Journalistic Ethics vs. the Economy
I've been watching with fascination the uproar surrounding Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth's attempt to raise money for her struggling newspaper by hosting a salon series at her home that featured the newspaper's journalists - including its host, editor Marcus Brauchli and government officials. The price of admission for this series was a steep $25,000 per salon or $250,000 for the series and the target audience was lobbyists and corporate executives.
Most interestingly, the coverage of the mistake by the Post's young publisher has taken on a life of its own. The actual details of what the salon was intended to do seem to be lost now. What is causing major umbrage is the implication that the Post reporters were for sale and the rich and privileged were buying their way into coverage or at least influence over key reporters. I can't tell either the intended size of this well-heeled audience -- that is, whether the salon was a large table gathering or several hundred guests.
As a former journalist and a long-time PR consultant who often has
represented the less well-funded competitor in a tough market, I cringe at the
suggestion that any journalist or publication is for sale to the highest bidder
or largest advertiser. But as a business person who understands the need
to run a profitable business, I understand what
When I was a journalist in the tech market, I often would be introduced to advertisers at luncheons at major conferences. Many of the publications still do these occasional road shows of editors that involve brief one-on-ones with the advertisers. I was never expected to write about those advertisers unless they had a good story to tell. I was just asked to meet them, which I thought was annoying, but reasonable. We journalist captives used to joke about these shrimp and smoked salmon events -- at least the food was good and occasionally we'd uncover a good story or a great contact for a future story. No ethical lines were crossed.
At major executive conferences that are sometimes run by publications, invitation-only attendees pay high fees (not $25,000 high, of course) to have access to presentations by news-making companies and executives as well as to rub shoulders with key journalists and bloggers. Again, no one is forced to write anything. The journalists attending often band together for protection from the mobs. But they also have free access to information, sources and people who could be useful to them. Again, the ethical line is not crossed.
I think a number of mistakes were made with this situation, but I honestly don't believe it was an attempt to sell the editorial staff. The biggest mistakes (in my opinion) were the high price tag, which made this salon uber-selective; the location at Weymouth's home, which made this seem very insider; calling it a salon, which suggests an invitation-only free event and not a pay-as-you-go meeting; and Weymouth's own visibility as a descendant of Katharine Graham. Let's take these one at a time.
Price tag: Let's assume the Post was letting a fairly large group of high-paying people in for what was essentially a high level executive conference with the intention of a discussion with the political newsmakers moderated by staff journalists. The journalists may have been fair game for lobbyists or corporate guests to accost with ideas for stories about them or their companies. But no one was going to make them write. So aside from the price tag, what's the big difference between this and an executive conference that some of the Washington Post's competitors might hold? They charge attendees a hefty fee and also accept sponsorships.
Location: If this same
conference -- okay, salon -- had been priced differently and held at an upscale
Salon: Some of the coverage noted
Weymouth's visibility: If Weymouth had not just completed a publicity tour of her own with articles I read during my own recent vacation in magazines like Vogue, would this have raised people's ire as much? I must admit that when I saw Weymouth on stage with Arianna Huffington at the All Things Digital conference in May -- where they seemed to have quite a love-fest going for two competitors for ad dollars and publicity -- I wondered whether this example of nepotism was the right move for this newspaper. Hearing her at the conference and reading more about her since then, which may or may not have been a strategy of the Post, I got a good sense of her capabilities and assumed that this is a family committed to this newspaper who felt she had what it took to take it forward. But I have to think that she's probably taking more lumps on this gaffe than someone who wasn't related to Katharine Graham would be taking.
In a journalism environment where BusinessWeek is for sale and publications are dropping like flies, I applaud the efforts of companies and publishers to try to keep them alive with new revenue opportunities. I certainly don't want the journalists' ethics to be compromised in the process. I guess I question whether this was the intention of this salon series in the first place. The current blur of coverage, where the real truth gets covered quickly by opinions, attacks and assumptions makes it hard to make a clear assessment. The quick cancellation of the event seems to show that it was not as well thought out as it should have been, but was more an approach to keep the paper afloat during a difficult time.
So here's hoping