you to mess it up, so...

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Well, I hope not.

MARTIN: Well, what are the qualities that you think made you the right person - quality, skills, experiences that they think made you the right person for the job at this time?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I like to think that I work hard and that I've been in lots of different pieces of the business. You know, I was a lawyer at the paper for two years and I was a lawyer at washingtonpost.com for two years, which gave me great insight into lots of different departments.

And then I went into advertising for the bulk of my time there, including running the Help Wanted section, which Don taught me a long time ago can be a barometer for the local economy here.

And you know, I think I learned early that I - the best thing to do is surround yourself with smart people and listen to them and learn from them. So I think I've done that in every job I've had and continue to do that.

MARTIN: Why did you want the job?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: That's a good question. I'm not sure that I - so much I wanted it, as that I saw things that I thought we ought to be doing. And I'm not somebody who is really into titles or prestige and so what I really wanted was to see us succeed, and I kept badgering Bo and Don and Caroline Little, who was running washingtonpost.com, about the things that I...

MARTIN: Bo, meaning Bo Jones.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Sorry.

MARTIN: Who was the publisher.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Sorry, yes. So it was really about things that I thought we as a business should be doing, and finally Don said, OK, Katharine, well, if you're going to talk all that smack then you ought to do it. And I said, well, wait a minute, I didn't say that. So over a time it came about.

MARTIN: You're taking the job at a time of what a lot of people are experiencing as tremendous challenge, tremendous stress in so-called mainstream media.

One of the announcements that was made at the time you were named publisher back in February was that there would be a new round of buyouts. About 100 employees have taken buyouts, or early retirement packages, that's on top of more than a hundred who have taken in previous years.

We're just back from the UNITY Convention of Journalists of Color in Chicago. There was a palpable sense of anxiety about the business. And many people think that newspapers, in particular, and mainstream media is dying. Do you think that's true?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I don't think it's true or I wouldn't have taken this job. But I think it is definitely a major transition period for, really, the news industry. I mean, you see it in network news programs, as well, and TV and radio. And it's just a shift, and the Internet has accelerated it.

The New York Times had a great article on Sunday about whether, you know, young people are even reading anymore. Or, you know, do the time they spend on Facebook and YouTube, does that constitute reading? I think it's not a substitute for reading.

So I think the sort of - the good news about the crisis is it wakes everyone up. It gives you competition. It gets you off your rear end. And we all have to take a hard look about what do we do, what do we bring to the table, what do our readers and viewers value? And assuming they do value something and we believe we bring something, to say, well, then, you have a business.

And then, you know, if you can be - as my grandmother has said, in order to do good, you need to do well. And so in order - we have to run a business in order to support the kind of journalism that we put out there.

MARTIN: Why do you think this is happening, though? I mean, on the one hand you see incredible numbers of young people coming out, showing interest in this presidential campaign. They're coming out, you know, in thousands to organize, to get involved, in some cases they're running local campaigns for presidential candidates, taking on tremendous responsibility. They clearly have an interest in public affairs.

On the other hand, as you know better than anybody, paid circulation of the Post suffers steep declines, advertising suffers steep declines, and as you also mentioned, the evening news programs showing a lot of erosion. Is it just the habit is different, or do you think people just don't care about news presented in the way that we're used to presenting it?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I think it's actually a number of things. I mean, I often question, there is that sort of sense of, back in the good old days everybody read newspapers. And I always wonder whether that's really true, whether young people, you know, at the age of 18, always read newspapers. I'm not sure, and I think what we know in newspapers is we are in many ways a supermarket of offerings, and many people, much as the newsroom hates to hear this, came to us for our classified ads or for our sports section, and some people buy us for our editorials.

And today, people have lots of options, and it's true for the nightly news. You don't have to watch the six o'clock news anymore. You can get it on Google, you can get it on Yahoo!, you can get it at The Washington Post, so people have lots of options and they're exercising their choices.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of, sort of, you know, balancing what it is that people want, you know, some people argue that what people really want is to be reaffirmed in their opinions. They don't want this kind of the department store, where there's a little of everything. What they want is what they want when they want it. They really want everything to be more niched and tailored, and in some ways people say, well, you know, what they really want is for people to be more ideological.

Now, people have always complained that the Post hass - at least in the modern era, has a kind of a hidden, left, liberal bias, and what some people are saying is just bring it on, just bring out, just say, this is where we are, deal with that. What do you think about that?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Yeah. That's an interesting question. I mean, when you look at the European newspapers, obviously, they went that route a long time. Certainly we have opinion journalism, but then other people value the factual, objective reporting, and of course, people complain - some people complain that it's on the right and some people complain that it's on the left. And we figure that if enough people complain then we're actually probably falling somewhere in the middle.

