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PBS Ombudsman

The News Business Makes News

For news junkies — indeed for anyone who values being engaged with and informed about regional, national and world affairs — this has been a heck of a week.

Unless you were vacationing in some remote location with no web or phone service, you probably know that on Aug. 5th The Washington Post, one of the most iconic and important newspapers in the English-speaking world, was sold to Jeffrey P. Bezos, the mega-billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon.com.

Just a few days earlier, The Boston Globe, among the best metropolitan dailies in the country, was sold by its current owner, The New York Times, to another billionaire, John W. Henry, who also owns the Boston Red Sox.

Blessing Bezos as perhaps the best CEO in the U.S. was Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men on the planet whose Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate has been the largest shareholder in The Washington Post for the past four decades. That stake will end with the sale to Bezos — and with a huge profit for Berkshire — but Buffett still loves newspapers, at least smaller ones, and has bought some 28 local and regional dailies in the last year or two.

And while we are on the subject of billionaires eyeing and/or buying older and troubled news organizations, there is the purchase last year of The New Republic magazine by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and the speculation — and that's all it is at this point — that the mega-billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are interested in buying some or all of the properties owned by the Tribune Company, which recently emerged from bankruptcy and whose titles include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, among other papers.

Et tu, PBS

Less cosmic, but also newsworthy this week and especially important to PBS viewers, was the announcement on Tuesday that Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, two veteran correspondents for the PBS NewsHour, have been named co-anchors of the program, beginning next month. The NewsHour had been going through a rotating anchor format — including other senior staffers Jeffrey Brown, Margaret Warner and Ray Suarez — since longtime anchor Jim Lehrer stepped down two years ago after 36 years and some 8,000 broadcasts.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The weekday-night NewsHour is the flagship of PBS news coverage, the only in-depth, hour-long program of its kind on broadcast television. It started almost 40 years ago as the (Robert) MacNeil/Lehrer Report. As the Times noted in its coverage this program "which was co-anchored for decades by the two men who created it, will soon be co-anchored by two women." The appointments, the Times and PBS both noted, mark another milestone for women on television and in journalism. There have been other women anchors, but not female co-anchors. PBS also announced that both women will be managing editors of the program, meaning they will be in charge of editorial direction together with Executive Producer Linda Winslow.

The other three mainstay correspondents — Brown, Warner and Suarez — will become chief correspondents in various sectors of news coverage, and Hari Sreenivasan will serve as NewsHour senior correspondent and also begin anchoring the new 30-minute Saturday and Sunday programs scheduled to start on Sept. 7.

There was no mention in the PBS announcement about the future of another veteran correspondent and member of the NewsHour staff, Kwame Holman, but NewsHour officials tell me he remains the program's White House and Capitol Hill correspondent.

Pardon the Interruption

As you can tell by now, this is not the typical ombudsman column that deals with issues raised by viewers. Rather, it is a brief recording of a fascinating time of change in the news business that may well affect millions of readers and viewers in years to come.

I will also take the liberty of noting one more change. Sometime this fall, the New York Times will change the name of the International Herald Tribune to the International New York Times.

Thus will slip from sight, after 136 years, one of the great names of American journalism. This was long anticipated, fits with the newspaper's global branding philosophy, but still will cause a pang in lots of older hearts.

The paper started in 1887 as the European Edition of the New York Herald and later, after a merger, became the overseas edition of the Herald Tribune, or "the Paris Trib," as it became known to traveling Americans. The Washington Post came to the rescue of a faltering Trib in 1966, forming a partnership with then owner John Hay Whitney. At about the same time, a six-year effort by the New York Times to produce an international edition was failing and the Post and Whitney invited the Times into the new partnership that gave birth to the IHT.

For 35 years, these two great engines of American journalism, the Post and the Times, combined to produce a unique, third paper that hundreds of thousands of English-speaking people around the world came to depend on. Then in 2002, the Times, always more ambitious than the Post, first pushed and then bought the Post out of the partnership. So there is some irony here; the Times forced out the partner that had invited them in after a failure and is now submerging the name that bred a special allegiance and familiarity for generations.

Rich People Buy Newspapers

Wealthy individuals or families have been buying newspapers throughout much of American history. So nothing new there. Fortunately, in our lifetimes, many of those families — exemplified by the Graham family that has owned The Washington Post for the past 80 years — have exhibited and acted upon a sense of civic and journalistic duty, along with the need to make a profit. But what is new these days, indeed for the past few years now, is that the very existence of newspapers themselves — and the core teams of reporters that still provide the vast amount of verifiable news and investigations that hold the powerful accountable — are threatened by a totally new technological and economic environment.

