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Veteran Editors Offer Advice to The Post

By Andy Alexander

My column this weekend takes a deeper look at The Post’s ethically flawed plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record “salon” dinners. Ever since the plan was revealed, The Post’s leaders – and its newsroom – have been reeling from a wave of negative reaction.

When I interviewed Publisher Katharine Weymouth earlier this week, she mentioned that she’s been receiving lots of “solicited and unsolicited advice from outside the building, all with the goal of helping.”

At the risk of adding to her suggestion box, I queried a handful of esteemed former newspaper editors and media ethics experts and asked them: “If you were advising Weymouth and her senior managers, what would you tell them?”

Here’s a sampling from their e-mails back to me:

JOHN CARROLL
Former editor of The Los Angeles Times


PROMOTION: “We live in promotion-heavy times. There is a continuing Gold Rush for audience on the Web. If newspapers fail to promote -- not just their ads, but their journalism and the unique public service they perform -- it's hard to see how they can survive. So I'd suggest that the Post mount a sustained image campaign on multiple fronts. No, it won't be cheap, but there are probably ways to do it without breaking the bank.”

MOVE FORWARD: “Publishers are like everyone else. Improbable as it might seem, they're human. They will make mistakes. But one slip-up -- a well-intended one, in this case -- should not be seen as the end of civilization.” Carroll recalled an episode in which the image of the late Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler was tarnished by an ethical lapse. “He was mortified,” he said. “He remained mortified the rest of his life. But did it sink the company? Hardly. He went on to be one of the most successful publishers of the 20th Century.”

LOREN GHIGLIONE
Professor of Media Ethics at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism

APPOINT AN “ETHICS” BOARD MEMBER: “The people I know on [The Washington Post Company’s] board of directors are honorable, ethical people. But might it not hurt to have on the board someone who is knowledgeable about the kinds of businesses the company operates but whose identity is tied to worrying about the values and ethics of those businesses, not primarily their profit-making?... The board has audit, compensation and finance committees. Why not one focused on the company's values and ethics, headed by an ethics prof?”

GREGORY FAVRE
Former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, now a Distinguished Fellow in Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute

MEET THE PUBLIC: “The Post's leaders are going to have to genuflect before the altar of public opinion more than once. And that is especially true inside the newsroom, especially in these days when the trust factor in newsrooms is as fragile as it has ever been. I would suggest to Weymouth that she host a series of open forums across the circulation area, in accessible locations, with her senior managers in tow. Advertise them, invite people to come and ask any questions they have of anyone in attendance from the Post, and answer them openly and candidly."

REACH BEYOND THE NEWSROOM: "In addition to meetings with newsroom personnel, Favre suggests meetings newspaper-wide. “I would also have open meetings in every department of the paper. We too often think that only newsroom people are hurt by our misbehavior. There is a sense of pride that exists in people throughout the building. And they need care, as well. And as you travel through the painful aftermath of this mistake continue to be totally transparent with everyone and practice humility, which is often a difficult task for us."

KELLY McBRIDE
Ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute

DON’T RETREAT: “Don't let this stop you from continuing to be bold in pursuit of new revenue, even in convening events.”

CROSS POLLINATE: “Start to work on cross pollination within the company. Large newsrooms are traditionally isolated from the rest of the company. In the past that made sense because it protected and insulated our best asset. Now we have to figure out how to leverage our best asset without undermining our core values. Creating a company-wide culture where everyone understands the core values, the various missions of different departments, will go a long way. I don't think you have to do it with silly retreats and goofy internal training. But getting top managers together on a regular basis and having them all spend time in each other's departments is important.”

TIM McGUIRE
Former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, now the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School

FOCUS ON THE CORE PROBLEM: “My advice to Publisher Weymouth and her senior managers is to stop focusing on the execution issue. They must realize that the core intent of allowing the monied elite to pay for unique access and input is the real problem here. The flier, the flier's tone and who approved the flier are bogus issues.... The management team needs to realize quickly that any effort to sell access and input to the news gathering strategies of the Post will erode confidence in the newspaper's independence.... They must commit to a principle that says the newspaper will never allow ‘the monied few’ to buy access and provide self-interested input to reporters and editors who are obligated to serve ‘the many.’ Until the Post convinces readers and staffers that the news is not for sale this controversy is not going to go away.”

