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A newspaper for 50 cents or a news forum for $25K?

July 15, 2009

The Washington Post has taken a lot of heat, particularly from The Washington Post, for a planned series of "salons" that offered special interests an audience with all manner of grand Washingtonian poobahs -- for a fee of up to $25,000.

The forums would allow paying participants the chance to, in an off-the-record format, "build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives in a neutral and informal setting" and promised "spirited but civil dialogue." And that's not to mention the lobster bisque.

On the face of it, the problem is this: How willing might a newspaper be to criticize, in print, a business or organization that had paid up to 25 g's for the privilege of watching movers and shakers spill artichoke dip on their ties? Not to mention, the Post always has frowned on influence peddling, so the prospect of doing a Full Abramoff facilitated by the paper is a bit awkward.

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The Post's own Ombdub ... Obmuds ... the Post's own watchdog called the paper to the carpet, calling it an idea that "roared through ethics stop signs and plowed into a brick wall."

I couldn't agree more. I would even take a step further, and say that for a flagship newspaper to arrange secretive meetings with potentially unsavory clients looking to cozy up to, did someone say $25,000? Whoa, hold the phone.

Look, I'm all for ethics and junk, but someone offers me that much jack for an off-the-record audience, I got two questions: What time, and how do you like your crabcakes, broiled or fried?

Personally, I've never heard of the like. I would have thought it more plausible for someone to pay $25,000 NOT to have to speak to a journalist. As a rule, we're not exactly Chris Rock, if you know what I'm saying. And it's not as if anyone comes up to us on the street asking for fashion tips. If you find yourself paying real money to speak to a journalist, there are some other personalities you've missed.

This isn't to say that back in the day, a lot of us small-beans reporters didn't have salons of our own with businessmen and public officials. We rubbed elbows quite a bit, in fact. Except in those days, "salons" were called "Ladies Night" and no one cared whether it was off the record or not because the next morning, we couldn't remember anything that was said, no ways -- nor whom we left with, for that matter.

But in the final analysis, it is you people who are to blame for ethical breaches, real or imagined. Look, would it kill you just to buy the stupid newspaper so we could be financially independent and continue to be a voice for the people instead of master of ceremonies for some kind of celebrity roast brought to you by the fine people at Philip Morris?

It costs 50 cents, for crying out loud, what's the big deal? We're not like General Motors, asking you to lay out $50,000 for an SUV with rooftop floodlights you'll never use so we can repay some Caribbean bond holder.

All I can say is 20 years from now, when you have to get all your news and world information from some 17-year-old blogger who goes by the name of Mr. Chucklegoodies, don't say you weren't warned.

Just buy the paper already. I'm not saying you have to read it. If nothing else, look at the pictures, they're usually nice. It will also save you from having to listen to these public journalistic freakouts as once-proud newspaper people go scampering after new "revenue streams" and "business models" as if they were some ink-stained Edwards Deming.

Fifty cents. Big blue box. Try it. The door usually opens three times out of five. Then, you can be in control of the news, even if you don't have the $25,000.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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