Secret is as secret does

Last Thursday, there was a meeting of news publishers and editors. According the James Warren, who broke the story on the Atlantic Web site:

There’s no mention on its website but the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, has assembled top executives of the New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Lee Enterprises and Freedom Communication Inc., among more than two dozen in all. A longtime industry chum, consultant Barbara Cohen, “will facilitate the meeting.

The subject of the meeting? “Models to Monetize Content.” (Let’s leave aside for now the notion of how much sense it makes for the same people who broke the system to be the only ones involved in fixing the system.)

Warren reported it as a “secret” meeting, and from the reaction of the people and sites that follow these “future of journalism” discussions, it would seem he’s correct.

But on Friday, Editor and Publisher published this story:

Michael Golden, vice chairman of The New York Times Co. and chief operating officer of The New York Times Regional Media Group, defended the controversial Newspaper Association of America meeting Thursday in Chicago, saying there was nothing secretive about it.

“The characterization in The Atlantic that this was a ‘secret meeting’ was inaccurate,” Golden, who attended the event, told E&P Friday. “If it were secret, there wouldn’t have been a sign on the door saying ‘NAA meeting.’ This was a meeting that had been planned for weeks — you can’t get these people together without planning it over a period of time.”

The question now is how much bullshit to call on Golden.

There’s no mention of the event in the Events section of the NAA‘s website and no press release in its Press section. I’ve run half a dozen Web searches for anything remotely resembling an event like this and come up with nothing. And again, the reactions of the people who make it their business to know this sort of thing has been akin to “Wha wha whaaa?” so…

Let me help Golden with an operational definition here: A meeting is secret if no interested parties – other than the participants – know it’s happening.

And you know what? This meeting had to be secret, in order to do what Golden and the rest of the cabal wanted to do, which was to create ways to make people directly pay for content they’ve been getting without direction compensation up to now. (Notice I don’t say “for free” as that’s a misnomer but another subject for another time.) If it wasn’t kept secret, the NAA would risk attention from the feds for anti-trust actions.

According to Zachary M. Seward:

Why so cautious? Well, surely the executives discussed ways to charge for content online, but they can’t appear to be coordinating a move to erect pay walls around their sites. That’s illegal. The industry would like an antitrust exemption, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports the idea, but the Obama administration is opposed.

Seward also posted a statement from NAA President John F. Strum that read, in part:

With antitrust counsel present, the group listened to executives from companies representing various new models for obtaining value from newspaper content online. The participants also shared success stories in driving new revenue to their newspapers products.

Emphasis mine.

So how does that work exactly? Does the antitrust lawyer sit there and interrupt someone whom he or she thinks is about to say something that could be construed as collusion? ‘Cause then I imagine the meeting sounded a little something like this:

By the way, if you’re interested in a not-at-all secret meeting of people interested in coming up with innovative solutions to news publishing, might I suggest the Chicago Media Future Conference on June 13? Don’t forget to register!

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