Lessons from Salongate

The New Republic is heralding a well-reported piece on problems at The Washington Post.  Get used to pieces like this.  As newspapers continue to struggle with declining or disappeared profits, the blame game will resemble a convention of political operatives from the Coakley campaign.

The villain of the TNR piece is Katharine Weymouth, who took over as publisher in 2008.  Her most visible error to date was to hatch a plan for “salons,” at which it appeared Washington’s elite would in effect pay a fee for access to top editors of the Post — all off the record and behind closed doors.

Gabriel Sherman, who wrote the piece, says, “…(O)ne thing seemed undeniable: The Washington Post was a desperate paper, and, in pushing the salons, Weymouth had essentially been casting about for anything, large or small, that might help to save it.”  Well, yeah.  What kind of publisher would you prefer?  “Steady as she goes, mates, just keep an eye out for icebergs.”

Ms. Weymouth probably had it backwards. In the Digital Age you want people coming in to be heard and made part of a transparent process.  Pay your editors, as you already do, to listen.  Live blog the proceedings.  Perhaps you edit the proceedings into certain discrete topics — health care reform, rush hour traffic, enhancing local tourism — and make them a premium paid offering on your web site. 

The point here is to give a maybe 1 1/2 cheers for Katharine II (she’s the granddaughter of the legendary Katharine Graham) because she realizes you can’t just stand on the bridge. Of course things are desperate. You’ve got to bail with one hand, and draw new routes through the icebergs with the other.  My hunch is that once she gets over the awful mess of “Salongate,” Ms. W might do well by her family’s newspaper.

(Matt Storin, the former editor of The Boston Globe, is currently an adjunct professor in the Gallivan Program for Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at Notre Dame University.)

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