Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Washington Post

Financial pressures are slowly squeezing the life out of news organizations, whether world-wide or local. Regretfully hundreds of quality journalists are losing their jobs and actual news coverage is being reduced. Now even ethical boundaries are being challenged.

Print, web, television and radio organizations are all feeling revenue pressure. The "Great Recession" has had a devastating impact on bottom lines across the board as advertising budgets have been sharply reduced. Already news consumers had been increasingly divided among an ever-growing number of news content providers. Mass media outlets have massively increased to include Yahoo and Google news, news aggregation sites and bloggers.

Traditional media has taken a real thumping. While the venerable news program 60 Minutes finishes among the top ten rated programs each week, its total audience is about half what it was a quarter century ago. Meanwhile the revenue from a commercial spot on the program has also decreased because there is so much news inventory available for advertisers on all platforms. 60 Minutes has just wrapped up what may have been its best season ever editorially, yet it is struggling to stay out of the red.

The Gannett Company, owner of newspapers and television outlets, announced this week that about 1,400 positions would be cut from its community publishing division. The Arizona Republic in Phoenix is cutting 100 positions, The Des Moines Register is laying off 36 and more than 120 positions will be cut at its newspapers in New Jersey. The New York Times has cut staff, and it is having difficulty off-loading the Boston Globe. The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune are fighting for their lives. Sure, all of these companies have focused more on expanding their web presence, but Internet revenues are still very small.

So it is no wonder that those guiding major news organizations would search for alternative sources of income. And it has always been a regular practice for some news organizations to have editorial meetings with newsmakers. For instance, the former Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham, frequently hosted and personally paid for "salon" dinners at her home for key Washington figures.

So the idea of "Washington Post" salon dinners, held at the publisher's home with the executive editor and key reporters in attendance, seemed like a logical extension of past practice. Except the dinners would be sponsored. In fact, solicitations went out seeking $25,000 from up to two sponsors per event. And the sessions would be "off the record," meaning that information from the dinners could not be used in the newspaper. Kaiser Permanente, a leading health care organization, had verbally agreed to sponsor an off-the-record dinner scheduled for July 21 and co-hosted by the Post's health care reporter.

Most major news organizations have standards and policies to guide their daily practices. One major policy is "conflict of interest." If a reporter or news organization receives money or other valuables from another person, company or organization, it may influence, or appear to influence, their coverage. Credibility and trust are the inviolable bonds that link a news organization with its readers.

The Washington Post's policy reads, "This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible." Clearly these dinners were a violation of the newspaper's own standards, as well as common sense. Even if there had been 10 dinners over the course of a year they would have netted well less than $500,000 in total. Publisher Katharine Weymouth, Graham's granddaughter, and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli are very smart and accomplished journalists. The Washington Post has done a remarkable job covering President Barack Obama's transition, the financial crisis, Capitol Hill and recent world news.

"This episode has left a scar that will be visible for years," wrote Andrew Alexander, the Post's ombudsman, this past Sunday, "and it has badly shaken the newsroom." I believe the Washington Post is still an outstanding newspaper. And while this incident is most unfortunate, it serves notice to journalists everywhere that they must always remain vigilant.

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