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Keeping the Faith

By Andy Alexander

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.

By Andy Alexander  | July 13, 2009; 5:39 PM ET
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Next: Keeping Officials on the Record


"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."


The WaPo had good reporting back then (save for Janet Cooke), but not so much lately. The downward slide has been going on for several years, and it involves both the news and editorial staff.

That management has stepped in it is just a natural progression of what's been going on very noticed by the readers for quite some time. We had been predicting the WaPo's demise long before the latest faux pas.

It doesn't hurt my feelings that the newsroom feels betrayed. They've just come late to the party. Welcome to our world.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 13, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

As part of Post management's efforts to restore faith with disaffected readers:

1.They need to tell the readers what the PLAN to REBRAND the Washington Post is.

2.What they thought was wrong with the OLD BRAND.

(Embarrassing when the NYT breaks the story that Ms. Weymouth and senior Web and print editorial staff members went to Harvard a year ago to rethink The Washington Post BRAND.)

Posted by: milwaukee1 | July 13, 2009 11:48 PM | Report abuse

What a total joke the Washington Post has become, with the biggest punchlines right at the top of the masthead.

The "salons" were to be held at Katherine Weymouth's HOUSE, for crying out loud. Her "apology" lacks credibility. Her "acceptance of responsibility" is laughable. She and Brauchli are in the same positions of authority as they were when they cooked up this total abandonment of journalistic ethics.

If there were anything approaching journalistic ethics at the Washington Post, Weymouth and Brauchli would recognize that THEY committed CRIMES, for which PUNISHMENT is appropriate. They "apologize" and "take responsibility," and that supposedly erases the crime? Are you serious? If a bank robber returns the money and says he's sorry, does the crime go away, and he becomes entitled to quality service (and high deposit rates!) from the bank?

Janet Cooke lost her job, properly so, despite "apologizing" and "taking full responsibility" for committing journalistic fraud. Katherine Weymouth's entry on the masthead ought to have a title equivalent to "confessed felon."

The only reason I keep my Sunday-only subscription is because I estimate that I receive more than $1.50 worth in coupons, so economically, I come out ahead.

This past Sunday, there was no "Car Talk" column. Is that a temporary omission?

Katherine Weymouth and Marcus Brauchli--what hilarious jokes you are.

Posted by: LibertyDefender | July 14, 2009 2:07 AM | Report abuse

"Judging from reader reaction"
WHAT "reader reaction"? Looks like the Post's Web editors have now permanently disabled commentary to that story! Over the weekend, it was a tleast working arbitrarily, sometimes showing 0 comments, other times up to 334. Now, nothing!

What's this, some kind of undetermined censorship, editors not really knowing if they like the feedback or not? What has happened to our contributions? Would you pls follow up on this, Mr. Alexander?

And while you're at it, pls ask when, if at all, Ezra Klein will finally get his blog listed under "political blogs"! The guy is now #4 at the "Power Grade" of internet news site Mediaite (Woodward is at #5!), but still hasn't made it into WaPo's blog listing (in all fairness, sometimes his stories show up on "opinions", though). A guy nobody ever heard of, "Ben Pershing" (did he invent that military missile, maybe?), is listed there, but not Klein. What's behind this, a backlog at the division responsible for the web design? It would be really nice of you could provide an answer for this, too, Mr. Alexander.

Posted by: Gray62 | July 14, 2009 3:50 AM | Report abuse

Oops, my fault, the comments to your column are there. I just disabled in NoScript while experimenting with the bug in that function yesterday. But that annoying error is still there, making the commentary box showing up 333 comments for half a second, and then exchanging that for "0", disabling access to reading comments while doing so. Lots of readers complained about this in that long thread, and it sure looks like the problem is still unresolved.

Posted by: Gray62 | July 14, 2009 3:56 AM | Report abuse

As for your blog posting today, of course you're right in focussing on ways for the Post to repair the confidence again. And imho you have the right ideas, generally:

Yes. And start by PUBLISHING that standard! That the Post has an ombudsman (that's laudable), but no public accessible ethics standard that imforms the readers about WaPo's "rules of engagment" is a ridiculous combination!

Should be a no brainer. It was said that Brauchli preferred a removed, distant style of leadership, in stark contrast to the "hands on" approach of his predecessors. Good to hear that has changed, hopefully not only temporarily. And it may very well be that Brauchli's distance to the staff resulted in reporters and editors not daring to approach him with their objections against the "salons". A boss that has a more informal and cordial relationship to his team is much more likely to notice concerns and frustrations.

Sure. But people are only human, and its understandable that they are more concerned about their jobs right now, than about some business plans of the management that don't directly affect them. To raise loyalty and the team spirit again, and to encourage team leaders to look beyond their own horizon, it's necessary to stop the cost-cutting among the staff for now. The atmosphere has to clear up for productivity and responsibility to rise again. With the damocles sword of further job losses threatening everybody, with regular firings creating a lasting nervousness in the hearts and minds, no real turnaround will be possible.

