Newspaper ombudsmen rarely, in my view, contribute all that much to our understanding of what’s happening. But Andrew Alexander’s column on the Washington Post industry-sponsored salons concept breaks from that mold and really adds value. Initially, this was explained to the public as a kind of rogue business staff operation gone off the rails without anyone on the editorial side knowing. But Alexander makes clear that that’s not the case. Charles Pelton was the key mover on the business side, and he was well aware that he ought to clear this concept with editorial before moving forward:
The e-mail said the plan to hold the dinners at Weymouth’s home “speaks to heavy editorial involvement” through “mixing different editors and beat reporters.” But in arguing for “background only” discussions, Pelton asked if they thought the discussions should be “on or off the record.” And while he endorsed the sponsorship idea, noting there would always be “more than one,” he also said “I want to be sure our newsroom is also comfortable” with the arrangement.
Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, Brauchli forwarded it to his top three editors — managing editors Raju Narisetti and Liz Spayd, as well as deputy managing editor Milton Coleman — asking their thoughts.
You should read the whole piece.
My bottom line is that realistically even if the news business recovers from the recession we’re looking at a more competitive future environment with lower profit margins. That means, in practice, much less editorial insulation from business considerations than was the case during midcentury. Everyone will tell you that advertisers or sponsors or donors or whatnot don’t influence their coverage, but I think everyone should be suspicious of those kind of claims. In the real world, he who pays the piper calls the tune at least to some extent. Which is ultimately why it’s important to have a media that contain diverse revenue models—commercial and non-commercial, subscription-based and ad-based, etc.—so that you don’t have too much systematic distortion of coverage.