The Washington Post was sold this month for a pittance of what it was worth before the Internet drained the print industry's ad base that paid for the last great army of reporters in my lifetime.
In what may be a gilded age of new-media billionaire barons, one of them, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, handed over pocket change for a family-owned paper that became famous for toppling a president over Watergate.
I don't jest: That $250 million price for the Post is $50 million less than three of my Kentucky friends agreed might be their winning offer for the Lexington Herald-Leader before the Knight-Ridder chain opted to sell the company in one piece to McClatchy.
A later, much lower estimate provided a humbling realization that the Kentuckians had dodged a bullet when Knight told them to kiss off. But my point will be an old news hand's anxiety that the steep decline of newspaper valuations endangers democracy. Maybe I'm wrong, but stay with me.
Famously, before the Post could deliver the printed news of its sale to Washington doorsteps, the story got around the world in minutes from Facebook, Google, even the Post's own website, that Bezos paid only one percent of his estimated $25 billion net worth.
A rescue of the old media by the new? That's what the Post's chairman Don Graham said it was in Washington.
But for me, perhaps I fear it's also a rejection of the working life I've followed over 70 years.
If the profits are gone from journalism that published the Pentagon Papers, defied crippling lawsuits to cover civil rights, and printed negative dispatches from questionable wars, what's the future of newspapers? Not just the national press, down from a Big Four of family ownership (the New York Times, Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times) to only the Sulzbergers' New York Times — but also the vigorous regionals like those in Kentucky that fought the coal industry's excesses, crusaded for better education, racial fairness and kept scores on payoffs masquerading as donations to politicians?
In fairness, publishers in Louisville and Lexington offer impressive numbers of total market "penetration," and informed insiders explain that profits are healthy — they simply must be shared for national corporate expenses and investor owners.
But what's the optimistic take away for an oldtimer who frets over shuttered regional bureaus, sliced and diced jobs on editorial pages and in state capitals, as well as rejections of kids just out of college aspiring to be employed as future Woodwards and Bernsteins (if they haven't already been warned away)?
Graham's conclusion was that the Post's future will be better served by an independent tycoon with patient money to wait out the discovery of as yet unknown models of profitability to deliver the day's happenings, plus, we hope, insights to serve truth and justice, and with a commitment to the clichéd credo that thrilled me as a youth: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
The old media magnates like William Randolph Hearst, E.W. Scripps and Joseph Pulitzer are gone, but for now, I certainly concede Bezos is a savior of an honored nameplate that was losing millions. Ironically, the technology that destroyed the base of the old media I revered, despite its ragged history of arrogance and self-serving biases, earned Bezos the enormous wealth with which he says he hopes "to change its fortunes."
Bezos, the master of the web's discount universe, says he is non-political except for an itch to resist sales taxes on the Internet. Hello!
Personally shy about the kind of publicity that is the electric buzz of journalism, he has not bought Linotypes from Mark Twain's day or even gadgets from Steve Jobs'. He bought the Post's reputation for integrity.
The idealists in journalism remind ourselves that from cave drawings to the iPad, content has ruled. Bezos has promised change. We must wish him well. But if integrity is swapped off, who will buy it back?
At issue: Aug. 7 Bloomberg article, "A big overhaul; Amazon's Bezos brings experimentation to newspaper industry"
Al Smith of Lexington worked for newspapers in Tennessee and New Orleans before coming to Kentucky where he created a chain of small newspapers and was the founding host of KET's Comment on Kentucky.