That is why the sudden emergence of Bezos as the new owner of the Post is potentially so important. It may, if he is successful, provide a path that the Post, and possibly others, could follow to transition to the digital world in which we all now live in a way that supports the kind of fact-based, often expensive, revelatory reporting that we have become accustomed to over the last several decades.

That is also why, again in a less cosmic way, the in-house transitions going on at the NewsHour are important if they help preserve, and revitalize, what is still a unique source of news and analysis on television.

At some point, printed newspapers may go away. I hope that time doesn't come soon, or at all, for that matter. I've always felt that whether you are a carpenter or a business person or a student, you have a leg-up on life and career if you are broadly informed and engaged. Newspapers that make a serious attempt to be comprehensive — like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and a precious handful of others — do that. Many millions of Americans know that and read those papers — in print and, increasingly, online — every day. The trained and experienced reporting and editing teams that are clustered on these and other good news-gathering organizations must survive.

The websites and mobile platforms for those news organizations, and others, have already done a good job in presenting news and analysis in the new formats of our time, especially the Times. But they can't support on their own, so far at least, the teams of reporters, editors, photographers, lawyers and others to transition those teams to online-only without the revenue that still comes overwhelmingly from print advertising. Bezos may figure out how to do all that while, one can hope, preserving the intense and essential reportorial culture of the Post.

Thoughts About the Post

Finally, since this is not a traditional ombudsman's column, permit me some brief, personal observations provoked by this week's news about The Washington Post.

I spent 35 years there from 1970 through late in 2005 as a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor. Four of those years were as the editor of the IHT in Paris when it was still jointly owned with the Times, and then five years back at the paper as ombudsman, a run that started with a deadlocked presidential election in November 2000 and ran through 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the days since the paper was sold to Bezos, there have been probably hundreds of articles reporting and analyzing every aspect, and lots of reminiscences here, here, here, here and here, for a sampling.

The news was stunning and shocking on many levels even though everyone knew the paper was in trouble. What seemed impossible for all of us — old-timers especially but I think almost everyone ever associated with the paper — was to imagine the Post without the Grahams.

Katharine Graham, who had become a reluctant publisher in 1963 after her troubled husband, Philip, committed suicide at the age of 48, flourished in her new life; tough and wise, she brought with her the beginnings of what truly can be described as a family atmosphere into a newsroom traditionally filled with cranky, questioning reporters and editors. She brought the legendary editor Ben Bradlee to the paper in 1965 and the Post, just so-so when it was bought by Mrs. Graham's father at auction in 1933, took off.

Mrs. Graham was like royalty; known all over the country and the world and she shared her contacts with her reporters. In 1991, she turned the paper over to her son, Donald, a much more locally-focused Graham but with those same traits of intense loyalty to the staff and dedication to no-punches-pulled journalism and the public interest.

There were some journalistic stumbles during the Ben Bradlee-Katharine Graham era, most prominently the scandal over a major but falsified story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. But that was dwarfed by 25 years of chemistry that turned the Post into one of the best and most courageous papers in the world. Like the lower-keyed Don who followed Katharine, a lower-keyed Leonard Downie, a veteran reporter and demanding editor, followed Bradlee as executive editor in 1991, not an easy thing to do. Yet the Post was awarded 25 Pulitzer Prizes for its reporting during Downie's 17-year run at the top.

So the Post's newsroom, starting big time in the mid-1960s, has been an extraordinary place to be and to work. Bradlee, in particular, attracted an amazing parade of talent that would propel the paper to prominence, and that continued under Downie. Reporters were encouraged to spread their wings and there were lots with a big wingspread. My sense is that Post reporters over the last 50 years have probably authored more major books than any other single entity.

Throughout all of this, there was always a Graham, and a staff that knew that if they did their jobs well, the publisher would be there for them. They had confidence that in a crunch, their owners would do the right thing.

The Post, today, remains an excellent newspaper and essential read, despite the cutbacks it has suffered. The paper and its website have more readers than ever. Readers are not the problem. Revenue is.

Bezos said the right things in his initial statement to the staff. "Let me start with something critical," he said. "The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we'll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely."

So, aside from the news being shocking and stunning, it is also exciting.

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