But when I had him on the phone today I had to ask: Why the hell would he want to do this? Surely this was a time-suck and distraction from the day-to-day. Another get-out-there-and-save-the-paper deal journalists increasingly have to endure.
For one, Ignatius told me, he’s known Lee since college. But it’s more than that. “For years as a Post editor, I thought we should find better ways to make use of the things that people on our staff know,” Ignatius says. “One of the most frustrating things as an editor sometimes is to feel like you’re getting only a little bit of the creativity that’s there with the people who are partaking.”
Lee says the enthusiasm was similar among all of the newsroom staff she approached. “The newsroom understands the value of new media,” Lee says. “They’re deeply absorbed in it themselves. The idea that they could be on the ground floor of something that combines their expertise with new media was very attractive to them.”
It did prove a time-suck, though. Ignatius was initially told it would take fifty hours to write the curriculum, but the project took much longer. A frequent international flyer, he remembers typing out sections of the course in airport lounges where his “computer crashed” and was plagued by “all those nightmare things that can happen technically.”
Now that the course is together, three “learning advisors”—all trained teachers—will take over, interacting with enrollees and fielding any questions. Ignatius is relieved. Describing the advisors as MasterClass’s equivalent of teaching assistants, he says, “I am hoping that the professor, which would be me, won’t have to do much work at all, because I have lots of other things to do.”
There have been some minor concerns in past cases of newspapers venturing out in search of extra dollars. Some grumbled about potential conflicts of interest in newspaper wine and film clubs—but those clubs operate independently from their papers’ related editorial sections. And famously, at the Post itself, publisher Katharine Weymouth landed in hot water last July after it was revealed she had invited lobbyists to her home for an exclusive “salon” where, for a price of up to $250,000, guests would mingle with Congressmen, Obama Administration officials, and—most alarmingly—Washington Post staffers. The planned dinner was cancelled and the paper properly shellacked by its rivals and its own workers.
There appears to be little potential for conflicts in MasterClass, a kind of digital leisure college for the paper’s educated and established readership. But it probably wouldn’t sit well with more traditionalist pressman like, say, Len Downie. After all, in these courses, Post journalists are opening up about both themselves and their technique, extending their brand, and taking a further step away from the more dispassionate and impersonal reportage of yesteryear.
“The bundle that used to be marked ‘journalist’ is being unbundled right now,” says Ignatius, who remembers the days when he avoided the vertical pronoun. “That’s just the way it is. Every columnist is a brand name. The David Ignatius brand is associated with a certain subject and body of experience. What I’ve done [with this course] is really to open that up and share a different and deeper part of it. Once upon a time, somebody might have said that’s un-journalistic to do. But I don’t think any sensible person would say that now.”