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ON THE MEDIA

Journalism 'salons' needn't be hair-raising

The furor over the Washington Post's now-canceled plan to sell access to reporters and insiders doesn't mean newspapers shouldn't find new ways to market themselves.

July 08, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

When it comes to righteous indignation, you can't outdo newspaper people. We spring angrily to the battlements any time anyone in our business tries to defile our sacred honor by, you know, making money.

Sometimes the vigilance finds worthy targets, as it did last week with the Washington Post's plan to sell influential insiders access to its journalists, to lawmakers and to Obama administration policy czars.

I just wish newspapers were as creative in finding legitimate ways to market themselves (by, for example, selling increased access to their star columnists and experts) as they are in sticking to the tried and true, which won't pay the bills the way it once did.

Why aren't more newspapers holding food festivals or sponsoring seminars to cook or sample cuisines with their food and restaurant writers? Couldn't critics lead discussion groups at music, theater and film festivals?

If a couple of sportswriters slug it out in print over whether to bench the star quarterback, I'd bet their feud would make good (paid) theater. A panel of jocks and readers in the audience could pick a winner in the debate. Losing scribe gets voted off the story for the remainder of the season.

I'm just musing here. And a lone special event isn't going to produce enough revenue to prop up the industry. But a few more dollars from a festival here and a weekend workshop therecould bring in enough cash to prevent a few newsroom layoffs.

"Newspapers are and should continue to be recognized as very authoritative about what is going on in their communities," said Alan Mutter, the San Francisco-based analyst who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog. "Some publications are struggling to maintain their relevance and these special events with readers are a very legitimate function for them to fulfill."

In journalism there's always a balancing of competing priorities. In this arena, trouble arises when outlets dirty up their established brand and priorities as they grope for a new incarnation.

That's essentially what happened last week when the website Politico uncovered a flier trying to lure lobbyists and others to pay to meet in intimate "salons" with the Washington Post's publisher, editor and reporters, along with members of Congress and the Obama administration.

The paper planned to charge anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 (for multiple sessions) for this privileged access to meetings that would be off the record and outside public view.

After a furor and considerable push-back from her newsroom, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth canceled the sessions.

The problem, neatly capsulized by Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, was that the proposed sessions undermined an unwritten tenet that journalists should give "their highest allegiance to their audience."

"These salons put the paper in the role of taking money to help lobbyists gain special access to government officials," added Rosenstiel, "with no apparent benefit to public discussion."

The Post controversy had begun to die down this week, until a story on the Talking Points Memo website suggested a much more insidious insider-ism throughout Washington media outlets. TPM focused on the Atlantic magazine's long-running dinners, sponsored by corporations and providing exclusive, off-the-record access for insiders.

One Atlantic scribe whom I talked to wasn't quite buying Publisher David Bradley's rebuttal that the magazine's off-the-record rules had prompted "a great deal of constructive conversation."

My source (who didn't want to be named because he didn't want to run afoul of his bosses) doubted the journalistic benefit of the sessions, saying: "What insight do you ever get at these things, unless it's that someone has a bad temper or drinks too much?"

At least the Atlantic invites a broad spectrum of movers and shakers to its dinners. If it would provide public transcripts (perhaps on a delayed basis, so participants got some added benefit for their money) it would reassure its regular readers that their interests remained front and center.

Journalists who let these ethical standards lapse are playing with their future viability. "News organizations need to innovate new revenue streams," Rosenstiel said. "But they need to do it in a way that does not damage their credibility, or those revenue benefits will be short-lived indeed."

Some publications moved years ago to establish more intimate, and lucrative, ties to their readers.

The Nation magazine will embark this December on its 12th annual "seminar cruise" -- a trip around the Caribbean with some of the journal's writers, along with headliners including Howard Dean and E.L. Doctorow.

Total take? Roughly $250,000. Nothing to sneeze at as the liberal citadel (like other political magazines) struggles to remain in print.

General interest newspapers could go cruising only if they shipped out with a more ideologically balanced, nonpartisan crew. But they might by adopting any number of other themes (think features and entertainment) that would present few, if any, ethical hang-ups.

Maybe a cooking seminar down in the galley, or an art history workshop in the dining room. Or what's that up on the top deck? Could it be the movie critic and a name director, dissecting the year's films?

Newspapers often start the conversation in print. They might as well profit by keeping it going, live and in person.

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On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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