A weakened Washington Post, a serious ethical breach

Erik Wemple hits his own paper for hopping the wall between ads and news

Erik Wemple breaks a huge media-corruption story for the Washington Post, and unfortunately for his employer, it’s about the Post itself.

This is just about as bad as it gets, and it’s mitigated only slightly by the fact the Post allowed Wemple to publish his tough piece.

Wemple reports that the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial at the Washington Post Magazine, the paper’s thin little Sunday insert, is being seriously breached. Two stories from the August 11 education issue—one on college drinking and one on benefits for gay spouses of higher-ed workers— were pulled from the issue:

Both stories got bumped from the Aug. 11 edition following objections from the business side of the Washington Post. “They didn’t feel it was appropriate,” says Lynn Medford, the magazine’s top editor. “They were adamant about it.”

This deserves a rare Audit WTF Award. You can’t do that. You’re the Washington Post, for crying out loud! Have some self-respect. The ad staff shouldn’t be allowed to even comment on copy before it’s published, much less to spike two-thirds of an issue’s pieces because they don’t provide an optimal environment of marketing-friendly bullshit for merchants.

If you want to put out a Parade-style insert, do so. Just don’t mix it in with your actual journalism.

Wemple makes it pretty clear that you can put this disgrace on Publisher Katherine Weymouth, who got off to a bad start trying to erase the line between her newsroom and her advertisers.

Tom Shroder, who worked as magazine editor from 2002 to 2009, says he often dealt directly with advertising’s “discontent” over the stories that he chose to drop into the publication. He also contended with profit-and-loss statements, a form of spreadsheet pressure hardly universal at the paper.

Yet when asked whether the business side ever had the ability or authority to demand editorial changes on a pending edition, Shroder responded, “God, no and no! A thousand times no!” Debra Leithauser, whose tenure came in between Shroder’s and Medford’s, wrote via e-mail: “No pre-publication pulls ever occurred because of concerns raised by the biz side. Advertising brought up concerns occasionally — as happened on every section I ran during my decade at the Post — but would always back down when reminded they didn’t have a say in editorial coverage. I more recall post-publication grumbling.”

The modern era of business-editorial entanglement at the Washington Post Magazine dates back to 2009. That’s when Publisher Weymouth let it be known that she wasn’t happy about a pending magazine piece about a quadruple amputee. Just another depressing feature story, Weymouth opined. The piece was killed, and the magazine later relaunched with emphasis on greater “levity and brevity.”

That the Washington Post is running roughshod over one of the most important protections of journalistic integrity says quite a bit about Weymouth’s time running the paper. Unfortunately, Marty Baron, who by most accounts has reinvigorated the Post in his short tenure, doesn’t come off well here either. Just admit the interference was far, far over the line and promise to make changes so it doesn’t happen again.

The problem here, of course, is the collapse in the Post’s financial fortunes. Pre-2009, this would have been unthinkable. Hundreds of millions of dollars of losses later, the paper is groveling to advertisers.

I don’t think Weymouth and the Post quite get it yet, despite their much-delayed installation of a metered paywall in June, but their most important business constituency is their readers, who now provide nearly 50 percent of the paper’s revenue, not their advertisers. Give them something great to read, not a bunch of mealy-mouthed ad copy for advertisers to get comfy with. This shows how a seriously weakened fourth estate become less independent and less able to throw its weight around. I don’t think it’s an accident that the spike in whistleblower investigations, for instance, has coincided with the decline of newspapers.

Wemple writes this:

In his recent chats with staffers, future Washington Post owner Jeffrey Bezos chanted about the supremacy of the reader and expressed concern about any product that depends too much on advertisers, because you “start thinking that the customer is advertisers.”

On that, Bezos is right on, as he is with his comments on aggregation and the unbundling of papers.

The ad-side’s interference here left the “education issue” with one education story: a thin, service-y piece on how to get a job when you graduate college. That’s not why people pay several hundred dollars a year to subscribe to the Post.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s Wemple, who takes it to his own employer as if they weren’t signing his paychecks. That’s brave on his part, but it also reflects well on the Post for letting him do so.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,