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Can The Washington Post Salons Be a Good Thing?

Last week's salon fiasco wasn't a particularly happy period around these parts. The Washington Post really shouldn't need lobbyists for the health-care industry to act as our ombudsmen. But good things can come out of bad things. And this pronouncement from publisher Katherine Weymouth strikes me as a good thing:

We have canceled the planned dinner. While I do believe there is a legitimate way to hold such events, to the extent that we hold events in the future, large or small, we will review the guidelines for them with The Post's top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed. Further, any conferences or similar events The Post sponsors will be on the record.

Italics mine. I'm actually excited about that prospect. Holding long and informed conversations with newsmakers and expert and then posting the transcripts is the sort of thing newspapers should actually be doing a lot more of.

Indeed, I don't think print organizations have done a particularly good job utilizing the vast acreage offered on the Internet. For all the complaints about the media's reliance on off-the-record interviews -- complaints I don't really share -- the reality is that reporters do plenty of on-the-record interviews as well. But readers don't see much of them. At best, they see a line or two of quotation in the final story. If the subject wasn't particularly pithy, they frequently don't even see that.

Historically, there was a good reason for this stinginess. If you conducted seven 30-minute interviews for an 800-word story, there simply wasn't room to post the full transcripts of every conversation. But with the Internet, there is room. Plenty of it, in fact. Posting the full text of an interview with the deputy secretary of agriculture online doesn't mean that there is less space for a story on the Justice Department. It just means there's additional content for readers who want to know more about food safety regulations.

One of the questions with this, of course, is why it isn't happening already. After all, the interviews are already being conducted and, in many cases, transcribed. The concept is, by this point, pretty widespread. But my sense is that there's a quiet suspicion that most readers aren't that interested in long interviews and links to research papers and transcripts of events. The job of the newspaper, after all, is to condense. To make the news fit the lives of busy people. Not to drown them in content.

And that may still be the work of the newspaper. But as my paycheck proves, the newspaper is now just one of The Washington Post's products. And other products -- like the online site -- might appeal to different sorts of readers with different needs. And given the unlimited space of the Internet, and the fact that we're already producing a lot of these interviews and finding a lot of the relevant research anyway, there's no reason not to serve these readers, too.

Plus, these readers might be able to serve you back. The readers likeliest to need more information on topics like, say, health-care policy, are probably the readers worth the most to advertisers, and that makes them worth the most to our business model, too. And if one paper was a lot better than all the other papers at securing the attention of these "deep" readers, if it had the most regular procession of discussion transcripts and the most searchable interviews and the best collection of primary sources, that could probably translate into a hefty advantage down the road.

And if that all works, then who knows? Maybe these salons could be profitable after all.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 7:07 AM ET
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I am a little unclear on how exactly the Washington Post will be able to "afflict the comfortable" if it is directly participating in message parlors where "real decisionmadkers" are meeting. Objectivity and perspective would go right out the window, followed by anchoring to the decisions made in the parlors.

Let's be clear what the purpose of the message parlors was (and is; I suspect they are still going to occur just without pay-to-play): boundary setting. "Those who will really make the decisions" were to meet with the WaPo to set the boundaries of acceptable discourse; once those agreements were made anyone (administration, Congress, corporate player, or even citizens foolish enough to think they had the right to participate in the decision) stepping outside those boundaries would be subject to discipline by the WaPo. I would mention another time period when the WaPo was similarly used for boundary maintenance but the WaPo comment moderators delete those references immediately, but I am sure you know what I mean.

Ezra, you're an interesting writer and I suspect you are very excited to be at the center of what appears to be the health care debate. The question you have to ask yourself is, is what you are covering and participating in really the debate? Or are the real decisions being made in secret message parlors with you just being used as a smokescreen and boundary maintainer?


Posted by: sphealey | July 6, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

As I mentioned in my own blog last week, the real question isn't whether these forums are on the record (which they should be), but whether they are open to any journalist who wants to cover them. If not, this is nothing more than checkbook journalism and unacceptable.

There's nothing wrong with news organizations sponsoring newsmaker forums and even getting lobbyists, corporate executives and others to pay for the privilege of attending. Newsletters, the trade press and even general interest magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic do it all the time. But if, as the Post advertised, public officials attend, then it is incumbent on any news organization that sponsors such an event to allow any journalist (as proxies for the public) to attend since something newsworthy may be said.

Posted by: GoozNews | July 6, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic ( has actually been doing quite a bit of this. He's posted to his blog a number of complete interviews with both American politicians and Israeli leaders.

Posted by: jwerth | July 6, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

good points, but why doesn't Washington Post offer transcripts now as the Chicago Tribune does with editorial board meetings, which typically include relevant reporters?

ultimately, of course, this will be subversive the entire journalistic process, which holds that folks with expertise will tell us what's important -- as opposed to the Fox, "we report, you decide" construct.

Posted by: jimjaf | July 6, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

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