A few days after The Washington Post was forced to scrap a plan offering lobbyists exclusive access to Obama officials, lawmakers and Post reporters and editors at salons held at Publisher Katharine Weymouth's house, a Post spokesperson was speechless when asked to comment about internal reports that they were planning to allow people to write articles under famous Washington Post columnist bylines.
"I will have to get back to you," said Kris Coratti, after a pause long enough to say "death of the newspaper industry" five times.
The cost of each column would vary depending on the renown of the byline, according to one business development employee disgusted with the proposal. Pulitzer Prize winners such as Robin Givhan and Eugene Robinson would fetch the highest prices, at between $30,000 to $40,000 per column. Discounts of 10 percent would be given for multiple purchases and related "Tweets" could be purchased for $1,000 to $3,000.
Only the bylines of journalists who engaged in commentary would be for sale. "In the meetings they said that we have high standards to maintain and that we can't just be in the business of making up news," said the disgruntled employee. "However, and I quote, 'Since opinions are just made up, those can change and be monetized.'"
There would be some guidelines for the buyers. They would have to stay on topic; for example, Givhan writes about fashion, and her ghostwriter could not suddenly opine about the politics of the Iranian elections. But so long as they confined their subject matter to a topic typically written about by the journalist, they could be free to write something that diverged from a previous stand.
A draft proposal included examples of how columnists could be used to plug various items or causes. Givhan could, for instance, suggest that Michelle Obama wear Banana Republic items. Banana Republic's competitor, J.Crew, has benefited from a "Michelle Obama effect" due to the extensive coverage of the variety of J.Crew items Michelle has worn.
Dana Milbank, who uses humor to crucify Washington's elite in his Washington Sketch, could direct his barbs at a politician blocking legislation supported by a particular interest group.
The reasoning behind why this would be appealing to wealthy buyers is that these journalists have an established brand name in their byline, according to the source. "An Op-Ed by Joe Schmo of whatever acronymn company won't be read by the movers and shakers. But if you get E.J. Dionne Jr. suddenly taking conservative stands on health care or climate change, that will get a second look by Sen. Baucus or Congressman Waxman," the source said, referring to the chairs of the Senate Finance and Energy and Commerce committees.
The Post is apparently about to begin outreach to a select few, including those who had expressed interest in sponsoring a salon. Non-disclosure agreements would be required before they could even hear the proposal.
In order to get the columnists to go along with the proposal they would receive a 30 percent cut of each column. In order to maintain the secret, columnists also would be required to sign non-disclosure agreements before hearing about the proposal. If they balked at the proposal, they would get "the Froomkin treatment," the source said, referring to recently terminated White House Watch columnist and blogger Dan Froomkin.