The Washington Post is a daily newspaper published in Washington D.C. It’s the most widely read newspaper in the Washington area, and the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia also receive daily broadsheet issues. Ever since 1880, the publication has been printing a Sunday edition, making it Washington D.C.’s first newspaper to print issues every day of the week. 

A Washington Post front page reprint is a great gift idea for avid readers of the publication, especially since they can choose a reprint from any date. This post looks at the history of the Washington Post newspaper, from its founding to current ownership, as well as how circulation figures have changed over the years.

washington post front page

Little girl reading The Washington Post in 1969
Image: Pixabay

Founding and Early History – 1877-1919 

The Washington Post’s history begins as far back as 1877, when the newspaper was first established by Stilson Hutchins. Shortly after its founding, the publication purchased The Washington Union and decided to change its name to The Washington Post and Union to reflect this change. However, this only lasted for two weeks and the name was changed back to the original on April 29, 1878. The combined publication began printing on April 15, 1878, reaching a circulation of 13,000 at the time. 

The newspaper was sold to Frank Hatton and Beriah Wilkins in 1889, who wanted to put more effort into promoting the newspaper. At their request, the leader of the United States Marine Band composed a march, specifically for The Washington Post’s essay contest awards ceremony. The leader, John Philip Sousa, created “The Washington Post,” later becoming the music that accompanied a popular 19th century dance – the two step. 

The year 1893 saw the newspaper move to a new building, where it would operate right up until 1950. All sections of the publication were then brought into one headquarters, including the newsroom, advertising, typesetting, and printing. The operations in the headquarters ran 24 hours a day.

Turn of the Century 

Towards the turn of the century and just after, The Washington Post published two famous cartoons. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Clifford K. Berryman’s Remember the Maine illustration was printed, becoming the rallying cry for American sailors. Four years later, the illustration Drawing the Line in Mississippi was printed, showing President Theodore Roosevelt caring for a small bear cub. These cartoons became important in helping the newspaper stand out from other publications, and could be considered revolutionary for the time.

Trouble in 1916

The newspaper ran into some trouble in 1916, when John McLean, owner of the newspaper from 1905 to 1916, put the newspaper in trust, since he did not believe his son could be responsible with his inheritance. However, after going to court, his son, Edward “Ned” McLean, managed to get hold of the newspaper. 

Married to Evalyn Walsh McLean, the pair had extremely lavish spending habits and lived with social prominence in Washington. In 1908, Ned and Evalyn eloped following their parents generous cash gifts. They used this money to embark on a luxurious European honeymoon and Ned bought Evalyn the “Star of the East,” a very famed jewel. Their allowance in their summer home was bought by Evalyn’s parents who also received $1000 in allowances for each month, which never lasted the couple the entire month. Even more, Ned drank excessively and often veered towards bankruptcy as a result. 

Gaining control of the Washington Post, the McLeans became part of the upper class in society, and they both very much savoured this position. At their family home, they kept a llama and allegedly had the highest electric bill in the capital for a private home. Throwing dinner parties was commonplace in the home, including the old guard and new legislators. With the pair focusing on maintaining this luxurious lifestyle, the paper began to decline under his management, heading towards complete damage. This was a difficult time for the publication, as it was close to ruin. 

The Red Summer of 1919

The Red Summer of 1919 saw white terrorism sweep across the United States, with many racial riots taking place in numerous US cities. This was mainly black versus white violence, developing from social tension post-First World War. During this time, the Washington Post showed its support for the white mobs, going as far as to publish a front-page feature describing the location where white servicemen were going to gather to begin an attack on black men of Washington. Now seen as a particularly bleak moment in the history of the publication, the incident showed the attitude of the newspaper at the time. 


washington post history

Watergate Scandal

The Washington Post became well-known for its reporting on the Watergate scandal. At the time, two reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, played a crucial role in the outcome of the scandal. They were responsible for making awareness of the involvement of President Nixon, which eventually led to his resignation on August 9, 1974. 

Bob Woodward was only a young reporter for the Washington Post at the time of the scandal, but joined forces with Carl Bernstein to investigate the scandal. Together, they did a lot of the original reporting, which prompted government investigations into Watergate. Their work became recognized as the first reports on the political tricks used by the Nixon re-election committee.

The reporters made revelations to do with the people involved with the Nixon administration in burglary, spying, the destruction of evidence, and other tricks. They managed to demonstrate that Nixon intimates were directly involved in Watergate, that Watergate wiretapping and the break-in had been pressurized through illegal campaign funds, and that “the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House,” part of “a basic strategy of the Nixon re-election effort.”

Both men were following the investigative nature that had become prevalent in journalism throughout the 1960s, particularly as the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was becoming more and more controversial. Their reporting came to challenge the most powerful men in the country, making them stand out from previous reporters. It also changed the nature of investigative reporters and how they were seen in journalism, putting their work into the limelight instead of  keeping their work hidden behind reports.

Ultimately, the two men came to recognize that the burglary of Watergate was linked to other political crimes related to the Nixon campaign. They were also helped by Mark Felt, who went by the pseudonym “Deep Throat” and was the secret informant responsible for giving the two men vital information on the scandal. Their continued involvement meant they were able to build together pieces of the scandal from various sources and eventually make awareness to the public of the ongoings.

watergate hearings

The US Senate Watergate hearings, 1973
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bob Woodward later noted that the
main aspect of their reporting was the way in which they approached their conversations with various sources. They created a calm environment and visited them at home out of the way of other press, to allow sources to tell their story. While making such discoveries about Nixon and his campaign, neither of the reporters actually met President Nixon. They were able to link the sources and information to him through various channels, without speaking to him or hearing his side of the story. 

