Newspapers, as we've so often reported, are in deep, deep economic trouble, mainly thanks to the collapse of the classified advertising market. And everybody’s looking for present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.
GROUP SINGS: Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.
BOB GARFIELD: Last week, as first reported on the website Politico, The Washington Post announced a cunning new profit center, influence peddling. A flyer advertised small private off-the-record meetings with Post editorial staffers and key Washington policy figures, the first centering on health care and sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, whereupon people inside and outside The Washington Post commenced to wigging out, and the paper scurried to retreat. Publisher Katherine Weymouth published a semi-mea culpa, accepting responsibility for rushing half-cocked into the salon business, but also noting that the flyer from the marketing department hadn't been approved by her or by the editors. However, says Post staff writer Paul Fahri, who has been covering the fiasco for the paper, the plan that was agreed on by the business and editorial top brass was indefensible, all on its own.
PAUL FARHI: When the promotional flyer came out, it put the worst possible spin on what everyone had agreed was already the way to proceed.
BOB GARFIELD: Namely that paying customers would have access to important officials and editors and reporters.
PAUL FARHI: Not just access, but you will be able to bring your issues to people and you will be able to shape the ultimate outcome of whatever legislation or policy is ultimately crafted. And the idea that it was non-confrontational suggested that there would be no challenges made to anything that was said. That, of course, was not accurate or true. But, again, people realized that no matter how you characterize this, once you get down to the basic facts of it, the thing itself could not stand.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess we should observe that while The Washington Post is caught in the salon mess, it didn't invite the idea of reporters and editors showing up at salons. That’s been done before, correct?
PAUL FARHI: That's right, there have been a number of publications that do it, in one form or another. I mean, sometimes it’s a salon, a small group gathering, sometimes it’s a big conference. The Atlantic Magazine does something very, very close to what The Washington Post had in mind, which are these very small, intimate dinners, off the record, with a paid sponsor who is usually aligned with the topic that’s being discussed. So, influential people on, say, health care policy will sit down to a dinner and it will be sponsored by a health care company, with truly a vested interest in the outcome of this discussion.
BOB GARFIELD: Atlantic publisher David Bradley has weighed in on this subject, unapologetically observing that at the Atlantic salons, off the record is critical because otherwise Washington big machers won't say what’s on their mind but they'll speak in prepared sound bites.
PAUL FARHI: Well, I can't speak for the Atlantic and their journalistic practices, but I know around here that people were very upset by this and actually quite confused by it. We're all here to find out information that we can then share with our readers. That’s the job of a journalist. And if you’re put into a position in which you are explicitly told you may not share any of this information and people are paying for the access to you and other important people involved in shaping this policy, that just looks like the kind of inside deal that as a reporter you walk away from when it’s presented to you by a third party. And here was our own newspaper putting its own journalists in that position.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so it’s clear we're talking about finding new ways to raise money, in this case on the backs of the editorial staff’s connections and credibility. Is that absolutely a non-starter?
PAUL FARHI: It depends on what form it takes. Holding a conference in which journalists interview newsmakers in front of an audience in an on-the-record setting seems to me to be expanding the amount of information in the world and the knowledge that’s available. That’s what journalists do. In this case, the problem was it wasn't going to be public or even semipublic, it was going to be completely private, and that The Post was going to set up an operation that was closed to any of its readers and none of it would be publicly accessible.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I know you’re in an awkward position of being a reporter for The Washington Post, reporting on The Washington Post doing something that at least has the appearance of being unsavory.
PAUL FARHI: Yes, I have to say it is a kind of hall of mirrors, and I'm constantly looking, you know, at various reflections of myself, and not always liking the image I see. I'll have to say, though, that everybody in a position of decision making who was responsible for this has been extremely forthcoming and has spoken on the record to me, and I can't ask more of the people I work with than what they've given me so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that is encouraging. And I can think of a way in which this could have gotten at least one degree weirder, and that is if the planned first salon hadn't been about health care but about media -
[LAUGHTER] - and you had been the featured reporter. [LAUGHS]
PAUL FARHI: I'd have to interview myself and then I'd “no comment” myself.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay, Paul. As always, thank you so much.
PAUL FARHI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Farhi covers media and a whole lot of other stuff for the Style section of The Washington Post.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Both Post publisher Katherine Weymouth and chairman of Atlantic Media Company, David Bradley, whom I just mistakenly referred to as the publisher of Atlantic Magazine, declined requests for interviews.
[MUSIC] Coming up, when a reporter was kidnapped recently, what ensued was a genuine media conspiracy. This is On the Media, from NPR.
"Here Comes the Night"
by Andrew Pekler