When times are tough, the old business adage goes, it's important not to look desperate. And, what with declining readership, loss of ad revenue and an increasingly crowded field of competitors, things are deeply grim for newspapers. Which only made the Washington Post's new revenue-generating idea even more mystifying. The wording on an invitation it sent out, as first reported on Politico, offers business executives "an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth." That is, if the invitees pony up between $25,000 (to sponsor one dinner) and $250,000 (to sponsor 11 dinners buy 10, get one free!).
Weymouth's decor and catering are perfectly acceptable, we hear, but what really made the evening worth the coin is the guest list. Joining the CEO at the intime gathering of 20, according to the flier, would be "Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds," plus "health-care reporting and editorial staff members of The Washington Post." In other words, for a fee, businesses and lobbyists could have access to the sort of high-level opinion makers that the Post has access to as well as the journalists, all in a cozy, off-the-record gathering, where they could "build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting." The flier referred to the event as a "salon" and called it "an opportunity to influence the debate." Most other media outlets called it paying for access, or a breach of journalistic ethics 101.
By 1 p.m. on the day news broke of the event, it had been canceled.
Even after that, though, Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli was still pretty steamed. He knew, he says, that the Post was developing an events and conferences business, as a way of "extending our franchise." He knew there would be events at Weymouth's house. But he didn't know the details. Ah, and those details. "I think there are ways of structuring events that are respectful of journalism," he says. "This wasn't even close."
Brauchli spent much of the morning calling news organizations clarifying his newsroom's stance. "We insist on remaining journalists at any event," he says. "Anything said at the conferences would be allowed to shape and inform our coverage." So much for off the record. And most importantly, Post journalists were not going to be pimping the event, calling around their sources and contacts in the Administration to get them to come to the dinner, as the invitation seemed to imply.
That, we guess, would have been the job of Weymouth, 42, who is the granddaughter of Post's longtime publisher, Katharine Graham, and has only been the Washington Post's CEO since February of last year. Unlike her uncle Donald Graham, current chairman of the Washington Post Co., and the man she is expected to succeed, Weymouth, 42, never worked as a journalist, joining the family company in 1996 as a lawyer.
Either way, it's the Post's name that would have drawn prominent figures to the event. And it's the Post's name that has been besmirched by what was at best extremely poor party planning and at worst a breach of the line between the editorial and commercial imperatives of a newspaper.
Perhaps if there are any cautionary tales to be drawn from the Post Party Plan incident apart from the fact that you should always copyedit your invitations it's that credibility and prestige are two of the most valuable assets the mainstream media has. In attempting to monetize them, it has to be extremely careful not to fritter them away.