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Washingtonian‘s Cathy Merrill Williams Defends WaPo‘s Weymouth

On her Facebook profile, Washingtonian President and Publisher Cathy Merrill Williams has posted a letter applauding WaPo‘s Weymouth for her attempt to find new revenue streams and for trying something new re: the “salon” scandals. Her post below or visit it on Facebook here.

New Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth has been taking a lot of flak from journalists and press junkies. Weymouth and her team at the Washington Post proposed to host off-the-record dinners at her home paid for by a sponsor. These “salon” events were ridiculed in the press as selling access for power and damaging the reputation of the venerable Washington Post.

For all of the bad press she and her editor Marcus Brauchli are getting, I see great hope. I for one am betting on the 43-year-old publisher to reinvent an institution in an industry that is crumbling.

She tried something new. Was it a well thought-out and properly executed plan? No, not even close. But she tried something new. All businesses make mistakes especially when searching for a new business model. RH Macy’s went bankrupt 5 times before it succeeded. Hershey and Disney also initially failed spectacularly, leaving debtors out in the cold.

Weymouth has to keep trying new things because the newspaper lost $25 million last year. As Atlantic owner David Bradley and his own salons were pulled into the debate, he had it right: “As the whole of our enterprise surely knows, the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away. The imperative…is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars.” So she is going to likely have to fail a few more times to succeed.

There has been a lot of sanctimony from journalists inside and outside the Washington Post. I suspect it is easier to be sanctimonious if you are not the one that has to pay the rent (or your own pay check). The Post’s Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote a 2788 word piece this past Sunday ripping apart the entire management team at the Post all while noting that only 2 readers have canceled subscriptions because of it. This is naval gazing at its worst.

The rest after the jump…

The fact is there is a great demand among advertisers to meet in small group settings of all kinds – not just to try to affect legislation, but to sample a new vodka or hear about a resort. Rather than dissect who sent what email when at the Post, perhaps the reports should spend some of their time, energy and talent figuring how to responsibly tap into new revenue streams including live events. Where should the line be drawn? How can salons be conducted ethically? Meanwhile most of the journalists I’ve talked to want immunity from thinking about business — that is a luxury the industry can’t afford.

As a publisher in a family that has owned magazines and newspapers for decades, I take the “Chinese wall” seriously, yet, that does not preclude any journalist from generating a good solid business idea.

Ultimately, I am betting on Weymouth because people who are willing to take risks and take ownership when they screw up are the most successful people I know. In her own words in an op ed piece she writes: “We all make mistakes…and I apologize to our readers.” She has owned up to the mistake and is trying to learn from it.

Theodore Roosevelt said: “It is not the critic who counts…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who errs and comes up short again and again.”

My bet is Weymouth will keep trying again and again. Our industry depends on it.

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