JERRY CEPPOS
Dean of the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism, former vice president for news of Knight Ridder Newspapers, and former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News

LISTEN TO THE FEEDBACK: “I'd tell Katharine Weymouth and her senior managers to listen to the [readers] who have appended comments to the Internet versions of dozens of stories about the controversy. These comments are not all written by one conservative reader in Orange County, despite newsroom lore to that effect. Note the intensity of feelings -- and the lack of understanding about what journalism seeks to accomplish. I'd listen hard to those who take the time to write and respond with direct answers to their accusations rather than laugh at the writers, as journalists often do.”

NEWSPAPER-WIDE EDUCATION: “I'd also try one more time to explain to newsrooms and the business side what their roles are. I guarantee you that every news organization in the country employs people who would write a note like the ‘salon’ flier and not think twice about it. Would it help to put philosophical guidelines in writing? After 300 years of confusion in American journalism over roles, I'm not sure. But it's worth a try.”

COVER YOUR OWN SCANDALS: “Finally, in a perfect world, I'd tell the leaders of the Post to cover their scandals better than anyone else. It's a tall order to cover yourself well, but doing so impresses readers -- and non-readers. The Post had the best intentions in coverage of this case, but I'm not sure that the speed of responses from everyone involved, the explanations and the relentlessness of early coverage beat the competition.”

TOM FIEDLER
Dean of the Boston University College of Communication


EVENTS, BUT NO SALONS: “Many newspapers have served their communities well by organizing conferences or meetings that bring together influential players -- elected officials, lobbyists, business and community leaders -- to discuss important priorities. My former paper, The Miami Herald, hosted an annual, two-day conference on Latin America and the Caribbean that attracted heads of state, ambassadors, military leaders, corporate chiefs and, yes, lobbyists. It was open to the public, who paid a conference fee, and to other journalists, who paid nothing for their credentials. There was no doubt that the success of this conference depended upon the credibility of The Miami Herald as an institution. Inherent in that was the expectation among participants, observers and readers that The Herald’s interest was that of honest broker, not profit or favor seeker.

"If The Post seeks to engage in the business of hosting conferences, it should -- and I’m confident that it will -- follow a similar path. I would strongly advise against going forward with any ‘salons’ at the publisher’s manse if the ‘salon’ entails a profit motive. Besides, the word itself smacks of elitism.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 10, 2009; 6:49 PM ET
 
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Next: Weymouth and Brauchli Interviews

Comments

All comments are worth listenting too, especially those of Jerry Ceppos regarding journalists' reactions to Internet lore. He also makes a very good suggestion about news organizations (Do you read this, Post?) about covering your own scandals better than anybody else? What Weymouth needs to do is not resign, but show some guts here. She should write an aplogia from the heart (not the crummy thing draft from lawyers) and run it across the top of the page. It should read something like: I screwed up, I learned my lesson, and this crap will never happen again. Yeah, we need to find revenue, and I will find a a away to get revenue, but I will never compromise our newsroom to get it. If she does that, I think she will be able to drive through D.C. without having anybody throwing eggs at her.

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | July 10, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Politico, the Hill and Roll Call each do a better job of covering government, politics and policy than does the Post. They should be secondary sources and the Post should be the authoritative voice with deep coverage.

The Post's commentary page is tired and the views predictable. Once upon a time, Outlook was a lively forum in which the editors invited outsiders to debate issues and real policy choices were analyzed. And outsiders felt comfortable bringing issues and pieces to the Post.

Do public forums on issues in which the Post is a neutral convener. The area has some of the best talent in the nation and what foreign expert would not come to participate in a major discussion. Be imaginative on this. Provide a forum for people to make news.

Scandals have proliferated in our government, yet the Post has done too little coverage. The Walter Reed saga and the Post's response should be an example of what is done regularly and at a prize winning level. In this, the Post has failed to be the fourth branch of government. This requires an adequate staff of skilled journalists and aggressive editors.

The fiasco involving pay-to-play conferences should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink how the Post wants to operate in the future. You've taken your lumps: Move on.

In sum, more original reporting, more depth, more voices and more substantive discussions are likely to attract more readers in an area with some of the most politically savvy and involved people in the nation. Be as good as your readers.

Pat Choate

Posted by: PatChoate | July 11, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Politico, the Hill and Roll Call each do a better job of covering government, politics and policy than does the Post. They should be secondary sources and the Post should be the authoritative voice with deep coverage.

