Post-Agency I: In Defense of Katharine Weymouth’s WaPo Strategy
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
This is the first in a three-part series on the “post-agency” environment. For related background pieces, see "Welcome to the Post-Agency Era," "New Priorities for the Post-Agency Market," "Post-Agency Era, Now Powered by Google" and "TIme to Convene the Ethics Committee."
The very notion of “agency” is becoming a footnote in today’s technologically reshaped marketplace and media. And it is within this environment that the bold, if not always adored, Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post, has decided to act as others sit idly. Ms. Weymouth and others at WaPo decided to host sponsored “salons,” bringing together reporters, lobbyists and corporations for quiet conversation and, one assumes, a deeper understanding of each other’s interests. Call it influence if you must. It is, after all, only new to discuss this type of paid access, not to grant it. Denying such is as charming and annoying as newsprint itself.
Breaking the silence on how things (perhaps too often) really get done may be Ms. Weymouth’s failing here. In fact, Ms. Weymouth has stepped decisively across the line of what agencies used to do; she up-ended the relationships that have long been paid for but rarely acknowledged. If a public relations agency or lobbying firm were handling the money for a client and could arrange access (and a sister agency under the same roof could place the major media buy and funnel money via advertising), then all was fine. Denied, but fine. Today’s market does not need that go-between, and cannot afford that inefficiency.
Ms. Weymouth surely understood this, followed the money, and moved to “go direct,” to go post-agency. She is, in fact, with the times and is taking heat for it. Most unfortunate is her “apology”; she blames the marketing guy and says she was not fully informed. At some point, her original strategy will be seen as no more controversial than early publishers' decisions (more than two centuries ago) to run print advertising, or the industry's more recent openness to run sponsored content. It will be Ms. Weymouth’s apology that is, perhaps, to her regret, not her salons — which, thankfully, she also claims will go forward, but with clearer terms of engagement (conversations will be “on the record”).
Unlike the rather dandied and reticent Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., her competitor at The New York Times, Ms. Weymouth realizes that the content business (let’s not pretend to call much of it “news” any longer) is not just about distribution. It is about the personalities, competing interests and breakthrough voices that make content worth distributing. Her grandmother, the inimitable Katharine Graham, knew this when she took blistering heat for Mssrs. Woodward and Bernstein as they brought Watergate to focus. Perez Hilton knows it today as he refocuses the already known through his own lens and megaphone (with 10 million daily readers, his influence as all-in-one publisher, editor and blogger cannot be denied). The intersection — car crash? -- of these two might be Matt Drudge, notably the man who scooped Washington on Ms. Lewinsky’s little blue dress.
Ms. Weymouth must continue to straddle these two worlds, stretched, as her entire industry is, between upholding the fourth estate and monetizing it each day. She must bridge the worlds of revered publisher and digital entrepreneur, the worlds of the newsroom and her MBA. To date, she has done so admirably with the careful planning and stewardship of Slate. Where Mr. Sulzberger has, perhaps, the most successful (and cannibalistic) newspaper Web site with NYTimes.com, Ms. Weymouth understood the Web as not just a “reprint” but as a medium driven by a more personal and direct model of journalism, with its own rules and economics as well.
Bringing WaPo closer to Slate (and vice-versa) has not been without controversy or newsroom complaint, and it is part of an overarching strategy, in fact, which she has tried to advance with her salons. Reporters and those they cover: more personal, more immediate, more complex, more controversial, more dangerous. That’s starting to sound more like the Web of Hilton, Drudge & Co., and the real news of Katharine Graham to me. But with no agency required, it’s also starting to sound like a new business model for journalism. One that, even given its tangle of ethical questions, does not require the anti-trust collusions necessary under Steven Brill’s Journalism Online. Then again, Mr. Brill is looking to help mere news distributors; Ms. Weymouth is looking to add fuel anew to the game, and in so doing, fire it back to life. It is to be expected that she may get burned a bit along the way.