MARTIN: The other thing that people complain about, I'm sure you hear this all day long. At some point somebody's going to say something really nice and, you know...

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Sure. I'm waiting.

MARTIN: Great comics, great comics. But that there's not enough diversity even at this stage, and this is obviously a theme at a conference of journalists of color, but there is - people continually wonder that given that the demographics of the country have changed so greatly, you know, why is it that overall minority employment in newspapers has not - has remained relatively constant in the modern era? It's around 13 percent, and the opinion pages, as I'm sure you know, are continually scrutinized in a way that, for, you know - there aren't a lot of women and there are not a lot of people of color. Do you think those are fair criticisms?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I think they're fair criticisms, and I think it's something we're very conscious of and we strive to improve constantly on both the news side and the business side. I think one of the things we're up against is there's a lot of competition. I mean, having come from the business side, I know we very actively have tried to recruit minorities to come work, but we're often - when you get talented people, they have lots of options, and so they're coming and say, well, gee, why would I want to go work for a media business when I can go work in New York and make twice as much money and live a more glamorous life?

So I think we're up against a lot of competition, but it's fair, we're conscious of it, and we need to continue to try to improve.

MARTIN: How do you do that, though, when a business is contracting?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Well, we're still going to hire. I think what we're in the process of doing is taking a hard look at what is our mission to our readers and what do we need to deliver because we can't do it all. So we need to figure what our key strengths are and double down on those, and we've got to continue to hire talent.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, I'm speaking with Katharine Weymouth. She is the chief executive of Washington Post Media, the publisher of The Washington Post newspaper.

Love it if we could talk about you for a minute or two. There are two templates for women's biography, it seems to me, particularly in the media. One is the plucky girl who fought against the odds, you know, fighting against being underestimated at every turn, kind of grinding out articles on the secret while she still had to get coffee for the guys.

The other is the plucky girl who fell into it, much as your grandmother did under tragic circumstances when she had to take over the paper after the death of her husband. A lot of people thought she would sell. She didn't, and of course, you know, fought her way into a real position of leadership in the business, as well as, obviously, in her hometown and obviously one of the great figures of the age. But you seem pretty plucky, but do either of those templates mean anything to you? I mean, what's the narrative for you?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I'm not sure either one of those fits for me. Obviously, I didn't have to scramble my way to the top, and I was very lucky and given a great education. I went to an all-girls school where we were taught women can do anything and we believed that, and I've had lots of tremendous opportunities. I learned - my training is as a lawyer, so - as a trial lawyer, and I've just been blessed with great mentors and friends and family. And so I think my challenge is more to prove that I can do it and that I'm smart and I can surround myself with great people and I don't have to do it alone.

MARTIN: Is there any added value or any added burden to being a relatively young woman in this job?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: You know, I really never think about it like that. I don't think of it particularly about being a woman or anything else. I just think about how do we - how do we do the best job we can do, how do we make sure we have the best people here, and that we're putting out the best products we can put out?

MARTIN: It is interesting, though, that so much of the news side is being feminized. There's so many more women in journalism school. You see the presence of women throughout the media. Katie Couric, of course, is a major anchor. Barbara Walters, of course, and so forth and so on, Diane Sawyer. And yet on the executive side, it still doesn't seem very diverse and I wonder why that is.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Yeah. I mean, I think those are good questions. I think at the Post we do have a lot of women sprinkled throughout the leadership team. It's another area where we, you know, we should pay attention and make sure we are - we do have women in senior leadership positions.

MARTIN: Do you think that part of the reasons the Post has that presence is because of Katherine Graham?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I'm sure that's part of it. I mean, I think it was a culture where the contribution that women can make when they're good is valued.

MARTIN: And I'm hesitant to ask, because I don't think I'd be asking you this if you were a man, but I know that people are interested in this. You have three young children, and a lot of people are wondering, you know, how do you do it all?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: It's a good question. I'm not sure that there are days that I don't, but I think often women out there all over the country and the world are doing it right. We're raising kids, and although a lot has changed and a lot of husbands and partners are taking on more of the burden, as one of my girlfriends pointed out a long time ago, you know, the schools still call the moms when the kids are sick, and that's just the way it is, and the moms tend to take on more of the burden.

And in many cases, and certainly my own, we want to. I mean, at the end of the day, you're a mom and you want to be the best mom you can be. So you juggle, and as my friends and I always laugh, you basically just feel guilty all the time, like you could be doing more in all of those areas and you just figure, you know what, I'm going to do the best I can and hope that everyone can forgive me.