To make people interested in their company again, you have to show them they have a future there. That sure is difficult right now, but it has to be done. After all, the Post's real capital is the experience, knowledge and skill of their workforce. And fear, uncertainty and doubt are unsuitable methods for maximizing the productivity of people. Everything depends now on the ability of the leadership to steer the company into calmer waters again. Let's hope they're up to that task.

Posted by: Gray62 | July 14, 2009 4:30 AM | Report abuse

Please define good journalism Mr. Alexander. From your blogs and columns I cannot believe you know it anymore.

You have excused sloppy reporting because stories need to get out quickly and at low cost, and sloppy editing because the newspaper needs to save money by cutting staff.

The Post is weak and uninteresting in investigative journalism and poor in breaking stories -- you were scooped badly by the Wall Street Journal on the CIA story this week.

This newspaper has sunk to the level of its perceived competition. In the 80s and 90s this was special interest magazines like People and Washingtonian. Today it is Internet blogs.

This newspaper has become besotted with opinion and gossip in a deperate desire to become cutting edge, a middle aged parent in a psychedelic painted mini van.

Like most modern news outlets it spends more time reporting on reporting and reporting technologies than actually reporting stories. The rest of the time it whines about the changing environment and how unfair and hard it is to compete and be profitable.

The only place journalism is even close to practised in this paper is the Sports section with some nod to your automotive section and Business.

The Post needs to do two things:
1. It needs to come clean. It needs to release the e-mails and other internal memoes that give the true story of what happened so we can believe what the management said is TRUE, and not just the pablum of damage control.

2. It needs to return to fundamentals: well edited stories, fact based, genuine reporting, not sloppy blogging.

Posted by: krushX | July 14, 2009 6:59 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander,

You make an excellent point that the Post should "SET THE STANDARD ON ETHICS." I might suggest the paper begin by cleaning up the misinformation and distortions that appear on the editorial pages starting with Mr. Will and Mr. Krauthammer whose distortions and outright falsehoods have be pointed out to you on numerous occasions.

Your response to me on this subject was that you were not allowed to tread on Mr. Hiatt's turf. In light of the current ethical failures, are you and Mr. Hiatt reconsidering that position.

Posted by: georgesmathers | July 14, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Keep their feet to the fire, Andy. Backsliding is easy, especially after this brouhaha subsides. While you and Milton Coleman are at it, explain to us all the Post's policy on conflict of interest by its reporters. Still can't figure out how Howard Kurtz can get a regular paycheck from Time Warner when CNN is part of his media beat. Are financial reporters, for instance, allowed to draw regular compensation from corporations they cover? Or sports reporters from teams? Explain the difference, please, if there is one.

Posted by: Viewfinder | July 14, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse


Mr. Alexander, you stated in your article that you had received 330 online comments and 100 e-mails concerning the 'INFAMOUS FLIER'.

You may want to also take a close look at the drop in 'SUBSCRIPTIONS' and 'SALES'. That will give you a better indication as to reader 'BACKLASH'.

If the Washington Post has any 'AMBITIONS', of being competitive in the news business, your readers, will have be your greatest 'PRIORITY'.


Posted by: austininc4 | July 14, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander,
I am still trying to get a handle on how Joe Average Citizen living in Smallville Illinois gets a chance to attend one of these "salons" and express his opinion to "the people who will really make it happen".

Let's say, for example, that 60% of the Joe Average Citizens in the United States support a public option for health care similar to Germany's. The powerful private interests who will be invited to attend your salon (whether there is pay-to-play or not) are opposed to a public option. The salon is held behind closed doors and key members of Congress and the Administration attend. The WaPo's coverage of the health care situation will also be changed by its attendance at the salon. Whose view will carry greater weight in the situation with "the people who will make it happen": the powerful interest's or Joe Average Citizen's Who is in attendance?


Posted by: sphealey | July 14, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to "georgesmathers," Mr. Will, Mr. Krauthammer and their worldviews have every right to their op-ed space, part of a First Amendment-friendly marketplace of ideas. They're professional columnists, not members of a government in exile. The problem of Hiattism rests with the likes of Mr. Kristol and Mr. Gerson, predictable agenda-driven, revolving-door hacks -- hired guns, if you will -- whose trade is insider politics, as ideological players, not as credible, fair-minded journalistic commentators. Compare their work to that of, say, David Brooks, and the difference should be obvious. Conservatism and the neocon-leaning Post opinion pages undermine themselves by relying on writing by Dan Quayle's brain and George W. Bush's ventriloquist. As for Mr. Kristol, isn't appearing in his own magazine enough? Then again, conflicts of interest -- serving two masters -- don't seem to bother the Post much these days. Party on.

Posted by: Viewfinder | July 14, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Giving Sarah Palin a megaphone from which to print a propaganda article obviously not penned by her without a lot of help and without disclosure as to who is doing the helping is a new low. This paper has become the print version of Fox News.

Posted by: SarahBB | July 14, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

DEar Mr. Alexander,

Good journalism--being straight with readers--keeping faith with readers. All good goals. So, as a first step, why don't you print the author of what is billed as the op-ed by Sarah Palin. It is an insult to your reader's intelligence to assume that Governor Palin actually wrote that piece. Who did? And why does the Washington Post print phony essays, as if they were legitimate?