The Post's commentary page is tired and the views predictable. Once upon a time, Outlook was a lively forum in which the editors invited outsiders to debate issues and real policy choices were analyzed. And outsiders felt comfortable bringing issues and pieces to the Post.

Do public forums on issues in which the Post is a neutral convener. The area has some of the best talent in the nation and what foreign expert would not come to participate in a major discussion. Be imaginative on this. Provide a forum for people to make news.

Scandals have proliferated in our government, yet the Post has done too little coverage. The Walter Reed saga and the Post's response should be an example of what is done regularly and at a prize winning level. In this, the Post has failed to be the fourth branch of government. This requires an adequate staff of skilled journalists and aggressive editors.

The fiasco involving pay-to-play conferences should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink how the Post wants to operate in the future. You've taken your lumps: Move on.

In sum, more original reporting, more depth, more voices and more substantive discussions are likely to attract more readers in an area with some of the most politically savvy and involved people in the nation. Be as good as your readers.

Pat Choate

Posted by: PatChoate | July 11, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

The idea of the venerable Washington Post hosting salons for a hefty fee is more than obnoxious. It is an example of the tunnel vision that has always been a problem in the Beltway. Several years ago, noticing the bubble in which news is produced in DC, I suggested a guest opinion column from a different region be published weekly. Publishing such a guest column would, of course, require a staff person to actually read regional opinions which might - might - expand the paper's view beyond the elites in DC. And perhaps that weekly column could be published in place of Charles Krauthammer's rants.

Posted by: UltraVi | July 11, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Again, the root problem is NOT the fees. The fees brought this issue to the surface, which was good. But the real root of the problem is that the WaPo was proposing to hold secret, off-the-record "salons" with large corporate interests and the members of the government (Administration and Congress) who "really get it done". In other words, secret non-public decision-making sessions to which mere Citizens would have no visibility and no say.

sPh

Posted by: sphealey | July 11, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

I guess hiring one's niece of nephew to run an organization never went wrong....EVER. Guys, it's called nepotism for a reason. The Washington Post is on its death bed, unless a smart investor scoops it and makes something out of it.

Posted by: playa_brotha | July 11, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

A majority of the suggestions is revealing of the corrupt nature of newspaper industry and of journalism as a whole. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Posted by: kevin1231 | July 11, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Tim McGuire and Jerry Ceppos both sound like straight shooters. Are looking for a job? How about at the WaPo?


Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 11, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Pat Choate above makes a fine point when he says, "The Post's commentary page is tired and the views predictable. Once upon a time, Outlook was a lively forum in which the editors invited outsiders to debate issues and real policy choices were analyzed. And outsiders felt comfortable bringing issues and pieces to the Post."

I couldn't agree more and would carry it a step further. When Charles Krauthammer can print the following idiocy on your op-ed page on 9 July it goes to editorial management, not just copy editors.

He said, "The pursuit of such an offensive weapons treaty could nonetheless be detrimental to us. Why? Because Obama's hunger for a diplomatic success, such as it is, allowed the Russians to exact a price: linkage between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons."

"This is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot."

In fact, neither can we shoot down an ICBM and for the Post to publish such foolishness is careless, misleading and diminishes the trust we should put in the Post's judgment and fact-checking. The imperious psychiatrist's rant against the President should have been followed by intelligent correction. The dominance of neo-conservatives on the op-ed page, from Krauthammer to Kagan to Rivken and Gaffney to Hayden to Bolton to Kristol, Hoagland and Hiatt is unworthy of the Post. These people have been wrong for the past eight to the past thirty years and should be replaced.

"Outsiders once again welcome," as Pat Choate might agree.

Posted by: harper-d | July 11, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

There is no reason not to admit that K. Weynouth is in the wrong business. As one of my favorite profs used to say re. nepotism and all its ills, "From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations."

Someone should clear out the bland and/or sour columnists. Their productions are so predictable, that I rarely read them now. Sadly, I've come to think of poor Charles Krauthammer as Charles sauerkraut. Get rid of these people, and use the money for honest-to-God journalism, and hire proof readers to correct the grammar of some of your columnists. Get back into your once proudly-presented, important, substantive, investigative journalism. DO SOMETHING! Yes, as someone remarked, you were once a quality newspaper.
Respectfully submitted.

Posted by: janna2 | July 11, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

The original 'Politico' mistake. Was it based or inclusive of 'gender diversity'?

