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Why is The Washington Post holding a live event in Boston?

Washington Post Live is a small way for the D.C. newspaper to expand its brand outside the Beltway.

In a well-appointed banquet hall at the Westin Boston Waterfront, a balding, disturbingly energetic man in a red bow tie is holding forth on baby boomers, technology, and aging.

“We are not young, but we are youthful,” enthuses Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab. A bit later: “And by the way, we never talk about the F-word when it comes to aging: fun!” Well, I suppose.

I had come to the Westin last Thursday for a program called Booming Tech, presented by The Washington Post as part of its Washington Post Live video series. I was less interested in the subject matter — how boomers getting along in years are enhancing their lives with digital technology — than I was in finding out what the Post was up to.

At a time when newspapers are scrambling to make money any way they can, Washington Post Live struck me as unusual and innovative. The two-hour-plus event, moderated by Washington Post Live editor Mary Jordan (with an assist from Sacha Pfeiffer of Boston public radio station WBUR), featured panels on tech and entrepreneurship, a conversation with health-care expert (and Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate) Don Berwick, and a closing one-on-one between Jordan and humorist/curmudgeon P.J. O’Rourke, who was on hand to flog a new book. (Jordan: “Do you like your cell phone at least?” O’Rourke: “No.”)

So how does all this fit with the Post’s business strategy? I snagged Tim Condon, the Post’s director of new ventures and interim general manager of Washington Post Live, for some insight. (Two days earlier, the Post had announced that former Bloomberg executive Robert Bierman will be taking over as the permanent general manager.)

Washington Post Live launched in 2011, well before Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos acquired the Post. The idea, Condon said, is to reach an “influential audience,” usually in Washington but occasionally outside the Beltway. He described the venture as both journalism and business, and said the Post hosts between 20 and 30 such events each year.

“The content that comes from these discussions are our journalism,” Condon said. And though the events are free, they are paid for by underwriters — in this case, the AARP, which was holding a national conference called Life@50+ next door at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Washington Post Live events are free and open to the public, and other news organizations are invited to cover them as well. The compare-and-contrast that comes to mind is the Post’s ill-conceived plan in 2009 to host $25,000 off-the-record salons with the paper’s journalists in publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home (a fiasco I wrote about at the time for The Guardian).

The Booming Tech event at the Westin featured, inevitably, its own hashtag (#techboomers). About 100 people were on hand, but many of them seemed younger than I — and I’ve been fending off AARP mailers for the better part of the past decade.

The proceedings were webcast live, and video highlights have been posted. A publication of some sort will follow, Jordan told the audience, after a second “Booming Tech” is held in San Diego on September 4. The idea of the Post holding events far outside its circulation area would seem to line up well with its recent move to give subscribers of some other newspapers digital access to the Post; both aim to extend the power of Post content outside its traditional boundaries.

In his conversation with Jordan, P.J. O’Rourke insisted that he is “not a Luddite,” explaining: “A Luddite wants to destroy tech…I just want to point out that there will be tears before bedtime for a long time.”

As with so many news organizations, technology has led to a lot of tears at The Washington Post, transforming the paper from a highly profitable enterprise into a money loser hoping that some of Bezos’ Amazon fairy dust will somehow rub off.

Washington Post Live is certainly not the answer to the Post’s woes, or to those of the news business in general. But it’s nevertheless an interesting idea that at least partly answers the question: “Where do we go from here?”

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net. His most recent book, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age, tracks the rise of online community news projects.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.