The fact is that Sullivan could pick any NYT story at random, and the chances that she would consider it “adversarial”, or performing any kind of “watchdog” role, would be very low indeed. There are always some stories which fall into that category, of course, but very few. On the front page of the website right now, for instance, is an assiduously-reported piece by Annie Lowrey, one of the presenters at the DealBook conference, headlined “High-Tech Factories Built to Be Engines of Innovation”. There’s not a hint of the adversarial or the watchdog about it, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable, and I’m sure that Sullivan doesn’t feel queasy when she reads it. So why is she holding the DealBook conference to a different standard?

And is Sullivan really going to complain about the fact that a conference, where some attendees paid $1,500 apiece, dared to feature wine and hors d’oeuvres at its reception? Journalists rub elbows with this crowd every day — that’s their job — and it’s utterly commonplace for there to be some kind of wine and food in the vicinity.

Sullivan thinks that the conference debases the NYT’s editorial independence: given that you can’t run a conference without boldface names, she says, “the Times’s indebtedness to these sources lurks in the shadows”. To which I would say: quite the opposite. When you’re running a conference and your sources are right out there, in the open, on stage with you, that’s the limelight, not the shadows. The shadows is what we’re given the other 364 days of the year, when innumerable stories are written on the basis of off-the-record conversations with these exact same sources.

Very few readers suspect, I think, just how much senior executives talk to the press. There’s an ultra-sophisticated way of reading the business press, which generally starts with the dual questions “who is the main source for this story” and “what is that person trying to achieve”. But the overwhelming majority of readers don’t read that way.

Which means that public conferences like this one, where everything is live-streamed and on the record, actually constitute much more transparent journalism than the vast majority of what you read in the paper. Sullivan might not like the fact that if you want senior executive sources to talk to you, it generally helps to be reasonably polite and respectful. But at least at this kind of conference that kind of thing is out in the open, rather than being hidden in the back channels.

 

Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com.