Washington Post Salons: Right Church, Wrong Pew

It's official as any papal encyclical: Katharine Weymouth has been led to the front of the church by the moral authorities of journalism and made to recant her ill-conceived notion that the Washington Post should be in the salon business. Next up, an admission from Ms. Weymouth that the sun does actually revolve around the Earth (or is it The Globe?).

From where I sit, Ms. Weymouth was in the right church, she just occupied the wrong pew. These days it would take the most orthodox journalist to cling to the belief that newspapers are actually in the newspaper business. In fact, if I worked at a daily newspaper in the United States, and my publisher insisted that we were going to continue to hold on to the old view of the world that said we were going to make a business out of publishing newspapers, I would be outraged! In this day and age, with newspapers folding along with car companies, banks, old time retail chains, and more, a business leader could be crucified for ignoring the new managerial facts of life.

To her credit, Ms. Weymouth is trying to be what business desperately needs--a leader who rethinks the old rules and comes up with new ones that fit a time of enormous, unpredictable change. Memo to Ms. Weymouth's critics: She's right, you're wrong.

The newspaper business as it has existed in the United States is dead. The challenge is to build bridges to the new model, which is only beginning to emerge. That's why the right question for Ms. Weymouth to be asking is, "What business are we really in?" The answer is, the context business. The Washington Post has terrific journalists who can offer an informed point of view to a public that is hungry to understand what's really going on--not the news, but how to make sense of the news.

To make this work, Ms. Weymouth needs to convert subscribers, who've bought the paper, into members, who join the paper. With membership comes privileges, like, oh, I don't know--salons.

So Ms. Weymouth was in the right church in thinking about a new way to define her company's business. She just messed up the execution. Instead of starting small and democratic, she went big and exclusive. Right church, wrong pew.

If she wants to try again, here's what I'd recommend: Offer Washington Post subscribers a chance to participate in an experiment. For a nominal sum, say $100, anyone can become a member of The Washington Post Conversation. The first conversation will be in a month; it will take the shape of a small town hall forum, with, say, 200 people attending. Names will be drawn from a hat from those who join the Conversation. No linen tablecloths, no china, no wine, no sit down dinner. Think soft drinks, chips and dip. Marcus Brauchli and his staff will provide the insight, those lucky enough to have their numbers drawn will ask the questions. It will all be recorded on video and posted on YouTube. Once she gets it working smoothly, Ms. Weymouth can build on the model, adding more benefits for those who increase their membership fee, expanding her repertoire to include conferences, podcasts, and a host of services, all provided to the members of the Washington Post Conversation. Over time, maybe even sponsorships can be added, provided there are clear ground rules. Gradually, the business model will emerge, the community will form, the economics will develop, and maybe, just maybe, The Washington Post will evolve into a profitable business that offers its perspective and wisdom to its members.

If I were a journalist at the Washington Post, I'd be rooting for Ms. Weymouth to succeed. I don't think she's trying to produce an article of faith, but her new business model for her newspaper could be a new rule of thumb for newspapers everywhere.

Alan M. Webber is co-founding editor of Fast Company magazine and author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.