Washington Post Advertisers Want Cheerier Stories

Time for another blogger ethics panel:

Weymouth, publisher of The Post, told the story’s author, freelance journalist Matt Mendelsohn, at a brunch earlier this year that advertisers “wanted happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones,” Mendelsohn wrote in an online posting. His story was about a 26-year-old woman whose arms and legs had been amputated.

Post executive editor Marcus Baruchli, of course, wants to deny that the story was killed for business reasons:

“Whatever Katharine may have felt about the piece was immaterial to the editorial process,” Brauchli said. “We are not driven by what one of our business-side colleagues, or even our publisher, thinks about a piece. We follow a journalistic compass.”

But though Weymouth agrees that she didn’t specifically have Mendelsohn’s piece killed, she says that the paper’s editorial staff is, in fact, taking her direction about which kinds of stories to run:

Weymouth said Monday night that any impact she had was “completely inadvertent, because I would never interfere in an editorial decision and I had no intention of interfering.” She said that she had not even read Mendelsohn’s story, but that she had “used it as an example” with editors “of the kind of fare we should be moving away from.”

Honestly, I think the world might be better off if newspapers that are also subsidiaries of for profit companies just admit that that’s what they are and that, obviously, business considerations are relevant to the way the paper is run. Newspapers’ quasi-monopoly status during the classical 1960s-70s era of newspapering allowed the fiction that a newsroom has nothing to do with business to be fairly tenable. But in the pre-radio days when the newspaper market was highly competitive, everyone understood that the newsroom was part of a business. And this is a generally understood element of magazine journalism, and for-profit journalism in a broadcast and internet context. If you want coverage that’s untainted by commercial considerations, you should look for coverage done by non-commercial enterprises. The tradeoff is that non-commercial coverage may be shaped by fundraising considerations. But insofar as it costs money to produce content, the nature of the content that exists will be shaped by the quest for revenue. Note, for example, the insane proliferation of slideshows on commercial websites which is apparently driven by the fact that these are a good way to juice pageview stats.


At any rate, the alternative of having various Post editors and business officials contradicting themselves doesn’t seem to me likely to help anyone think through the dilemmas clearly. These issues exist whether people want to admit to it or not, but admitting to their existence seems like an important first step to coping with them.