2013 isn’t over yet, but I daresay Katharine Graham’s Personal History will remain my favourite book of the year ‘ s. Graham became the publisher of The Washington Post in 1963, after her husband Phil Graham committed suicide. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the paper in 1933 in a bankruptcy auction and so began its revival. Incredibly, it was founded back in 1877 and last week it was sold by the Graham family to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for US$250 million.
Two passages in the autobiography were particularly inspiring to me as a journalist, so I decided to post both on my blog (for those rainy journalist days).
The first describes her father’s approach to building a successful newspaper:
“He had very little idea of what could be done to make the paper a financial success, particularly since there were so many papers in Washington. What he did have was a well developed philosophy, which he spelled out in an early editorial, in 1934, and in several speeches over the next few years. He felt a newspaper was a public trust, meant to serve the public in a democracy. My father wanted a paper that would advance beyond what it had achieved even in its heyday and “take a leadership which could be achieved only by exceptional quality.” In one address, on March 5, 1935, he spoke about the principles he insisted on from the beginning, outlining them as follows:
1. That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained;
2. That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
3. That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
4. That what it prints will be fit reading for the young as well as the old;
5. That the newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of the owner;
6. That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
7. That the newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be free and fair and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.”
This next passage is also beautiful. In it she records a speech given by her husband in 1948, who by that time had run the Washington Post for 17 years.
“… Phil had planned for a meeting of Newsweek’s overseas correspondents. They arrived from all over the world to meet with the editors in London, and he made a speech to this group, demonstrating yet again his ability to function at a high level even in the face of his illness [depression]… He ended his remarks with some philosophical thoughts, including a phrase about journalism’s being the first rough draft of history, which is quoted to this day:
‘I am insatiably curious about the state of the world. I am constantly intrigued by information of topicality. I revel in the daily and weekly grist of journalism. Much of it, of course, is pure chaff. Much of our discussions on how to do it better consist of tedium and detail. But no one yet has been able to produce wheat without chaff. And not even such garrulous romantics as Fidel Castro or such transcendent spirits as Abraham Lincoln can produce a history which does not in large part rest on a foundation of tedium and detail – and even sheer drudgery. So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.'”
I do hope that Jeff Bezos – and us journalists in general – keep these sentiments close to our heart and actions.