Archive for July 7th, 2009

Washington Post–how much is access to a journalist worth?

July 7, 2009

What if you could get inside access to one of the nation’s most influential journalists? Lots of clients pay big PR agents and firms lots of money, lots and lots of money, for the purpose of getting greater access to top-level journalists. But what if newspapers or news outlets in their business crisis decided to just skip the whole PR agency thing and charge for access?

I’m not saying that is what is going on at the Washington Post, but the “salon” event at the home of the publisher is starting to walk, talk and quack like a duck.

This is interesting from several perspectives. For one thing, it is a major–I mean major–reputation crisis for the Washington Post. And since most reputation crises involve how to deal with media reporting around the crisis, it is also doubly fascinating to watch news organization manage media crises. The apologies are streaming forthwith, as are the “that’s not what we meant at all” and “someone inside really screwed up.” Fine. I’ll accept that. A marketing person did what was expected of them and sold the event based on benefits to those who would pay $250,000 to participate in this very special meeting. Since journalists from the Washington Post would be there, would it be too much to say that this would give those attending some kind of inside access? I think not. But whoa, what  does that mean? Now you have to buy a good story? And what it does it mean for the readers?

Reminds me of a good size public crisis I was involved in a number of years ago regarding a forestry project on the southern tip of South America, in Tierra del Fuego. Environmental activists were getting up in arms about the potential large scale forestry project. A very negative and very incorrect article appeared in the newspaper in Ushuaia. The employees from the company I was working with were in Ushuaia and met with the newspaper. They offered a substantial sum of money to buy advertising in the paper to get their story out. The editor or publisher asked them if they would like their story in advertising form or in news form. They asked me what they should take and I said news form, of course.

But if you can buy the news, what does it mean for the readers? Are we getting to this level of journalistic integrity. The no, no, no’s we hear from the publisher certainly suggest the concern she has that people might interpret it that way. She is very right to be concerned about public perception around this.

I think it is a very good thing this little problem has erupted. It will make everyone a lot more sensitive to the very real temptation to allow journalism to be tainted with corruption in the business crisis they are in. Maybe it will help protect the integrity for just a bit longer.