Thursday, July 2, 2009

All A Newspaper Has Is Its Reputation

The Washington Post selling access to administration officials and editorial staff? Say it ain’t so:
Washington Post Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Katharine Weymouth said today she was cancelling plans for an exclusive "salon" at her home where, for as much as $250,000, the Post offered lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to "those powerful few": Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and even the paper’s own reporters and editors. 

The astonishing offer was detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its “health care reporting and editorial staff."

This sounds exactly like the kind of bone-headed idea a publisher with dollar-signs in her eyes would cook up without checking with anyone, least of all the editorial staff.

Oh yes. Trust me on this.

It’s also the kind of thing one sees when the publisher comes, not from the editorial ranks, but from the sales or marketing departments. Sure enough, according to Wiki, Katharine Weymouth is an attorney by education who worked in the Post’s general counsel's office before being named its advertising director and then publisher.

Oh lordie, I hate it when I’m right. I know about these things because once upon a time I worked in a newsroom for a publisher who unfortuantely came up through the marketing department. She would cook up just such bone-headed ideas, and never seemed to understand why the editorial department would constantly shoot her down. The idea of editorial integrity seems completely lost on people who spend the day with a nose buried in ledger books.

Publishers who come through the editorial ranks seem to understand instinctively the price-beyond-rubies that is a news organization’s editorial integrity. We used to have long, knock-down, drag-out fights about whether it was appropriate for reporters to accept junkets--trips paid for by someone who is inviting positive news coverage.

That sounds so quaint now. Our mainstream news media snapped up the ultimate junket back in 2003: the “embedding” of reporters with U.S. military forces during the Iraq invasion. To say the embeds didn’t compromise their coverage based on these circumstances suspends disbelief.

Newspapers continued to cross that line over the years with controversies like conservative columnist Armonstrong Williams, paid $240,000 in taxpayer money to promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in his columns.

Alas, the golden age of for-profit journalism has all come crashing down around us, because the information people need to make informed opinions about their lives, their government and their world has deteriorated into a saleable commodity. That means you get weeks of coverage about Michael Jackson, which affects no one outside his immediate family, and little of substance about the healthcare debate in Washington, which affects everyone. Instead of real election coverage where the candidates’ policy approaches are examined thoroughly, we get silly coverage about what kind of recreational activity they engage in, where they vacation, what kind of food they eat.

Little wonder that people have turned to the internet for the red meat they crave; the fact that it's largely free has made it all the better. Sorry, MSM, you just weren't paying attention. You're like GM and Ford and Chrysler, churning out gas-guzzlng SUVs when what we really want are fuel-efficient hybrids. All the while you're telling us "you want this gas slupring monster truck! You do! You really really do!"

So no, you can't save newspapers by banning hyperlinks. That's not the problem.

I can’t quote this Ralph Gleason column from the 1972 Rolling Stone often enough:

Newspapers, as A.J. Liebling explained in The Press, are neither public servants nor custodians of the Holy Grail.

They are private enterprises in a capitalist economy whose primary function is to make money. Just like a department store or a gas station.

They are not in the business of truth and honesty and the public good unless the owner of the paper sees that as a way to making money.
Katharine Weymouth thought selling access to her editorial staff and Administration officials was a good way to make money. As the uproar the revelation of this scheme has created proves, Weymouth was horribly, embarassingly wrong.