Last summer the Washington Post, in an attempt to increase revenue, planned a series of off-the-record salons whereby a sponsor could pay for the opportunity to meet with government officials, Post reporters, and others to discuss, say, health care. The man responsible for implementing and marketing the salons was media consultant Charles Pelton, and though that attempt proved ill-fated he remains convinced that media outlets should find ways to turn their reporters into profit centers.
BOB GARFIELD: Last summer The Washington Post, in an attempt to increase revenue, planned a series of underwritten off-the-record salons whereby a sponsor could pay for the opportunity to meet with government officials and others to discuss, say, health care or financial regulation. Oh, and the meetings were to be hosted by Washington Post reporters. By charging private access to its editorial staff and its sources, The Post set itself up for charges of influence peddling, and eventually abandoned the plan. Once news of the salons went public, the response from the top brass at The Post was swift. They said the whole thing was advertised all wrong and that the paper’s publisher and managing editor were unaware of some of the details. The man responsible for implementing and marketing the salons was Charles Pelton, a journalist turned media consultant. And though that attempt proved ill-fated, he remains convinced that media outlets should find some way to turn their reporters into profit centers. Some organizations, he points out, are already doing just that. Pelton joins me now. Charles, welcome to On the Media.
CHARLES PELTON: Thank you very much, Bob. It’s nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So, the old way of generating revenue was through advertising, which was an indirect way to exploit the value of your editorial staff. You’re talking about something far more direct. Give me some examples.
CHARLES PELTON: Well, many of your listeners are familiar with The Economist magazine. Fewer are familiar with The Economist’s Research Division, which is The Economist’s intelligence unit. What The Economist’s intelligence unit does produce regular reports or custom, which means specially ordered report, about the future of countries, the future of specific industries, media, steel, whatever. And this isn't just about producing reports. It’s about participating in conferences and events. It’s about leading public forums. It’s about doing studies. It’s about doing all of that following journalistic principles.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, let me ask you about a hypothetical news organization, a national newspaper that covers the Defense Department, the Pentagon and also covers defense contractors. And let's just say a reporter from the paper is deployed to go speak to one of the defense contractors, let's say Northrop Grumman or General Dynamics, to give the lay of the land in the defense procurement landscape. Now the reporter the next day shows up at the Pentagon to talk to the secretary of defense, obviously his most important news source. Can the defense secretary look at this reporter anymore as a journalist, as an honest broker, or is he going to look at that person as someone who’s on the payroll of - General Dynamics?
CHARLES PELTON: The journalist is not on the payroll of General Dynamics. The journalist is on the payroll of the media organization for which he or she works. I like your government example quite a bit because journalists who cover Washington or who cover their local city hall or their police departments have so much information and knowledge about the bureaucracies and the politicians that they cover that never make it into print, never make it on a blog post. That is information that is lost, and it’s lost to the public. I think the Washington example is so good because it actually points to a chance for media that covers government to participate in open governance.
BOB GARFIELD: So, as fraught as this ecosystem would be with potential conflict, would you advise a news organization to offer to a paying audience, off the record, the kind of journalism that they insist be on the record for their ordinary readers?
CHARLES PELTON: I think that’s absolutely one of the toughest questions. Media organizations’ prime responsibility is to their audiences, the public and the citizenry. Off the record and on the record and whether or not something is for attribution I think is kind of a red-herring question, and I'll tell you why. Every day, every waking business minute that a journalist works his or her beat, they're engaged in off-the-record or not-for-attribution conversations with their sources. When they hear something that can be used for a public story, it is their responsibility always to either get it checked with a second source so it can be used, or a third source, or to drag that particular source on the record. That doesn't change, nor should it change if you are also creating reports for business or for government.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Charles. Thank you so much.
CHARLES PELTON: I have one concluding thought.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay.
CHARLES PELTON: This is not a question of the journalist’s responsibility to find another form of work or to become a famous blogger or a pundit. It’s a question of the responsibility of the media organization to reinvent itself so that it has a more entrepreneurial culture within the ranks of the people producing the news, the analysis and the content. You should not let all this talent go. You should instead reinvent yourself as a media organization.
BOB GARFIELD: Charles Pelton is a former reporter and a media consultant.