Should Journalists Be Entertainers?

As newspapers continue to lose money and cut their news staffs down to meager sizes, we're going to see a lot of ideas to make money that will fall somewhere on the spectrum between utterly stupid and excellently clever. This idea from the Washington Post is a little bit of both:

Politico reporter Mike Allen as the scoop, from a poster flyer a lobbyist gave him:

For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off the record, non-confrontational access to "those powerful few" -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper's own reporters and editors.

The astonishing offer is detailed in a flier circulated Wednesday to a health-care lobbyist, who provided it to a reporter because the lobbyist said he feels it's a conflict for the paper to charge for access to, as the flier says, its "health care reporting and editorial staff."

Conservative bloggers are accusing the paper of pimping their reporters -- "WaPo or WaHo?" and so on -- and Hot Air goes into a rather elaborate imagining of the paper's "Spitzer moment," in which " lobbyists and association executives drive by the Post's offices slowly, trying to make eye contact with the security guards or receptionists." That's pretty funny stuff, and the Washington Post will be, for a short while, slammed for trying to turn its Rolodex into a slot machine too aggressively.

But I think this belies a central point that Matt Yglesias touches on. Journalism today is in a strange limbo where newspaper and magazines are bleeding, while reporters and op-ed writers are more widely read than ever, thanks to the Internet. While journalism is losing in profit, it's actually gaining in exposure, and arguably prestige. It's only logical for journo execs to say: "If we can't make enough money from our writers' work, let's see if we can make money from our writers' image."

This thinking leads to something like the Atlantic-sponsored Aspen Ideas Festival, in which a cavalcade of uber-famous and/or uber-rich people (along with some Atlantic journalists) attend panel discussions about all sorts of interesting tidbits. The New Yorker hosts a similar conference every year, in which its all-star roster of writers and editors hold forth on the future of everything. I wouldn't be surprised if there are some old-schoolers who take issue with magazines marketing themselves as events-machines, since I suppose it corrupts the purity of a news organization. But to me, asking smart opinionated writers to share their smart opinions outside the confines of a printed column seems like a wonderful idea.

Where the idea runs into trouble, I suppose, is when the incentive to sell your journalists and connections to an audience becomes an incentive to sell out your journalists and connections to a third party with the intention of changing the debate. But the excercise of finding that line, the line where monetizing journalism turns into discrediting journalism, will be a part of the game journalist executives will play for the next few years. I'm glad this idea was floated, and I'm glad it was shot down.