Tuesday, July 7, 2009

DinnerGate and the Nonprofit Fallout

It may be easy enough to blow off the recent controversy surrounding the Washington Post's "salons" as the work of a marketing department run amok. But the narrative of the past week or so should strike fear into the heart of every budding nonprofit publisher and journalist.

Why? Look at any journalism nonprofit's business plan - at least those who are willing to share - and you're almost certain to see a plan to host member events, idea-fests or corporate sponsorships of some sort. The only difference between those events and what Post publisher Katharine Weymouth had in mind is the amount that attendees expect to spend and the quality of the hors d'ouvres.

I'm not saying that journalism nonprofits should drop the idea of hosting events as a pillar of their development plans. And I don't mean to be a scold. But given the potential for the appearance of conflict, journalism nonprofits need to be extra careful in how they market such events and, in doing so, not underestimate the clout they wield in their communities.

There are no bright lines here. And if you don't believe me, read David Bradley, publisher of The Atlantic, trying to create one in his recent column about the magazine's mover-and-shaker dinners. I'm sure his line of argument sells in D.C., but in Peoria, forget it.

This is an amazing, promising time for nonprofit journalism. If this kind of controversy surrounded a nonprofit publisher - which it easily might have - it could easily undermine a movement.

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