Memo to Katharine Weymouth: Put your salon on the Web

[Former Washington Post staffer and frequent OJR contributor Tom Grubisich checks in with his take on the recent near-scandal at the Post – the paper’s attempt to sell access to its reporters and editors through high-priced, off-the-record “salons” at the publisher’s home.

After Tom makes his points, OJR editor Robert Niles jumps in and adds additional thoughts on how this episode ought to provide inspiration to news publishers trying to preserve and extend healthy relationships with their readers.]

The most surprising thing about the Washington Post’s pay-to-play fiasco was not the Jack Abramoff-worthy pitch (“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate. Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth….”), but that the Post was wasting its time on a brand-building project that ignored the potential firepower of its nine-million-user-strong website.

Could any brand building be more ridiculously behind the curve than salons at the home of the publisher? Weymouth’s grandmother, Katharine Graham, was known for her Georgetown salons, but in-between those evenings she did things like hire Ben Bradlee to create a first-class newspaper, take the Post public but without the Graham family yielding corporate control to Wall Street, and, while the new public company’s financial future hung in the balance, pledge the Post’s fortune and sacred honor by standing solidly behind the initially risky Watergate coverage of young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Talk about brand building!

Weymouth’s first salon was to be about health care. The now-infamous promotional flier promised a “spirited” evening. But so what? There is “spirited” debate about health care all over the media 24/7. What the Post should be doing is creating a 21st-century democratic salon where health care can move beyond debate to action. The salon should be on washingtonpost.com, and it should go way beyond creating a dead-end talkfest involving health care providers, congressional and administration officials and Post writers and editors.

The missing invitees at Weymouth’s salon were Americans who
1) don’t have health care,
2) don’t have enough to protect them from a major illness or
3) are well covered but whose health isn’t any better for that.

There are, according to some respected estimates, almost 46 million Americans without any health insurance . Add the other two categories, and you probably have a grand total of 100 million or more people who are squeezed in the health care crisis. Their documented stories of denied health services, bankruptcy from uncovered bills and treadmill treatment should count for at least as much as what a health industry CEO or member of Congress has to say.

Washingtonpost.com could build the online salon where those stories could be heard, and, more important, acted on. It could set up sub-sites in metro areas that cover a cross-section of all U.S. demographicsand are known for both high and low health care costs. The recent and widely referenced New Yorker article by Atul Gawande on how health care costs in McAllen, TX, far outpace costs in prevention-focused metro areas but leaves residents in worse shape could be a template for a countrywide examination of medical technology and physician entrepreneurialism run amok.

The goal of this online salon would be not just airing health care issues, but pinpointing what’s broken in the system and coming up with affordable ways to fix it.

This would require a washingtonpost.com committed to engagement, but, so far, that’s not part of the site’s mission. It seems more interested in adding bells and whistles, including trying to be funny, like in this embarrassingly inept political skit inspired by Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”

An online salon about health care that reaches out to the millions of Americans who are uninsured, under-insured and wondering how much health their insurance has bought them wouldn’t produce too many laughs. But it might help prod Congress to pass legislation that would let the U.S. finally join all other industrialized nations in providing for universal coverage. That’s something that Katharine Weymouth’s salons, however good the food and wine might be, would never achieve.

[And now, OJR editor Robert Niles adds his thoughts:]

While I agree with what Tom’s written, I want to add a couple more points: First, let’s not dismiss the power of off-line events to reward, strength and ultimately expand online communities.

Offline meetings represent a powerful and significant development in the relationship between an individual and an online community. It’s the moment when a relationship goes from being casual to representing a more lasting commitment. People so inspired to be willing to travel to a physical space to meet in person with other members show by their action a commitment to the community far greater than simple browsing and posting the occasional comment.

These are individuals around whom you can build new initiatives, support far larger membership and create a critical mass than will make additional classes of advertisers and funders take notice. Online publications from BlogHer to New West to DailyKos have made offline events part of the business and promotional strategy and the Post, like other papers, would do well to consider their lead.

Second, let’s not overlook these offline events as potential sources of revenue, as well. Most folks might not be willing to pay for online content, but they are willing to pay to attend conferences. And sponsors are willing to pay to have their names and logos attached to events that attract their customers.

So how is this any different that what the Post proposed (then abandoned)? We’re talking about building extending a new publisher’s relationship with the public – not with a handful of big-money insiders. And doing it on the record – a record that will be enhanced by the reporting of hundreds, or, if you are fortunate, thousands of readers who take the next step in their relationship with you by attending.

If newspapers are to remain relevant in a newly competitive media marketplace, they must not be content simply to inform readers. That won’t help them stand out from the crowd of other information sources. They’ve got to provide information so engaging, so compelling, that it moves readers to action. An offline, physical gathering can be one of those acts. Engagement in the formation and execution of public policy can be another. (Heck, not to be too crass here, but pulling out the wallet and buying something from an advertiser ought to be another action, as well.)

Here’s the good news for the Post: People hated the salon idea.

Why is that good news for the Post?

If you don’t care about the Post and don’t care to have a relationship with it, you wouldn’t care who the Post publisher ate dinner with and how much she charged. The fact that so many people reacted like a jilted boyfriend to the Post’s plan demonstrated that people do care about the newspaper and want it to be in relation with them instead of K Street bigwigs. People want a Post that answers to them, not to the lobbyists.

Why not, then, give the people what they want?

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]

Comments

  1. Tom Grubisich says:

    I should have added a fourth category of missing invitees to Ms. Weymouth’s health care salon — employers, especially small ones who need a tax or some other kind of break to afford offering coverage to employees.

    It would be great also to hear from physicians — the ones who practice preventive care (Mayo, etc.) and, on the other side of the cost calculus, MD entrepreneurs who believe their cancer, cardiology and other special (and expensive) service centers mean their patients are offered the best possible care.

    Washingtonpost.com could convene these and all the other missing parties to create an action-oriented platform that would achieve a lot more than a dinner party.

    Regarding Robert’s suggestions — if an offline conference brought all these parties together, great. But offline or online, there has to be a mechanism to take talk to the action level.

  2. 38.118.8.60 says:

    You miss the point of the Salons. All those people you discuss? No money. What you discuss costs money. Serving the public interest won’t keep Weymouth in the lifestyle she rightfully inherited.

    Sheesh.