Posted by: lowercaselarry | July 15, 2009 1:39 AM | Report abuse

I really do not understand why you have kept , kristol, Krauthammer, Gershon, Diehl, and even Samuelson on your Opinion Writers. They do not represent the view of majority of Americas and also Not the Jewish population of The U.S. (less than 5% of US population), They have very radical Zionist view which is not supported by majority of Jews let alone Americans. Is it because WP also support the radical Zionist view. Please remember the world is getting familiar with the real fascist idea of Zionism. And Zionism by ruling Israel has hurt the interest of Americans for a long time now.
Marchello, Snellville, GA.

Posted by: thebullss | July 15, 2009 3:00 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Andy Alexander, the Ombudsman wrote: “Post management faces a rough road in restoring faith with disaffected readers.” With having 90% neocons, radical Fascist Zionist, whom they die for Israel, no matter what, and have been stabbing America for a long time, on board, do you really expect any different form your wise readers? The problem with your Fascist Zionist Opinion writer is; that they still think Americans are politically dumb. And they are still writing for bunch of Southern Baptist, and Evangelist whom they believe anything that these Fascist Zionist writes. I really do not understand why you have kept , kristol, Krauthammer, Gershon, Diehl, and even Samuelson on your Opinion Writers. They do not represent the view of majority of Americas and also Not the Jewish population of The U.S. (less than 5% of US population), They have very radical Zionist view which is not supported by majority of Jews let alone Americans. Is it because WP also support the radical Zionist view. Please remember the world is getting familiar with the real fascist idea of Zionism. And Zionists by ruling Israel has hurt the interest of Americans for a long time now.
Marchello, Snellville, Ga.

Posted by: thebullss | July 15, 2009 3:26 AM | Report abuse

So what is the deal with ghost written editorials, Is there a WaPo policy?

And please, don't write back to email FH. Last time you sent a broken link, and we all know Fred only talks to the think tank guys who make his job so mindless....

As a previous poster has noted, it is an insult to your readers.

Posted by: protagoras | July 15, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

“Many of them question their future...” “Doctor Robert H. Goddard, the “Father of Modern Rocketry,” put it as well as anyone has when in 1904, he said: It is difficult to say what is impossible for the dreams of yesterday are the hopes of today and the realities of tomorrow.” Aerospace-The Challenge, Civil Air Patrol, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. I tried to tell her that if she believed in her dreams that they would all come true and they will.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 15, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Um, yeah.

Well, if I relied on the Post for anything, I'd still be a daily subscriber. But OK, I suppose you're right. If there's one thing the Post could do that would so shock me that I would forget about this scandal, it would be to provide quality journalism.

Not holding my breath, though.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 15, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Apologies are nice. Accountability is what is missing. Who resigned or was fired?

The slide in the quality of the Post didn't start with the salon lunacy. It's been going on for years. It's both journalism and the editorial page. One could argue that the fact that the newsroom just noticed it is merely another symptom of the illness.

Can anyone imagine the Post breaking a Watergate story these days? Hardly.

Posted by: CardFan | July 15, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Number One, this is Number Two.
For Christ's sake what do you want?
I've got a MiG in my...

Now what? First it was the military-industrial complex, then came the post-industrial period. Now it is the Post Military Age. “This is going to be the easiest kill I ever had, I just knew he was going to be splatter.” Yes sir Major. Now what should be done about Number One and her troubles? Take her out to the base and strap her into the F-15 Eagle and takeoff, climb up straight vertically and level off upside down. The maneuver, completed by rolling the jet right side up allows the pilot to go from vertical to horizontal without suffering the discomfort of blood rushing to her head-a phenomenon known as redout-that would result if the jet leveled off by pushing the jets nose down at the apex of his climb. After this, take Number One out over the Sea of Tranquility at 1650 MPH and then barrel roll her over a few times for old times sake and return to base. That should get her trigger happy and Lord knows that we need a more trigger happy press. Do not splatter her, she has little people waiting for her back at Tranquility Base and they need her more than anyone else in this whole wide world. There's a story for the kids, new on the frontier.
High morale only demands that you rely on your skill, so don't let morale get low. You'll be disappointed and we can't have any of that. Everything else is fair game. “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, a magnificent desolation.” We were three then. That's when it all started, then we were five and last year suddenly it got a whole lot crazier. Up into a rolling scissors-advantage-disadvantage-disengaged-came back-and up into the vertical again. Who was the best pilot who ever lived? I looked up Cooper and the World Book said, “see barrel.” He had the Right Stuff and Faith. Keep rolling Number One.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 16, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Katharine Weymouth's participation in the planning of the "salons" and everything leading up to the outing probably seemed like a good idea for someone whose "experience" was in the legal offices and the advertising department.

Maybe she should have spent some time as an actual reporter. A few classes in ethics would not have been remiss either.

Posted by: cadet70 | July 16, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

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