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Defending WaPo – the journalist as a co-creation agent

July 6, 2009

Late last week, the Washington Post received a spate of unwanted coverage. In a nutshell, the paper sought to recreate the salons of its past – intimate dinner gatherings of decision-makers, hosted in the home of famed, former publisher, Katharine Graham. While the salons were clearly rooted in precedence, the attempt this time around to seek corporate sponsorships caught the ire of the news media, Post journalists included.

In fact, the press has been unanimous in its condemnation of the current Post publisher’s idea to host a sponsored dinner on healthcare (and potentially other topics) that would bring together regulators, corporate providers, and its own journalists. (The current Post publisher is the late Mrs. Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth).

The idea of charging corporations $25,000 to participate in such a dinner is indeed objectionable in that it amounts to selling access to both regulators and the paper’s own journalists. (The Post has explained the intended fee-basis as an over-aggressive marketing ploy.)

But underneath this stinky wrapper lies the more intriguing idea that the journalists’ role is to participate in the co-creation of a point of view on the industry across the interests of regulators and corporations. Doing this job requires access to both, and the idea of a dinner platform to foster an off-the-record dialogue between all three constituencies encourages a modern and accurate view of journalism, particularly if compared with the popular myth of the independent newsman writing penetrating articles from the sanctuary of his paper’s newsroom.

While investigative journalism does indeed require protecting one’s sources in the best tradition of Deep Throat and Watergate, most business writing should come from the transparent brokering of points of view defended by players with a stake in the game, be they regulators or corporations. In that spirit, having the Washington Post organize such an event to institutionalize a dialogue between parties does not sound bad to me.

However, given the vigorous and swift coverage of the pay-for-play gaffe, the proud journalistic profession clearly prefers its long-standing, journalist-centric view of value creation. They may be in for a rude awakening…

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