Monday, July 6, 2009

Washington Post's Failings and Flailings

There is a whole lot of apologizing going on at the Washington Post these days.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth pleaded to readers for forgiveness in a letter in the paper’s Sunday edition. Executive editor Marcus Brauchli has also been chock full of sorrys to every journalist who will give him a listen, including the writers in his own newsroom.

What’s their crime? A poorly crafted plan to host a series of dinners at Weymouth’s home for Washington power brokers, politicians, Post editors and reporters, and a corporate sponsor or two. The price of entry for the underwriters: $25,000 a pop.

The reaction from competitive publications like Politico and not-for-profit think thanks was swift and unrelenting.

“Newspapers owe their first allegiance to the public,” explained Tom Rosensteil of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism in an article in the Washington Post. “Their first obligation is to make information public and to inspire public debate and discussion…In this case, the Washington Post would be arranging events that only insiders have access to and profiting from those events. It’s fundamentally antithetical to what news organizations do.”

Ah, spoken like someone who has little concern for profit/loss, making payroll or appeasing shareholders. Truth is, the only person Weymouth and Brauchli should apologize to is the Charles Pelton, the hapless marketing executive who concepted these dinners.

Like nearly every news and publishing operation in the country, the Washington Post is overcome by red ink. Its business model is no longer viable and unless the company can identify new sources of revenue the layoffs and editorial cutbacks will march on.

I applaud Pelton for his creativity. If his now-squashed efforts had helped the Post retain talent and content, I would have been better off as a reader.

I also have no problem whatsoever with the perceived conflicts created by providing well heeled and funded corporations with exclusive access to editors and writers.

That’s because I have confidence in the quality, professionalism and ethics of the journalists hired by the Post. They are quite capable of sorting through a myriad of facts, sources and commentary when crafting a story.

Let’s not for a moment pretend that all is well in the newsroom. Yes, as Rosensteil contends publishers, editors and writers make a promise to their readers and society. My take is that they can certainly deliver on the promise regardless of where and with whom they dine.


Mark said...

There's been too much First Amendment/Free Press sanctimony and schadenfreude in the coverage of this. The publisher and editor let the marketing exec "twist slowly in the wind" on this one. Methinks the editor being late of the WSJ, which does several conferences (but not "salons"), brought a bit to much "well, the way we did it at my former employer" to the table without a deeper understanding of the product.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hausman's premise seems to be that the poor economic status of newspapers justifies more aggressive measures to influence key policymakers becuase the free press will be reduced if they aren't more creative in their marketing. Considering the booming Washington,DC lobbying community enormous growth under the current administration I am not surprised the Post would try to cash in on all the intense lobbying on healthcare and energy to name a few. After all they unabashedly and wholeheartedly endorsed and promoted the current administration during and after the campaign. This in my opinion is the core reason newspapers are suffering is because they lack credibility and balance of perspectives and opinions, not the internet technology and changing readership habits of young America.

Anonymous said...

Well, Marc, the idea may seem creative and worthy until the first time there's an issue over whether an story is "arbitrarily" buried deep inside the paper when it may be worth front page placement -- or vice-versa. Remember, it's all about appearances," and those entities with the "purest" of reputations (no matter what their poltiical or other persusasions) are those who bent over backwards to monitor not only potential conflicts, but the "appearance" of conflicts.

(A side note: I agree there's a need to find creative new revenue sources. But in this case, $25K (before expenses) is a speck of sand on the financial beach.)

The lack of credibility and balanced perspectives is only a small contributor to the decline in newspapers' fortunes. The evolution of electronic media is still (demonstrably) the catalyst for both the overall problems and the urgency to adapt. All the more reason why these dinners are hardly the way to go.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised. Actually, I'm in the midst of crafting my own letter to the Post. The irresponsible misrepresentation of my words by one of their reporters, eventually led to my losing job--with no severance, no unemployment, no pension, etc.

This is after having already been destroyed by 9/11 and moving from NY to Maryland. I'm glad I've stuck to my own business since.