News for Sale?

This morning, Politico reported that the Washington Post was offering lobbyists “off-the-record, non-confrontational” access to the paper’s own reporters and editors for a whopping fee of $25,000 to $250,000.

According to Politico, a promotional flyer for the first “Washington Post Salon,” focusing on health care, promised lobbyists an “exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done.” In addition to access to reporters and editors, the paper promised to hand-deliver Obama administration officials and members of Congress to any lobbyist willing to pay for access.

But within moments after news of the promotion hit social networks and blogs, the Post cancelled the plan.  “This should never have happened,” Katharine Weymouth, publisher of the Post, said in an article on the paper’s site. “The fliers got out and weren’t vetted. They didn’t represent at all what we were attempting to do. We’re not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom.”

The crisis in journalism has sparked unparalleled experimentation and innovation from new and old newsrooms alike. But this kind of “pay-for- access” model should be a non-starter in newsrooms, and it’s good to see leadership at the Post acting swiftly to shut down the ill-advised scheme.

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and an unprecedented drive to maximize profits at media conglomerates, we have seen too many examples of news organizations forgoing their independence in exchange for a place in the halls of power. TheseWashington Post salons would have taken this one step further, auctioning off its access to corporate lobbyists.

If held, this kind of an event would have been an outrageous violation of journalistic standards. While we know that journalism is in crisis around the country, and that the economic downturn has collided with fundamental technological, cultural and ideological changes, the future of journalism is not in selling access to reporters and contacts to the highest bidder.

The backlash against the Post was swift, spreading across social media and fueled by the marketing materials that seemed blind to the inherent conflicts of interest in this model. The promotional flyer for the salons said that these events  “are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard.”

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli took up the issue of journalistic ethics in the Post’s article, saying, “We do not offer access to the newsroom for money. We just are not in that business.”  He went on to say that the newsroom was never involved in this plan, nor would it have taken part in such an event.

Yet, the fact that this idea got as far as it did is another example of how Big Media serve corporate interests instead of the public interest. The notion of holding these events suggests that for the Post, the real stakeholders in the health care debate seemed to be lobbyists and the companies they represent, not the American people whom the Post is supposed to inform,  educate and represent.

It’s telling that throughout the flyer, the Post reassures corporate representatives that the conversation will be non-confrontational – there will be no afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted here.

The irony of this whole debacle is that journalists and policy makers ought to be getting in the same room more often. But we need them to be working together in search of policy solutions to the crisis in journalism and to ensure that our communities get the information they need – not to trade influence and cash in on their contacts.

If you are on Twitter, use this petition to thank the Washington Post’s editors for backing down and reinforce the fact that we need real public interest journalism.

For more on possible policy solutions to the crisis in journalism, download our reportSaving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy or visit

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