$25,000 to meet the 'powerful few'? Never mind, Washington Post says.

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At newspapers, employees joke about having bake sales or fundraising auctions to help the bottom line. Having worked on many a school auction, I can see the catalog description now: “Dinner and a movie with your favorite editor! Value: priceless.”

But over at The Washington Post, which is by far not the most financially challenged newspaper going, they’re in a PR free-fall over the story that broke this morning on Politico.com:

“For $25,000 to $250,000, The Washington Post is offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to ‘those powerful few’ – Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper’s own reporters and editors.”

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The story, broken by Politico’s chief political correspondent, Mike Allen, described a flier acquired from a lobbyist, of all ironies, who felt it was a conflict for the paper to charge access to its healthcare reporting and editorial staff.

The Post agreed, and immediately canceled the “salon” that was to be held at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s house.

Now the paper’s management is in full-scale damage control.

“This should never have happened,” Ms. Weymouth told Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. “The fliers got out and weren't vetted. They didn't represent at all what we were attempting to do. We're not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom."

Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander is also bemoaning what he says “comes pretty close to a public-relations disaster.”

It must have been painful for Mr. Allen, who broke the story, to embarrass the Post in this way. Allen worked at the Post for six years and has spoken fondly of his time there. He has likened the first time he entered the Post newsroom to being a ballplayer and stepping onto the grass at Fenway Park in Boston for the first time.

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