Keeping the Faith
Judging from reader reaction to my weekend column on the “salons” controversy, Post management faces a rough road in restoring faith with disaffected readers. So far, about 330 have commented online and more than 100 others have e-mailed -- almost all expressing anger and betrayal.
But management’s greater challenge may be to restore faith with its own staff. In the short run, it’s arguably more important.
The episode has hurt newsroom morale, already suffering from buyouts and organizational upheaval as The Post repositions for the future. It comes at a time when a relatively new management team is still coalescing with the staff. Some reporters and lower-level editors believe the ethical lapse, in trying to sell sponsorships of off-the-record “salon dinners” involving journalists, would never have occurred under previous Post regimes.
Winning newsroom support and confidence is critical. That, in turn, will result in the kind of journalism that wins reader trust. The quickest way to take readers’ minds off this incident is to give them the type of quality journalism that reminds them why they rely on The Post.
Publisher Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli have acknowledged that the key to rebounding is solid journalism.
“I think the most important thing we need to do is continue to do great journalism every single say,” Weymouth told me last week.
“Our journalism, day in and day out, shows our commitment to our values,” Brauchli said. “And it was, and is, unaffected by this episode.”
They are correct. It’s a tall order, especially at a time when the newspaper is losing money and they are forced to manage transformational change in a climate of decline.
Here are some ideas:
SET THE STANDARD ON ETHICS. In the aftermath of the “salons” disclosure, Weymouth ordered an internal review of Post business-side ethical practices to ensure they don’t “compromise our journalism.” At the same time, she also asked Brauchli and senior editor Milton Coleman to “codify parameters for Post newsroom participation in live events.” The Post’s “salons” incident has revealed that numerous news organizations, including others in Washington, have been engaged in variations of events that put journalists in cozy settings with newsmakers. The Post has the opportunity to clarify the ethical boundaries. New standards should be disclosed to readers. By setting the ethical bar high, and by taking the lead, The Post can build trust with its own journalists and the public.
BE VISIBLE AND INCLUSIVE. Brauchli spent the early part of last week in sometimes painful meetings with departments throughout the newsroom. He apologized and invited tough questions about what had gone wrong – and he got them. At the same time, Weymouth was visible throughout the newsroom. This is the right approach, and the more the better. In times of crisis, the worst thing managers can do is retreat. Now is the time for top management to broaden the inner circle and ramp up the dialogue.
EVERYONE NEEDS TO LEAD. Great news organizations excel in the face of adversity. Leaders need to lead. But they can’t do it alone. Those below them can lead in their own way. One way is by offering ideas and solutions. Another way is to speak up when they think something is wrong. As my column noted, some lower-level newsroom managers said they had enough basic information about the "salon" dinners to know they might pose ethical concerns, but they failed to raise the issue. Going forward, they should. Everyone needs to lead, regardless of where they are on the organizational chart.
Weymouth and Brauchli have been roundly criticized by readers and journalists for allowing the flawed “salons” idea to get as far as it did. They were wrong in not stopping it.
But it’s worth noting some of the things they’ve done right since the controversy erupted.
They’ve apologized. They’ve accepted responsibility. They’ve pledged to review and revise policies. They took tough questions from staffers and the ombudsman. And they committed to quality journalism as the key to recovery.
Sadly, not all news executives would react this way.
In the end, it was quality journalism that restored the broken bond of trust between The Post and its readers in 1980, when reporter Janet Cooke was forced to give back the Pulitzer Prize because she fabricated the award-winning story.
It took time, but The Post rebounded. It can again.
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