Washington Post sets policy for newsroom participation in sponsored events

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; C04

Six months after a scandal that tarnished The Washington Post's reputation, the newspaper said Thursday that its journalists will not participate in company-sponsored events with newsmakers unless the proceedings are on the record.

"It's important because we don't want to be perceived as doing things in secret for money," said Senior Editor Milton Coleman, who headed the review of the paper's practices with company attorney Eric Lieberman.

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth apologized in July for an aborted plan to stage a series of off-the-record policy dinners at her home, with sponsors paying up to $25,000 to break bread with administration officials, lawmakers, business leaders and Post journalists. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli also took responsibility for not blocking the plan, which the paper's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, described as "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."

As a "general rule," the guidelines say, newsroom staffers will participate in Post conferences or events only when there are "multiple sponsors." Participation in single-sponsor events "can create the appearance that we are trying to further that sponsor's individual interest, especially if that sponsor has a direct financial or political interest in the topic." The executive editor, however, can grant exemptions -- if, for example, a company were to underwrite a conference on a topic far removed from its business.

The guidelines say that sponsors will not determine the content or structure of any event, and that The Post will decide whether the proceedings are worthy of news coverage. Post reporters can be consulted on potential guests but should not personally extend the invitations, the rules say.

"These guidelines will help us ensure the integrity of our journalism, keeping it separate from any interference, real or perceived, from sponsors of events," said Coleman, who consulted with The Post's top editors and business executives, as well as those at other news organizations.

Brauchli said in a note to the staff that "the guidelines are important to upholding our journalistic independence and credibility."

Conferences can be important revenue-generating events, which is why such organizations as the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic have been staging them as high-profile affairs. But marketing fliers for The Post last summer touted the planned dinners as an "intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon. . . . Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama Administration and Congressional leaders. . . . Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."

Under the new guidelines, Post journalists can participate in conferences or events sponsored by outside groups, but must obtain prior approval. As in the past, the journalists cannot accept payment from governments, political groups or organizations that take positions on controversial issues. The rules also codify existing practice in saying that Post journalists -- except for opinion columnists -- should "avoid making statements that could call into question their objectivity."

The salon plan last summer was overseen by a top Post marketing official, Charles Pelton, who said he had been "sloppy" in rushing to launch the initiative. Pelton eventually resigned. The company said Thursday that one of its executives, Jenny Abramson, had been named as general manager of The Post's conferences and events business unit. She will continue as general manager of a unit overseeing the Post magazine, special sections and TV Week. A company statement said Abramson will "work closely with The Post's news department to ensure that conferences and events meet The Post's high journalistic standards."

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