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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2009; 2:02 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Didn't take long to drink the corporate kool-aid, did it?

Posted by: fuse | July 13, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

When the WaPo cuts some of the deadweight from their op-ed page, I'll finally believe they've got money problems.

But as long as they pay good money to Robert J. Samuelson, to pick one of the most egregious cases, I can't take the paper's problems seriously.

I mean, here we have a guy who's just as worthless as Broder and Will, but without their undeserved Washington reputations as sages as an excuse to keep publishing his crap.

I know a woman who's always complaining about her money problems. Then she goes and has a tummy-tuck done, or something similar. It's hard to take her whining seriously.

So it is with the WaPo and its op-ed deadweight.

Posted by: rt42 | July 13, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

The problem is, as Daily Howler has long defined it, that the moderate, liberal and progressive "half" of journalism and punditry, at "mainstream" outlets like the Washington Post, as well as aspirational outlets like The New Republic, rarely comment on the simple fact, "Other news outlets have been doing things like the Post was planning to do for years."

Various pretenses, and systematic errors, go unremarked upon, uncriticized from what little of the Left is represented in mainstream media. And, what little of the Left is represented, has been deliberately selected to be docile, in precisely this way. Cowed by the examples of career-ruin known only to insiders, and the examples of riches and renown fully understood, also, only by insiders.

So, on the rare occasions, when it is exposed, the best we can hope for, is some "tut-tut, nothing to see here, move along folks". And, so the cancer grows, and the plutocracy tightens its deathgrip on the Media and American democracy.

P.S., can anyone explain why, if the Post is so hard up, it continues to publish Broder, even AFTER both a buyout AND retirement? It is not as if he has written anything new or fresh in at least 25 years.

Posted by: brucew07 | July 13, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Gee, Ezra, I thought you would have picked up on a journalist's defense of the Post on the day the story broke on (see, and not wait for a p.r. hack like Collender. As I pointed out then, it's all about the ground rules, since selling access is common practice among journalism organizations.

But, no, you had to tout Stan Collender when he said something nice about the Post. Alas, you are compounding the Post's ongoing errors in this case, because you failed to tell us exactly who Stan is. For the record, he is the managing director of Qorvis Communications, a leading public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications which includes among its clients (see PhRMA, the Mortgage Bankers Association, The Sugar Association and Halliburton.

You would have been better off quoting someone who has an ethical leg to stand on.

Posted by: GoozNews | July 13, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

"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?"

Isn't the difference the off-the-record secrecy of the latter engagement?

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 13, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Given that Ezra explicitly says that he thinks Collender was wrong, I'd say this hardly counts as "touting". And Ezra has a point--this is only mildly more gross than stuff that goes on all the time. The solution is not to denounce Ezra as a hack, which he ain't, but to get more outraged about the systemic problems in the news biz.

Posted by: meelar | July 13, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Shorter Collender:
If the corporate-worshiping wh*res at National Review are willing to pimp themselves out to every Randian two bit hustler they can cajole onto a cruise ship, then hey, why can't the Post just sell the Ceci Connolley byline to the highest bidder?

Posted by: flounder2 | July 13, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

And as if on cue, the Post runs a Connolley article in which she quotes a bunch of the other reputed participants in the Salons saying how bad real health care reform would be.

Posted by: flounder2 | July 14, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

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