Flags wave in front of the Washington Post building. (Photo: Getty Images)
For embarrassed Washington Post executives-reeling from what the paper's own ombudsman called a public relations "disaster" over a flier promoting a "salon" for lobbyists to mingle with prominent newsmakers-there must be a sense of "Why us?"
The fact is The Post's clumsy effort to make money on its brand name and market its access to the powerful was a belated effort to follow in the steps of at least two other prominent news organizations: the Wall Street Journal and the Economist magazine.
The Journal, for instance, is charging a $7,500 for its two-day CEO Council in November, an elite gathering that will include the paper's top editors and high-profile speakers like Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. And for a few thousand dollars, The Economist can open the door to intimate off-the-record meet-and-greets with world leaders.
These events illustrate how the basic transaction-charging big fees to special interests to arrange private, special-access encounters with powerful people-that caused the Post this week to be excoriated is a more endemic practice than many people in political and media circles realize. Some watchdogs hope this week's Post scandal will help put an end to a hard-to-defend practice by revenue-hungry news organizations.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said he thought the Post flier raised a red flag for news organizations to be wary of entering into a financial arrangement with people that you're covering.
"One has to ask," Rosenstiel said, "Is the amount of money you might generate from this worth damaging that bond with your readers?"
While the speakers at the Journal conference this November will be on the record, with ostensible benefits for Journal readers, Rosenstiel said the bigger problem is when newsmakers and top editorial staffers are offered up to guests with no press access whatsoever, as the Post was originally planning. By doing so, he said, news organizations are "encouraging the notion in the readers mind that [they're] part of some insider establishment that it considers more important than public knowledge."
The Journal arguably crossed that line in March, when the paper agreed to allow National Economic Adviser Larry Summers to conduct his talk, during a $5,000-a-head conference, as closed to press. All the other speakers at the Future of Finance Initiative conference, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, spoke on the record. But when it came time for Summers talk, Journal deputy managing editor Alan Murray, who's instrumental in organizing the paper's executive conferences, instructed attendees (and not reporters) to get in cars headed for White House. (The Journal declined to comment on this arrangement).
Changing the Summers talk from on to off the record and whisking executives over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came up late in the process at the Journal. By contrast, The Economist, the British publication that has developed considerable readership on this side of the Atlantic, makes it clear from the start what the ground rules are for its conferences. And those have nothing to do with informing average readers.
The Economist has scheduled two off-the-record summits this year bringing together government officials and business leaders together in Mexico and Brazil. The magazine's website lists three aims for the summits, one of which is to foster an off-the-record, high-level debate between Mexican business leaders and key ministers on the policies and strategies of the current government. The price for the Mexico and Brazil summits are not listed, but prices for other events run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to nearly $4,000.
"The events are off the record because we have found it is the best way for our delegates and host governments to get value from the discussion," an Economist spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. "It also explicitly means that the event will not be covered by The Economist.
"We host events because they are a natural extension of the debate initiated by the magazine," the spokesperson added.
Rarely has a prestigious news organization found itself so much on the defensive about the practice as The Post was on Thursday following POLITICO's report on a marketing flier sent to lobbyists that offered exclusive, off-the-record access to the top of the Post's masthead, Congressional leaders, Obama administration officials, and the paper's health-care reporters in exchange for fees ranging from $25,000 for one event to $250,000 for ten.
Post executives- publisher Katharine Weymouth and executive editor Marcus Brauchli--focused on the flier, which in particularly over-the top language promised a corporations a "seat at the table" with policy-makers for a dinner that would have a certain type of mood. "Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it.""
Weymouth and Brauchli said the flier not been vetted, adding that the newsroom would never have taken part in a pay-to-play scheme as described. But Weymouth did not repudiate the concept of charging corporate sponsors for off-the-record dinners and insisted that "there is a viable way to expand our expertise into live conferences and events."
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, said on POLITICO's Arena that the bottom line for the Post brass was money, "and when people start thinking money, they tend to forget to think about anything else."
"Let's hope that the Chinese wall between the news side and the business side doesn't crumble under current intense financial pressure as the industry transforms," Kanter said. "The bottom line, so to speak, is not what was said on the fliers about paying big bucks and getting a seat at Weymouth's dinner table. It is that the fliers were honest about the nature of the offering: contacts for cash."
For the Post, facing steep losses this year, such events have been part of a revenue-generating strategy for some time. As Weymouth told staffers in a memo last December, "to expand our revenue base and diversify our business model, we must look for opportunities to create new products, especially in the areas where business and policy intersect." One idea, she wrote at the time, was "hosting of specialized conferences for business decision makers with a stake in Washington policy-making."
Perhaps no one has perfected the art of bringing together ideas and debate in the public sphere while generating profits and prestige as Atlantic Media owner David Bradley. Microsoft has teamed up with National Journal for private dinners, and Bradley's annual schmoozefest, the Aspen Ideas Festival, brought together over one hundred speakers with leading positions in government, business, journalism, advocacy and the arts this past week.
Sponsored by the Aspen Institute and Atlantic, along with corporate support, the festival also features Cabinet members, the top editors and writers from Bradley's magazines, and a sundry media all-stars. (As coincidence would have it, Weymouth sat on a future of journalism panel in Aspen titled "What's the News Worth to You?")
Atlantic Monthly editor James Bennet said that "the whole idea of the [festival] is to be on-the-record and in open conversation."
According to Bennet, "sponsors of the session here go to events and have the same opportunities to ask questions as everybody else." But The Atlantic, like other news organizations, charges big money for such gatherings, though anyone can head to the website for regular festival dispatches or clips of panels and interviews.
POLITICO has also collaborated with sponsors such as the ACLU and Yahoo in holding public events. But each has been open to the public and press - a critical distinction according to John F. Harris, POLITICO's editor-in-chief.
"My view is that it is the job of news organizations to illuminate public issues, and do so in a public way," Harris wrote in an e-mail. "Sponsored events, in which editors set the agenda and the proceedings are transparent, can do this effectively. It is not our job to serve as a kind of escort service to facilitate private encounters between special interests and public officials."
"Publisher Robert Allbritton agrees with this and has directed us to avoid events that revolve around these kind of transactions," Harris added.