Posted by: deepthroat21 | July 11, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the attempt above by one "harper-d" to paint Jim Hoagland as a neo conservative and lump him in with the likes of Krauthammer the embittered: Sir, you are mistaken. Mr. Hoagland is not a neo-conservative but a straight down-the-middle, tell it like it is journalist endowed with first class journalistic and writing capabilities.

He is an adornment to the ope-ed page of The Washington Post.

David A. Jewell
Philadelphia, PA

Posted by: dajewell | July 11, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

The WaPo has become a neocon rathole that peddles the unedited foul lies of people like Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson.

I'm all for diversity of opinions, provided they are not distortions and propaganda-- I don't agree with George Will, for example, but he comes across for the most part as an honest and reasonable man.

The fiends I mentioned above, however, are the most rotten scoundrels to be found in journalism, with the exception perhaps of the traitorous Robert Novak, who (thankfully) hasn't returned to the Post's pages after being stricken by illness.

Here's what was the last straw for me: in his latest column, Krauthammer claims (without a hint of shame) that we can reliably shoot nuclear missiles off the sky. Star Wars, already perfected! No fact-checking, no editor, nothing: the man gets to write whatever lies he wants to write and gets published by a purportedly serious newspaper. How is that possible?

It's time to change course, or soon there will be no difference between the Washington Post and the New York Post.

Here's my advice to this paper: fire Fred Hiatt and quit giving a platform to the contemporary disciples of Joseph Goebbels, and try to regain some measure of jounalistic integrity while it's still possible.

Posted by: alarico | July 11, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Following David Jewell's post I went back to review Jim Hoagland's op-eds for most of 2009. Mr. Jewell is correct that I unfairly
lumped Hoagland in with certifiable neo-cons.

However, I recall extensive email correspondence with Hoagland during the seemingly interminable period when he was Ahmed Chalabi's mouthpiece in DC, Chalabi the charlatan, fired by the CIA, kept on by the Pentagon as their last best hope, personna non grata in Jordan after he bilked the Petra Bank of $27 million.

This showed appalling judgment at that time. Hoagland travels less now than he did before, has fewer doors open to him, does not have primary sources beyond a Frenchman and others with whom he talks on the phone. This is not the stuff of which op-eds are made, but it may well be that his past service to the Post will keep him on. An adornment he is no longer.

Posted by: harper-d | July 11, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

So you are going to follow the LA Times advice? Run an ad campaign and forget about it? The way to do it "without breaking the bank" is transparency - admit your mistake ON THE FRONT PAGE. Publish the flier ON THE FRONT PAGE. Publish what you are going to do about it ON THE FRONT PAGE.

Posted by: jburnetti | July 11, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

First off, I find Ms. McBride's observations amusing in the extreme. She wraps up with a certain level of disdain evident in her references to "silly retreats and goofy internal training." This after holding forth with all the language that inspires the dread and disdain that so many of us harbor when threatened with compulsory attendance at such an event. “[C]ross pollination within the company . . . leverage our best asset . . . core values . . ."

She left before getting into shifting paradigms (another favorite). Yes, the Post and other dailies are on shifting sands when it comes to their print operations but, regardless of the medium, the folks at the top of your organization need to get back with the program. The newsroom is central. It is what you are. Without it you are The Weekly Advertiser. which went the way of The Uptown Citizen. Everything else in the enterprise exists to make certain the newsroom has the resources it needs to find the news and disseminate it, whether that be money for paying salaries or buying newsprint. Those other departments should certainly not be doing anything to imperil the work or the reputation of that newsroom, and most certainly not in collusion with the publisher and executive editor.

Posted by: ScottinMaine | July 11, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

What exactly is the Washington Post's mission? Why does it exist in the first place?

Clearly it's a money making venture, but at least in the past the public perception seemed to be that it was more than just a money making venture (e.g. the paper performed a kind of public service).

Is the Post an advocate for those who lack a voice, and a kind of institutional check against entrenched special interests, or is it merely an extension of those special interests -- a kind of quasi-PR firm for the many PR firms in the city?

This controversy draws this matter into a focus.

McGuire, Cepos, and Fiedler all hit the nail on their head in their remarks.

As a long-time Post reader, and a news consumer, I have some sympathy for the changes in the business environment for the challenges facing print journalism. On the other hand, I am disappointed, but not entirely surprised by this episode. The Washington Post seems to be in something of an identity crisis -- it has been for several years now it seems.

