Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lessons from The Washington Post's fiasco over off-the-record corporate dinners

The Washington Post may have done a service by shooting itself in the foot so badly with its proposed off-the-record dinners for corporate execs and lawmakers at the publisher's house.

By pushing the concept of charging people to hear journalists' and decision-makers' views to such an extreme, the Post may have helped clarify where the line should be drawn. It seems like it should have been obvious, but maybe it's not so simple in times like these when journalists are celebrities and news organizations are scrambling to find new sources of revenue.

Basically, the Post in a flier it quickly renounced when Politico made it public, offered lobbyists and others off-the-record access to its publisher, editor and key journalists along with powerful government officials - for a price.

Clearly, the Post was way over the line. Yet what it was trying to do builds on what other esteemed news organizations already are doing. You can't read a copy of The New York Times without finding out about an event where the famous and the paper's journalists can be seen and heard together, for a fee. And The Wall Street Journal hosts an "All Things Digital" conference every year where influential people covered by the paper show up and participate.

As the Post's own Howard Kurtz points out in his story on the controversy, "A number of media companies charge substantial fees for conferences with big-name executives and government officials, but in many cases the sessions are open for news coverage."

So what are the issues, and where should the line be drawn?

Every day journalists interview the "powerful" and share what they learn with their readers. That's their job. There may be lots of acceptable ways to do it.

So the first key seems to be that any such session must be "on-the-record." Journalists always call for transparency on the part of the people they cover; they should hold themselves to the same standard. It's one thing for journalists to agree to an off-the-record interview to gain understanding of an issue; it's another for them to offer the benefits of that access to one group who pays an exorbitant fee but not to another who doesn't. And the same holds true for the politicians who grant that access. Do they really want to be pegged as people who speak only to those with the money to buy access to them? I don't think so, despite how it sometimes seems.

Insisting that such events be on-the-record helps when you come to the second question: Should corporations be able to sponsor events put on by newspapers? Look, they already pay for the advertising that makes it possible for newspapers to publish. The issue isn't whether corporations pay to sponsor events; it's whether they have an influence over what's said at the event, over the agenda - or if there's even the appearance that they have an influence. If the answer is yes, then there's a real problem. But I don't see a problem with businesses partnering with newspapers to bring more information to a community. That last word is key: community. Not to a select few. But to anyone who wants to attend in person, or today, preferably also over the Internet, even if after the fact. Again, transparency matters.

To ensure that there's no appearance of impropriety, the third requirement is that such events cannot be at the publisher's house or at any other private location. (It's one thing for the publisher to invite anybody she wants to dinner at her house on her own dime; it's another to get companies to pay to have dinner with her and powerful politicians she drags in for the purpose.) Such paid events must be in public locales where anybody can purchase a ticket, where no publisher, corporation or government official can exercise a veto over who can attend.

That brings me to the money. How much should be charged? I think that's up to the news organization. Make the cost prohibitive and what it says is that the outlet wants to be exclusive. Make it reasonable, and it sends a different message. Find different ways to make the content accessible to people and it looks like the organization is actually tuned into serving its community. Politicians and others can make their decision on whether to participate in part based on the fact that the event will be public and public knowledge. Again, transparency matters.

Now, comes the truly thorny issue: Should newspapers pay sources - government officials, business leaders, movie stars - to appear on panels or at meetings where the newspaper is going to make money?

Politicians talk to newspapers every day either because they feel it's their responsibility or because they want to get their message out, or some of both. If the panels are all on-the-record, then there's not much difference in politicians appearing at public events put on by the paper as long as they don't receive a fee. Remember, newspapers differentiate themselves from other news organizations by claiming they never pay for access. They don't pay people to talk to them. But what about if they do pay the powerful to appear and help further their business interests? They can't have it both ways.

The best solution to resolve this dilemma seems to be a public (transparent) honorarium that covers the expenses of the speaker to attend the event, but that's it. Anything beyond that and there's a problem.

So here's hoping the Post finds ways to inform more people and earn more money through means other than the daily newspaper. Events and conferences could well be among them. But if they are, the paper still has to uphold its principles. Now the Post owes its readers - and staff - a full explanation of what those principles are.

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