MARTIN: Do you feel guilty all the time?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Absolutely. Yeah. I think we all do, right? And so we call our girlfriend and say, I just was the worst mommy this morning. What do you think? And you know, whatever it is, and we comfort each other, we laugh at each other, you know, you've got to keep a sense of humor about you.

MARTIN: On the one hand, though, there is this legacy in the sense that, you know, your grandmother was a single mom not by choice. I just wonder, though, given all that we've talked about around Hillary Clinton's historic run for the White House, is there something in the culture, is there something that is still resistant to seeing women in that role? Some people say it's women. It's that they don't - part of the reason women aren't seeking executive level jobs is that they're not sure they can do it, particularly in politics.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I think there is a degree of that. I mean, I hear a lot from women. In fact, just recently, a woman who was in a pretty senior position and she actually said to me, you know, I don't want to go more senior. I don't want to be holding the bag. I'm happy where I am. I'm making enough money. I think that for the women who can make those choices, many of them are making those choices.

MARTIN: I'm just curious why you think you haven't, because you - I mean, I don't know anything about your finances, but I'm assuming that you don't have to work this hard if you didn't want to.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: You're wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Well, no, I do have to work, but also I was raised in a family where we want to work and we want to contribute and we're proud of the company and what it does, and so I would be working anyway because I like working. I think I'm a better mom for working, but I also really believe in what we do, so if I were making widgets, I don't know, it might be a different question.

MARTIN: Do you think that you are a different kind of leader because you are a woman? Is there any way in which your identity informs your leadership style in a way that seems different from what a man might do?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Yeah. I mean, I think there's always variations and people tend to go off and to stereotype sometimes, but I do think women tend to have a sort of a higher intuitive, emotional nature and, you know, we're good at reading people, and that that can be a tremendous asset as a leader.

MARTIN: Do want to ask you about one coverage issue before we let you go, and it does, in a way, perhaps speak to the question of gender. The Post has just run a very lengthy series recapping the circumstances around the death of Chandra Levy, who was a young woman who was an intern in Washington and became involved with a member of Congress while here and was killed, and all those circumstances were sort of a major media preoccupation the summer of 2001.

Of course, I think people know, in the spirit of full disclosure, my husband was very involved in that story. He was representing the Levy family in their efforts to achieve more attention, frankly, for that situation. But I know that you know that in the wake of the Post's sort of revisiting of this issue, some people wonder why, you know, why does the tragic death of this one young woman command so much attention compared to that of so many others? And some people say, well, it's race. What do you say to that?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Sure. You know, I think I've read a lot of the criticism and some of the praise we've gotten for that series. I think we should always be asking ourselves hard questions about the stories that we do and whether we should do them and how much play they should get, and I think it's fair to say, does it merit 13 parts, and in terms of do you play on the front page all those kinds of things?

On the other hand, I think it was one of those rare stories that crosses politics and a local story and murder and sex and, you know, things that people love, and you certainly could make a compelling argument as, you know, Robert Pierre and others have that, you know, if this was a black woman, would she be getting the same kinds of attention? Maybe not.

I think one of the other interesting aspects of this story was experimenting with the journalism, the sort of shorter form, serial journalism, and I think we should be experimenting with those kinds of things. A lot of the stories we do that are incredibly compelling and important, we give to readers in very, very long bites that are very hard to chew off, and so I think we should be experimenting with the sort of intersection of the Web and print and we'll learn along the way.

MARTIN: Normally at this time, in this space, we have a conversation called Wisdom Watch, where we ask people to kind of offer some wisdom. Normally the people we interview are not in the middle of their careers, they're kind of winding down or transitioning to something else. But, you know, because you're in this very interesting position, I did want to ask if you have some wisdom to share for people who might be coming along behind you or with you, watching you at this pivotal point in our history?

Ms. WEYMOUTH: I think at this point I don't have a whole lot of wisdom to share. I have more to take from other people, and that's the phase of my life that I'm in, and Don Graham was my uncle and chief executive officer for the Washington Post Company. Actually, Don said to me when I first took on the job, and I think he's right and he said, you know, Katharine, this is the phase in your career where you should be going to people and seeking out mentors and saying, as I take on this new job and these new challenges, what's your advice for me? What could I be doing better and thinking about? And that's what I've been doing and that's what I am going to keep doing.

MARTIN: Katharine Weymouth is the chief executive of Washington Post Media, the publisher of The Washington Post newspaper. She was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington. Katharine Weymouth, thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. WEYMOUTH: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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