08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

News for Sale

Co-authored with Josh Stearns

Thursday morning, Politico reported that the Washington Post was offering lobbyists "off-the-record, non-confrontational" access to the paper's own reporters and editors for a whopping fee of $25,000 to $250,000.

According to Politico's Mike Allen, a promotional flier for the first "Washington Post Salon," focusing on health care, promised lobbyists an "exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done." In addition to access to reporters and editors, the paper promised to hand-deliver Obama administration officials and members of Congress to any lobbyist willing to pay for access.

But within moments after news of the promotion hit social networks and blogs, the Post canceled the plan.

Experiment Gone Awry

"This should never have happened," Katharine Weymouth, publisher of the Post, said in an article on the paper's site. "The fliers got out and weren't vetted. They didn't represent at all what we were attempting to do. We're not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom."

The crisis in journalism has sparked unparalleled experimentation and innovation from new and old newsrooms alike. But this kind of "pay-for-access" model should be a non-starter in newsrooms, and it's good that some in leadership at the Post acted swiftly to shut down the ill-advised scheme.

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and an unprecedented drive to maximize profits at media conglomerates, we have seen too many examples of news organizations forgoing their independence in exchange for a place in the halls of power.

These Washington Post salons would have taken this one step further, auctioning off its access to corporate lobbyists.

If held, this kind of an event would have been an outrageous violation of journalistic standards.

Selling Integrity for Access

Journalism is in crisis around the country. The economic downturn has collided with fundamental technological, cultural and ideological changes, leaving the future of news in doubt.

But selling access to reporters and editors to the highest bidder should never be an option.

The backlash against the Post was swift, spread by outraged members of social networks -- whose anger was fueled in part by marketing materials that seemed blind to the inherent conflicts of interest in this model. The promotional flier for the salons said that these events "are extensions of The Washington Post brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard."

In full damage control, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli took up the issue of journalistic ethics in the Post's follow-up, saying, "We do not offer access to the newsroom for money. We just are not in that business." He went on to say that the newsroom was never involved in this plan, nor would it have taken part in such an event.

Yet, the fact that this idea got as far as it did is another example of how Big Media tend to put corporate profits before the public interest. The notion of holding these events suggests that for the Post, the real stakeholders in the health care debate seemed to be lobbyists and the companies they represent, not the American people whom the Post is supposed to inform, educate and represent.

Comforting the Comfortable?

It's telling that throughout the flier, the Post reassures corporate representatives that the conversation will be non-confrontational -- there will be no afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted here.

The irony of this whole debacle is that journalists and policy makers ought to be getting in the same room more often. But we need them to be working together in search of policy solutions to the crisis in journalism and to ensure that our communities get the information they need -- not to trade influence and cash for their contacts.

For more on policy solutions to the crisis in journalism, download Free Press' report Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy.