Like many folks around the web, I was shocked to hear of the impending sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos. I’ve seen similar reactions to mine on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and I’ve also seen the occasional rant of “what’s the big deal about all this?!” I worked at the Washington Post from 2006-2008, and my experience there has me in a reflective mood this morning.
I worked on the Product Development team when I was at the Post. At the time, the digital and print arms of the company were separated, so technically I worked for Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive. While the name of my team might sound generic, the connection to the Post itself nebulous, the group I worked with was a small group brought in because of our connection to Rob Curley (who was hired to head this team) and tasked with finding new ways to connect Post news to web and mobile.
There were certainly other groups across WPNI and the Post with similar charges, but the group I worked with was a sort of skunk-works team inside WPNI. We were meant to try new things – experiment – without worrying too much about other things going on at the Post. Those who have worked at large companies can imagine this was both thrilling and frustrating. It’s too easy to quote Dickens here: “It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times.”
At that time, the day-to-day tensions that would arise were very frustrating to me. In retrospect, and having since worked more in technology outside the news business, I realize some of this was simply life in the news. The industry was and is changing massively, and those kinds of shifts create havoc. People are unsure of the future, unsure of their own place, unsure of the place of journalism. Unsure of so many things. This uncertainty fills every aspect of making news and making the technology around news, and well, it just makes for an uneasy work environment.
Except for that tension, working at the Post has been one of the highlights of my career. My youngest daughter was born the month I started at WPNI. I worked with great, smart people who were good friends to me. I worked on exciting technology, and learned so much about how technology can and can’t help traditional business. I worked on a project that was Emmy nominated, wrote one of the first Facebook apps launched, and saw Google’s first attempts at a social network. My first iPhone was bought by the Post, with the hope that I could understand what the device might mean for its business.
Many of the projects we worked on were important to Don Graham. The Facebook apps especially had his attention, and during this time, I met and worked with Mr. Graham somewhat closely. I had lunch a couple times with him and Rob. We would sit around and talk about these apps, how they might work, and about all manner of ways to do new things in the news business. We shared a few emails and Facebook messages about these apps. It was clear to me then that Don Graham loved the news, love the Post, loved the city of Washington, and had his entire attention devoted to how to bring the Washington Post firmly into the 21st century.
With this recent news, I’m immediately carried back to those lunch meetings. To riding the Washington Metro with Rob and Don, shuttling between WPNI’s offices in Arlington and the Post offices downtown. To these moments of excitement and tension. And I get why he is selling the business. I get why he’s selling it to Jeff Bezos. This is the news business now, as it was then – a little of the traditional, mixed with technology. The past and the future, hope and fear all mingled together.