Friday, July 03, 2009

The News Is Too Valuable For the Likes of You

Personally, I have never yet met a newspaper publisher so entrancing that I'd pony up a minimum of 25 grand to have dinner at their house, but some bright people at the Washington Post felt there was a big market for catered pomposity in their town, and they know the territory.

The Post was planning to host a series of intimate supper parties at the home of publisher Katherine Weymouth. Persons interested in health care reform legislation would pay the freight for gatherings of lobbyists, Obama administration officials, Congressional staffers, and oh, yes, Post reporters and editors, in which the topic of health care reform would be discussed in what was advertised as "spirited, but not confrontational" circumstances. And, it need hardly be added, off the record circumstances.

Only in our nation's capital would wonkery be considered a fitting companion for wine. But we assume that public spirited citizens with last names such as Merck and Pfizer were considered the target audience of this unique marketing effort.

The whole thing blew up yesterday when some lobbyist leaked the Post's idea to the Web site Politico. Even for Washington, even for LOBBYISTS, this deal was considered a bit over the top, ethically speaking. Within hours of their discovery by the public, the dinners were canceled.

As a former newspaper person, I'm laughing about this. It beats my alternatives, which are weeping and blind rage. It's a singular revelation, after all. The second-most influential newspaper in the U.S. is run by people who are a) totally corrupt and b) even stupider than they are self-dealing.

An old-fashioned newspaper might seek to uncover and disclose secret meetings between lobbyists and public officials about legislation affecting the lives of its readers. The Post was going to hold them-for cash on the barrel. Its reporters would be at the meetings not to find things out, but to facilitate discussions, presumably by disclosing information they had previously withheld from those readers.

In short, the Post decided that since the news business isn't making any money, it would diversify into the influence business, creating congenial settings for government to function without any of those pesky citizens barging in and spoiling things. A well-informed public may be the bulwark of democracy, but it isn't doing a damn thing for the stock price of Washington Post Co.

Look, anyone who thinks that newspapers haven't always been influenced by their business sides has dinner with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus every night. Two of the biggest stories of recent history, the way U.S. automobiles went to crap in the '70s and '80s, and the housing bubble, received little coverage relative to their importance, because they made major advertisers unhappy. But there is a difference, however slight, between ignoring news for the sake of money and CREATING news for the sake of money which you then keep secret.

Before further delving into the evil of this idea, let's pause to consider its idiocy. Despite publishing a daily newspaper which runs many stories every edition consisting of anonymous leaks from axe-grinding sources, the management of the Post apparently never considered the possibility that someone would leak THIS story. As my old friend Ted Sarandis might say, Wow!

And of course, the dinner parties were canceled for good within hours after the Politico story hit the Internet. This only demonstrates that the Post KNEW it was up to no good. To their credit, the editors and reporters at the paper were horrified and indignant. Management was merely sad it got caught.

It oughta be. In marketing terms, the Post has urinated on itself. Any subscriber to the paper from now on should read every word in it, including the crossword puzzle, with two thoughts in mind. Who paid for this? How much? That's a terrible shame for the many honest, diligent reporters on the Post staff, especially the ones risking their lives in places like Afghanistan. But they have been compromised by the greed of their superiors.

I will never again work in newspapers. It's just a fact of economics combined with my age. But I still have emotional ties to the business. I don't want my former colleagues to lose their jobs. I believe newspapers serve an important role in society. For democracy to work, people need to know stuff. America is a large place. To find stuff out, you need large news-gathering organizations. In my time, the Herald was hardly a journal of record. It was still a pretty good read for less than a buck. Compare that to the monthly cable-Internet access bill.

But at the same time, I see things as a reader now. And the Post brouhaha is one of an increasing number of stories which shriek that newspapers deserve to die. They are being cannibalized by owners seeking an escape from their own wretched business decisions. They are devolving to the ignoble purpose of providing a forum wherein otherwise anonymous rich people get to shoot their mouths off and meddle in public affairs to benefit their wallets. They are, simply, less worth their modest cost than they used to be.

The old boast was newspapers published "without fear or favor." Nowadays, they publish with almost nothing else.


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