Monday, July 13, 2009

Papers shouldn’t shy from for-profit events

The dicarded plan to sell seats at dinner with the publisher of the Washington Post shouldn’t be taken by newspapers as a reason to avoid hosting profit-making events that deliver journalistic and public-service benefits to their communities.

The key in organizing for-profit (and pro bono) events is to keep your commercial and ethical priorities straight. The Post, which aired its errors here, goofed not by trying to charge for an event but rather for trying to charge for the wrong kind of event.

Off-the-record power breakfasts, lunches and dinners are among the things that make the world go ’round. Nothing is going to stop them and nothing should. Publishers and editors should keep attending them. They just can’t charge for showing up.

The legitimate way for newspapers to serve the public interest and make a buck is to host events that afford multiple opportunities to generate news and profits at the same time.

If the issue is health care, as it happened to be at the salons scotched at the Post, then there was a huge opportunity for the newspaper to organize a one- or two-day event where prominent experts and interested parties could mingle to mull the issues.

Unlike almost any other organization in the nation’s capital, the Post could draw quite a crowd by leveraging its singular stature as a prominent, neutral and respected brand. The strength of the Post name, the depth of its institutional Rolodex and the persuasive power of its well-connected staff would ensure a glittering array of participants, including potentially The Prez himself.

The gabfest couldn’t help but make plenty of legitimate news, overcoming the reservations of even the most skeptical journalist.

The Post could do well by doing good, too. It could make money by selling sponsorships; charging admission; selling pre- and during-event advertising, and marketing post-event media including web, print and video accounts of the proceedings (which would contain advertising, too).

With health-care bound to be a big story for a long time, the Post could take the opportunity to launch a subscription-only product that would provide timely and actionable information to lobbyists, politicos, academics and wonks who want to follow the legislative sausage-making today and learn how to land their fair share of the federal largesse bound to be dispensed in the future.

The same formula could be employed by the Post and other media companies across the land on topics ranging from autism and economic development to green living and college hunting.

The latter ought to be of particular interest to the Kaplan division of the Post’s parent company and/or our friends at U.S. News and World Report, which have made lovely niches for themselves in the business of connecting aspiring students with institutions of higher learning. If the Post and U.S. News got together, they could produce compelling college fairs to market across the country in partnership with local publishers and/or broadcasters.

College fairs may not produce blockbuster news stories, but they could generate some additional profits to hire a few extra reporters who might. Meantime, well executed, high-profile public service events can’t help but burnish the reputation of the mainstream media as they seek to underscore their relevance to readers and advertisers alike.

With advertising sales bound to be underwhelming for some time to come (and the big-three classified categories unlikely to ever fully recover), publishers need to think more expansively than ever about how to bolster their top lines by leveraging their brands and their still-formidable market reach.

Well conceived events are one of the most efficient, least risky and most obvious ways to do it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not disagree with you more on this one. For years, the Washington Post has campaigned against the corrupting influences of closed-door meetings of powerful government bigwigs and lobbyists who indirectly funnel funds to their campaigns. Now, you seem to indicate that these sort of sessions are okay, and a smart way of raising cash for cash-strapped newspapers. There are deep ethical issues involved here. If the Post engages in these activities, does it continue with its editorial campaign against closed-door sessions without being accused of hypocrisy? You and I know that these closed-door power meetings occur all the time in Washington, but that does not mean that newspapers should become part of their corrupting influences over government policy and legislation. For me, that is what is so depressing about the WPO's salon idea. How can I now take seriously any story I read in the newspaper about improper influences corporations or their lobbyists wield in Washington?

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not commenting on the ethical considerations - the devil being in the details - but how does this constitute "closed-door power meetings"?

"The Post could do well by doing good, too. It could make money by selling sponsorships; charging admission; selling pre- and during-event advertising, and marketing post-event media including web, print and video accounts of the proceedings (which would contain advertising, too)."

It would appear to be a prime example of transparency - assuming, of course, the prices aren't so high no one can afford them.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure, anon 9.21.

The Washington Post and other mainstream papers have already blown most of their credibility. They have little left to lose in the pursuit of more money.

Perhaps openly selling favours, rather than pretending to be objective, is the way to go.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that's what Alan meant. The newspaper can sponsor an event where anyone can purchase a ticket to attend. I certainly don't consider that "closed doors". If the newspaper hosted an expert panel discussion on a subject of their choosing and charged for admission and sponsorships, I don't see a problem with that. Newspapers already sponsor advertising seminars, housing seminars, job fairs, cooking shows, travel shows, and lectures on free speech and freedom of the press. Handled properly, there shouldn't be a problem. Handled incorrectly and you can damage your newspaper's reputation.

Bruce Wood

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's almost amusing to watch the supercilious thumbsuckers in the media as they lower the boom on the Washington Post. Of course there were ethical problems with the Post's salon scenario, but Newsosauer is correct to point out that the Post and other major media outlets should be considering all means of raising revenue as they try to refine their business plans. The days of 20 per cent returns are over for most media outlets, and they must find new ways to generate fresh revenue. Otherwise, how are they going to pay the gargantuan salaries that all the thumbsuckers have grown to expect. The bottom line is that top quality news coverage is absolutely mandatory if the news industry is to survive the current turmoil. That said, the new, evolving business plans must monetize that editorial strength -- just as they did in the old days when classified ads (disappearing quickly), display ads (shrinking rapidly) and TV spots (dropping in value) paid the bills.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Bill Burger said...

Alan, you're right on this and the anonymous comments completely miss the important distinction you've made between the Post's discredited private and off-the-record salons and the kinds of on-the-record, paid conferences and symposia that should raise no real ethical flags.

Publishers such as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and others have produced conferences for years. These events won't be the economic savior of newspaper journalism, but they can provide a helpful revenue stream. They also can showcase some of the expert, name-brand journalists who often are under-leveraged assets for these publications.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Radio Ann said...

This is becoming a touchy issue for public media outlets, who deal in a lot of trade agreements with corporate underwriters or corporations to support major expansions, such purchasing a building. If a politician is a major donor to a public station of his or her own volition, does that mean they get stricken off the guest list for an event designed for major donors?
It seems to me the key issue is having a firewall policy in place and a whistleblower policy as well so reporters have a place to submit their discomfort without fear of retaliation.

6:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firewalls ... Such a quaint idea! I haven't seen much evidence of any walls recently.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Allen Parsons said...

Consider me another who supports Alan's thinking on this issue. His list of creative -- and perfectly ethical -- revenue-generating, journalism-based programs should be under discussion in every newsroom. Clearly, some things (such as behind-closed-doors salons) are off-limits. We should not, however, dismiss without careful study the potential to monetize content and journalism expertise through non-traditional venues.

3:52 PM  
Blogger The Thinking Nationalist said...

Alan, I agree with you on this one.

The problem was not that the WaPo chose to have a revenue-generating event of this type, but rather the sort of venue they chose to promote.

A privately funded,closed-door,off-the-record event is precisely the sort of thing that any respectable
News organization must avoid.

The damage done to the WaPo brand
and its reputation as an honest broker of fact and opinion may now be irreversible.

However, a publicised and sponsored one or two-day event,
with paid admission for the serious public, would be the perfect solution - especially for an issue of such immediate and overriding importance as Health Care.

The Post's journalists wouldn't
have to work their Rolodexes too hard to get all the major players to attend ..... even the President would want to be there, to no doubt make the opening address and lead some panel discussions.

It would be informative, it would be significant, and it would be NEWS - for weeks on end. And because it took place in the open,
it would be both ethical and responsible at the same time.

1:17 PM  

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