The Atlantic And Salon Dinners: Thoughts From The Boss

The first reaction of every journalist to the story of the Washington Post's advertiser-cum-salon dinner proposal was probably one of disgust and moral superiority.  The second reaction: we've all kinda been involved in situations where that line between what we do and how we are compensated for it blurs a bit -- or is at least visible. We bring attention to our brand by reporting and writing, but we do other things, occasionally, to further the interests of the commercial enterprises that pay us. There but for the grace of our marketing department go we....Reporters often give speeches to private corporations and get paid for doing so; reporters often lend themselves to their publication's advertising team for an hour and brief a perspective client on our subjects; we invite sources to come visit the classes we teach as adjunct, for-profit professors, etc.  We participate in sponsored dinners, off-the-record dinners; roundtables; we exchange information with our sources, etc.; Each situation is different, and as a general rule, good journalists have a good gut sense about what's right and wrong. There are no written rules for our profession, only habits and customs, enforceable mostly by peer pressure and shaming.  Big deal or not, it's a topic worth exploring in an age of convergence.  Atlantic Media and its chairman -- my ultimate boss -- David Bradley -- have developed a bit of a (welcome, I think) reputation for hosting salons and forums where advertisers, officials and journalists intermix.  We ought not be afraid to talk about why we do them, and so I'm happy to say that Mr. Bradley feels the same way. After the jump, read extended excerpts from an e-mail he sent to employees today. It describes precisely what the Atlantic does, and why. It's worth reading, if only to get some more perspective on these issues. And if you agree, or disagree with David, please feel free to leave a comment. I'll make sure he gets to see them.

Atlantic Media's particular niche is hosting dinner conversations, focused on current events issues, where we succeed in bringing all sides of the issue to the table.  In general, the dinners include two- to three-dozen guests drawn from a score of institutions - corporations, associations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, government, and other media companies - as well as individual authors and activists.  The ambition, almost always realized, is to have all sides of an issue present - conservatives and liberals, conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks, corporations and consumer groups, all manner of associations and all manner of environmental, health advocacy and public interest groups.  The art here is bringing disparate parties to table for a constructive conversation.

The larger number of our Atlantic Media dinners are sponsored, though I host some for my own interest and on my own account.  (Please note that the whole of this discussion concerns dinners that we do with clients.  As you may have read, I personally convene a group of journalists to conduct off-the-record conversations with individuals in the news.  Those dinners are covered by me personally and have no sponsorship involvement or support.)

Of our events that are sponsored, most are sponsored by corporations, though nonprofits and foundations have sponsored dinners as well.  Sponsors may have input on the evening but, by contract, Atlantic Media keeps control of both the topic for conversation and the guests to be invited.

The dinners usually run about two and a half hours.  If I am there, I give welcoming remarks and thank the sponsor.  Most of the time, the sponsor responds with his or her own welcoming remarks.  Then, and for the remainder, our moderator - typically an Atlantic Media editor or writer, though sometimes a journalist from another enterprise - directs the whole table in conversation. There is no constraint placed on either the moderator or our guests as to the questions raised or the opinions expressed. My presence - as to all things - tends to dampen high spirits.  But even when I am there, the conversations are pretty highly engaged, with one or more issues that divide the group.

When Atlantic Media hosts public-policy dinners in Washington, we usually - though not always - invite members of Congress or the Executive Branch to attend as well.  Never the object of the conversation, they generally constitute one to four of the total of, say, 30 guests present.  There is a set of public rules governing the participation of officials in private events.  Atlantic Media follows these rules - in letter and in spirit. 
To my mind, and central to our thinking, the size of our dinners, the presence of outside reporters and the representation of all manner of opposing views have worked well to keep conversation at the level of debate - not advancing any one party's interests.

Let me turn to some of the concerns I've seen raised since The Washington Post controversy began.

Secrecy:  Atlantic Media has been hosting public-policy dinners for a half-dozen years.  Our work is not hidden within the enterprise or from the outside.  Over the years, we have sent out thousands of invitations to these events.  Two thousand guests have been in attendance.  Further, from the beginning, we have included, as guests, journalists from virtually all major networks, national magazines and newspapers; scores of journalists have been our guests across the last six years, many more than once.

Atlantic Media Motives:  Isn't this just commercial?  In part.  As the whole of our enterprise surely knows, the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away.  Ten years ago, 55% of The Atlantic's revenues derived from print advertising.  Today, that figure is 29%.  I think I will be more comfortable, still, when that dependence falls below 20%.  The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars.  One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events - of all types. 
I say "in part," above, because I believe the dinners, themselves, perform a good purpose.  Perhaps the guests merely are being polite, but the uniform comment - on leaving or in thank you notes - is that they find no other place for such purposeful, engaged, constructive conversation across walls. Are dinners my highest faith system, my most important belief?  No.  But, I see the Atlantic Media dinners as a certain good in Washington.

Off-the-Record:  The decision to convene our dinners off-the-record was made at the outset. In the vocabulary we used at that time, we were hoping to avoid the "canned remarks and rehearsed sound bites" that come with much public-policy discussion.  My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written.  Everyone - maybe even especially journalists - relies on this confidence in his day-to-day work. 
This said, I do want to be teachable.  I could understand editors or writers deciding they prefer to participate only in on-the-record conversations.  I care more about editorial integrity than I do about any particular undertaking; you can trust that, as to this issue, I am fully engaged.

Editorial Staff Involvement:  From the first, the dinners were the conception of our publishing staff.  They were, and are, one of our revenue streams.  But, as noted above, I believe the dinners advance a legitimate purpose for a media organization - promoting debate and discussion.

Our senior editors and reporters have been engaged in this work from the first - thinking through appropriate involvement, structuring the role of the moderator, thinking through, and then leading, individual dinner conversations.  I am responsible for our strategy but editorial minds have been "on" from the first.  I believe our editors would say the public-policy discussions help as background in their thinking and writing.

Marketing Materials:  The Washington Post's Katharine Weymouth had not begun, in fact, the hosting of policy dinners; I am six years into this work.  What we do share in common is that I, too, had not read our marketing materials.  I don't believe ours are egregious but I now know they do not all reflect the central fact of our conversations - dialogue and debate, without the advance of a particular interest.  Due diligence now begun, we will make sure that future materials reflect exactly the spirit and facts of the dinners.

Reading my notes to myself, I think I'm reaching the close of this writing.  Save that I said I would end with a caveat.

I love the work of our public-policy dinners.  The issues at table interest me greatly.  Further, and this is a modest brag, I think I'm well suited to convening intelligent, committed people across wide divides.  There are leadership gifts that I would prefer, but my lot includes a big measure of listening and deference to others' views.
As to the dinners themselves, I think they are full of good purpose.  In their intelligent discussion of great public issues, they mirror the work of our magazines and websites.  And, not inconsequential, the dinners in particular, but events more generally, are part of my best thinking on how we carry forward (read fund) modern journalism.