When Joe L. Allbritton came here in 1974 as the new owner of the Washington Star, he had never been inside a newspaper office. Allbritton thought the newspaper had potential that local people missed. "Opportunities in a community are rarely seen by the people who grew up there," he says.
Allbritton still thinks he could have saved the Star. He had acquired Washington's Channel 7 as part of the deal, and the TV station's profits almost offset the newspaper's losses. "The money from TV could have supported the Star until the cows come home," he says.
Then the Federal Communications Commission ruled that one company couldn't own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, and the paper folded in 1981. By then Allbritton was sold on Washington. "This city has been first-class to me and my family," he says.
In 1980, when he had the chance to buy a controlling interest in Riggs Bank, he jumped at the chance. "When I first offered to pay $67.50 a share, people said I was crazy," Allbritton said in 1981. "Now -it's a good buy. In two years, the story will be that ‘he stole the bank right out from under our eyes.'"
Joe Allbritton was a success before he came to Washington. A graduate of Baylor University law school and a champion debater, he never intended to practice law. In those days, you went to law school to go into business, he says. He made a fortune with savings-and-loans in Texas. He succeeded because he had an ability to gauge people and their intentions, he believes. "Even with collateral, you can lose," Allbritton says. On the other hand, if the borrower "is determined to pay, he'll find a way."
Allbritton admits he's had time on his side. He got into television in time to watch it grow. Today he owns seven ABC-affiliated TV stations, including WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 on cable, as well as daily and weekly newspapers.
Allbritton became senior chairman of Riggs in 2001. His son, Robert, is chairman and CEO of the Riggs holding company and president of Allbritton Communications.
Allbritton serves on several boards and as a trustee of three presidential foundations. But he has never had a love affair with power: "I was not raised in that environment. I'm more enamored with profit. If you have to choose, that's a good choice."