The Washington Post still sometimes plays an adversarial role in keeping with the perception of the paper created in the wake of Watergate. However, I think there's a sense that the Washington Post is too close to the people that it's supposed to be covering (including the Washington lobbies). This sordid episode underscores this fact.

I'll give the Post some credit for covering this controversy -- the ombudsman has done a good job. However, as the Post editorial board commented once during the Bush era simply "accepting responsibility" is not necessarily a demonstration of a commitment to core principles -- it's simply an acknowledgment that embarrassing facts are now publicly known.

As far as how the Post proceeds, it seems that some heads should roll at the top of the organization. There are some errors in judgment that are so contrary to the core mission that a failure to engage in a true course correction suggest a lack of commitment to the original core principles.

Posted by: JPRS | July 11, 2009 10:22 PM | Report abuse

Of course the Post is, or should be, a money-making enterprise. In the past they made money by making superb journalism. The Post was an essential part of the Washington scene. Now, that's changed. The Post is too cozy with the people they should be exposing. Rather than afflicting the comfortable, they are comforting the comfortable.

And when did the Post editorial page become a carbon copy of the Wall Street Journal?

Posted by: lowercaselarry | July 11, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

"And when did the Post editorial page become a carbon copy of the Wall Street Journal? =
Posted by: lowercaselarry"

Was that a rhetorical question? You know of course, that Mr. Broccoli came from that esteemed rag, the Wall Street Journal.

Posted by: pKrishna43 | July 11, 2009 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Many of the comments here are thoughtful.

It might serve the Post best to expand how it addresses this failing to look at redefining the Post's role in an age where its political coverage has been left in the dust by other reporting organizations, for instance.

The Post is no longer the organization that successfully challenged the highest authority in the land and played a major role in bringing Nixon down. But does it have to host - at the publisher's house no less - exclusive and secretive "salons?"

To air things out and revitalize the organization, however, new leadership is required, maybe with a temporary management team composed of board members and acknowledged industry leaders, with new management to follow one the Post has an idea of who it is, what it is doing, how it is doing it, and what resources it is willing to commit.

Posted by: MartinZook | July 11, 2009 11:51 PM | Report abuse

Can we please learn who actually paid for the dinner? This would be most interesting.

Posted by: williambanzai7 | July 12, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Interesting advices, thanks for collecting them, Mr. Alexander. Imho the Post management should take them to heart, especially the points about the necessity to uphold journalistic standards. As the feedback from the readers showed, that a value that is indispensable for newspapers. It's a main criterium of quality. And newspapers can only survive if they preserve and increase their quality, not if they reduce it because of monetary interests!

Posted by: Gray62 | July 13, 2009 3:43 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate Mr. Alexander's efforts to investigate the scandal, despite some obvious foot-dragging on the part of his superiors.

The firewall between the news room and advertising has been one of the core principles of modern journalism. When the LA Times broke that rule, it became a major scandal within the industry. But selling off-the-record political access to political lobbyists and Washington insiders is even worse. I don't how you expect your readers to take you seriously as a newspaper, when the news room is--quite literally--for sale.

The readers cannot trust the Post to "afflict the powerful" if the newspaper is beholden to corporate and governmental interests.

As was noted in some of the comments from veteran newspaper editors, the Post "...must realize that the core intent of allowing the monied elite to pay for unique access and input is the real problem here. The flier, the flier's tone and who approved the flier are bogus issues."

Please don't pat yourselves on the back because only two people canceled their subscriptions. Paid subscriptions--like the print edition--are a relic of the old paradigm. Most people under the age of 50 prefer to get their news online. And for those readers, your credibility as a newspaper has been called into question.

This damages your "brand", and no amount of hemming and hawing over the exact wording of the flier is going to undo the perception that the Post is selling political access off-the-record, and attempting to set itself up as a power broker for Washington insiders.

Posted by: Purplestatevoter | July 13, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

"Surprise.

All generally accepted truths notwithstanding, more than 96 percent of newspaper reading is still done in the print editions, and the online share of the newspaper audience attention is only a bit more than 3 percent." http://www.niemanlab.org/author/mlangeveld/

Print is still king! Who or what is the queen? Big fashion ads on broadsheets. I love broads...

Posted by: Dermitt | July 13, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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