While the two men didn’t win any individual rewards, they won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the Washington Post, due to their responsibility in revealing the scandal to the public. 

Jeff Bezos and Current Ownership 

The man who publishes the Washington Post today is Jeff Bezos, who bought the newspaper for $250 million cash in 2013. The internet entrepreneur bought the publication completely independently, with the purchase having no affiliation with Amazon. 

Nash Holdings LLC now owns the newspaper, but the company is controlled by Bezos, with the sale including other publications, websites and real estate. This ended the 80-year ownership of the newspaper by the Graham family, a big change to the nature of ownership, since it had been family owned for so long. The sale was quite unexpected, since Bezos didn’t have any knowledge of the newspaper industry, or any real interest in it.

Embracing the Internet

It has been said that Donald E. Graham, the previous owner of the newspaper, was intrigued by Bezos’ eye for technology, and he was able to recognize obstacles in the future to help protect the publication that Graham would not be aware of. The worry at the time was that the newspaper industry was struggling at the hands of the Internet, which was becoming more and more a major source of news at the time. It was thought at the time that Bezos might be able to revive the company and keep it progressing due to his success in building an Internet business. There had been a decline in print advertising revenue as advertising on the Internet had become more popular. It was time for the newspaper to adapt more thoroughly to the digital age that had approached fast. 

With Bezos appointing Fred Ryan as publisher and chief executive officer (the founder and CEO of Politico), this implied that Bezos was hoping to move the publication to a more digital outlook. In this sense, attempting to enhance the readership nationally and globally, to get more engagement with the publication outside of the immediate target region. 

As a result of this, Bezos had helped the publication through a very rough time and helped it adapt well to the age of the Internet. Despite initial surprise at his purchase, it ended up being a success for the newspaper. Within just three years of Bezos taking control of the newspaper, the web traffic of the paper had doubled, showing that the newspaper has indeed advanced technologically. 

Recent Awards

Recently, the Washington Post has won a couple of awards, including the 2020 Webby Award for News & Politics in the Social category, as well as the 2020 Webby People’s Voice Award for News & Politics in the Web category. The online site also bears a new personal finance section, along with a retro-themed blog and podcast.

washington post building

The Washington Post building, 2011
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Political Stance

The Washington Post political stance has certainly changed over the course of its publication. In 1877 when it was established, it was a four-page organ of the Democratic Party. After being sold in 1889, the Democratic Party association with the newspaper was totally demolished. 

When the newspaper grew in popularity, it evolved to be a very conservative newspaper.

The newspaper lost some credibility when it was under the control of Edward B. McLean, because he was a close friend of President Warren G. Harding, and his policies became reflected too strongly in the Washington Post. As the newspaper was approaching bankruptcy, it was purchased by Eugene Meyer, who began to turn the paper into a sound, independent publication.

Phil Graham took ownership of the newspaper in 1946, and when the 1950s approached, the newspaper coined the term “McCarthyism” after publishing an editorial cartoon by Herbert Block. A close friendship was established between Graham and JFK until their deaths in 1963. 

With Ben Bradlee becoming editor-in-chief and Kay Graham, Phil Graham’s wife, becoming publisher, the newspaper was heading towards its reporting of the Watergate Scandal and the Pentagon Papers. When publishing the Pentagon Papers, the newspaper increased public disagreement with the Vietnam War in 1971. Conservatives in the 1970s made awareness of the paper’s perceived left-wing bias in reporting and editorials during this time. 

While the newspaper hadn’t revealed political endorsement of any figures, at the start of the new millennium, the Washington Post has sometimes endorsed Republican figures. At times, the newspaper has specifically chosen not to endorse any figure, but has also never endorsed a Republican president. 

Circulation Figures

Date Circulation
1878 13,000
1993 832,332 – peak circulation
2002 746,724
2010 562,108
2011 507,465
2012 484,385
2013 447,700
2015 356,768
2019 254,379

Throughout Washington Post history, the circulation numbers have been changing as the years have gone on. Since the 1990s, the circulation of the newspaper has steadily declined each year, likely due to the rise of the Internet and the digital circulation of news. Looking through
Washington Post back issues is a great way of seeing how the newspaper has changed over the years, letting you discover what the publication was like before the digital age. 

Decline of Daily Print Circulation

In the past 10 years, average daily circulation had declined by 38%. Before the takeover of Jeff Bezos, the newspaper was also struggling with its digital circulation. The Washington Post is a prime example of a newspaper in need of adapting to the current news climate, with the Internet being the main medium for news sharing. 

Changing Times

Interestingly, the Center for the Digital Future recognized that teenagers 30 years ago weren’t interested in reading newspapers, but began to read them when they reached their 20s and 30s. However, teenagers today, in the age of the Internet, will likely never reach down to pick up a paper copy of a publication, resorting to the Internet as their main source of news and some not even interested in the news at all. 

As we can see, the digital circulation massively outweighs the paper circulation, showing the change in the way people around the world receive their news. While the print circulation has been in decline, the Internet figures have hugely increased, with the website gathering 20 million readers, in the US and internationally, in 2015.