Amidst all the talk about the Washington Post’s immediate future after its sale by the Graham family to Jeff Bezos, we thought it would be interesting to republish Tim Noah’s fine piece from the January 1984 issue of the Washington Monthly about a very different stage in WaPo history. It was written in the wake of the demise of the Washington Star, which gave WaPo quasi-monopoly status in metropolitan DC and engorged its profits and payrolls—and, said Noah, undermined its proud standards.
Whether or not you are old enough to remember WaPo’s salad days, you ought to give Tim’s piece a gander, if only to learn of a time in the not-too-distant past when a newspaper was rolling in money (even paying its staff quite well), in a position to raise advertising rates almost at will, and viewing its future confidently, or perhaps even arrogantly.
I have a somewhat different but congruent memory of those days from the perspective of someone heavily dependent on WaPo news coverage and analysis who did not actually live in Washington (I was in Atlanta working as a gubernatorial federal-state relations staffer and speechwriter). At one point my office was subscribing to WaPo by mail at an exorbitant cost (for very stale news). Then we cooked up a scheme to secure same-day copies from an Atlanta airport news-stand. And later, when the Post began a National Weekly Edition, we snapped that up right away. If this all seems excessive, you should recall this was on the eve of a more profligate period in which we in Atlanta along with a vast number of junkies and lobbyists and journalists around the country were paying a small fortune to watch The Hotline slowly roll off our fax machines each day.
So in those pre-internet days, the national influence of WaPo was even more impressive than the local monopoly power Noah explored. Whatever happens to the paper now, it will never be more than a shadow of its own former self, and much as we still rely on it, that’s a good thing for the rest of us.
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