A Bit More on the Salons
Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander has done an excellent job reporting out the story behind the now-infamous salons. The short version is that this wasn't some rogue operation on the business side. It was pretty well-known among newsroom brass, and a lot of the relevant questions had been considered and discarded. And who knows? If the fliers weren't so crassly written, maybe the salons would be ongoing.
But having advertisers pay for access wasn't some quantum leap in thinking. The flier was a dumb move, and holding it at the publisher's house really shredded any remaining plausible deniability, but there's a reason the concerns were dismissed: Fundamentally, this didn't look too different from events that are ongoing around town. Stan Collender explains:
Other news outlets have been doing things like the Post was planning to do for years. In some cases they charge directly for meetings and conferences. In other cases they charge indirectly, as when they invite advertisers to mingle with senior staff over chardonnay and scallops wrapped in bacon. At least one major publication sponsors cruises where readers pay to mingle for several days with big name conservatives, reporters, and editors. The New York Times proudly arranges for discussions with media and entertainment types and runs full-page ads promoting it. Major Washington-based publications hold seminars hosted by one or more of their crack reporters or editors and get corporate sponsorships to make sure they're profitable. They advertise the fact that their reporters and editors will be speaking because they know that will help draw a paying crowd.
And then there are the big Washington dinners where virtually every news outlet buys one or more tables and competes for the biggest names from Capitol Hill and the White House to sit with reporters, editors, and...yes...advertisers.
(Question: What's the difference between paying $25,000 for an ad and then being invited to sit at a table at a hotel ballroom with editors and congressional leaders, and paying $25,000 to sit at a table in with those same editors and leadership at the publisher's home?)
Given the trends in the industry, these salons looked like a logical step forward. Indeed, Collender thinks that "the only thing the Washington Post did wrong was apologize." I think he's wrong about that. The thing we did wrong was try and sell access to the newsroom and sources. But he's right that this was less isolated than many would like to imagine. The underlying problem is industry-wide: The old business models based around advertising are breaking down, and if papers can't sell advertising, then they really have only one other thing of value to sell, and that's access to the newsroom. The Washington Post made a mistake. But unless some other revenue model comes online, and quick, I fear we won't be the last to do so.
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