How Much Is This Story Worth To You? The New Checkbook Journalism

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...
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Gathering information firsthand, at least anywhere beyond a few convenient blocks of your office, costs money. Today’s New York Times announces a $30,000 stipend for a semester at Harvard, where one lucky journo — and 12,000 of us have been canned in the past two years, so plenty of us might be very interested — can work on a project and teach.

It can cost millions a year if you try to maintain a consistent presence in a dangerous and complicated place like Iran or Afghanistan, where costs, beyond paying your staffers and stringers, include fixers, translators, drivers, medical care, security and international airfares. Reporters end up sitting around their offices or newsrooms, literally begging for cabfare from their bosses. It’s a lot cheaper than say…shoe-leather reporting.

Freelancers — many of whom, like me, used to have well-paid staff jobs that would pay to send us places — face a whole other set of challenges. You hear about a fantastic story and you want to report it. I’ve got a few in mind right now, one in New Mexico, one in Ghana. Who’s going to pay for it? If a major magazine is willing to pay $6,000-10,000 (and that’s rare, and certainly on the high end of the freelance pay scale these days) for a feature story that might exclusively demand two or three weeks of your time, sometimes months, how many writers can snag another $3-5,000 or more in expenses?

Two years ago, I broke a terrific medical investigative story for Chatelaine, a national Canadian women’s magazine. To sit face to face with the women, and their traumatized families,  who’d become victims of a life-altering and vicious drug side effect, meant sending me to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto from New York where I live. Costs included hotel, cabs, meals, airfare, car rental, gas. Even spending only a day in each place, which is tiring when you’re working on a complicated and emotionally draining story like that one, costs money.

Newspapers, including The New York Times, are wondering if they should get foundation money to help pay for reporting. For freelancers, maybe — most freelancers I know don’t have a spare $5,000 to fly off and report a story that will likely pay them only half that or much less. It’s literally not worth it if writing is what you do for a living. If you are a desperate newbie dying to get a Times byline (as many are), maybe it is. When you write for the Times freelance, you’re first required to read and sign an ethics agreement swearing you have no conflicts of interest — i.e. your uncle is not the PR person for the company you’re writing about, and they’ve paid your expenses to cover the story. This is comforting for the Times and protects its brand, if their brand, as many believe, is fair, accurate, impartial journalism.

Now a website, Spot.Us, asks for public funding for journalism. They also say on their site: “Any self-identified freelancer can work with us.” Hmmmm.

Here are some of my concerns with this idea of y’all whipping out your checkbooks to fund my next story:

1) What if this piece needs to stay secret? By which I mean, the sources I’m working with, maybe for months, maybe for the entire duration of this story’s existence, need to stay way out of range. How can I persuade you to fund something I can’t even tell you very much about? Do you, my patron, as it were, trust me 100% to be truthful about my motivation for getting, and sources for providing, this information?

2) How will I prevent someone from scooping me? Think about it. When you put it out there that you need, say, $10,000 to get onto a research vessel to go report a very specific story you believe in, what you’ve also done is tip off a great story to your competitors, both ambitious and possibly more experienced freelancers (who could get “your” story first) and staffers (who might get the story first and who already have paychecks and a name because they have a job and an employer who might put them on a plane that night.) I’d have been out on a Zodiac the next day. There are many ways to get a story, not just the most expensive one. The best reporters know that, and that’s why they keep beating everyone else.

3) What about developing stories? The best stories are often something you sniff out, watch for a while, make some calls on before even mentioning it to your editor or producer. They may take time to grow to the point it’s time to tell them. If I’m coming to you for funding, at what point will I come to you, hat in hand, for the money I need to go get that story now? News doesn’t wait once it’s about to break and if you hear someone else is working on the same story, time is of the essence.  Veterans know when it’s time to pull the trigger — even the most ardent supporters of journalism may not understand, or respond, or respond quickly enough to, that urgency. They might not have the money. They simply might not care.

4) Really, would you deeply care about a drug you’re not taking and no one you know is taking — but whose side effects are utterly devastating to some of the people who are taking it and may have no idea whatsoever they are in danger? I received an email about a year after my piece appeared from a young medical student who told me this story saved her life. That’s why some of us remain passionate about journalism, for those very rare moments we know our skills have made a useful difference.

This, to me, is the single greatest problem with this new reporting model, which — as someone passionate about smart work — I would like to cheer loud and long. The Internet, and niche media, have managed to help create a world where we pay verycloseattention only to the issues we care about. We tune out, turn off and easily ignore everything else, stuff we think boring or stupid. But some of the most essential stories are not sexy or fun or amusing, like divorcing reality TV stars, but about drier stuff like corporate or government malfeasance, stuff that’s not easy to get at, untangle or explain. Let alone make a cogent, compelling case for on a public website designed to collect enough money to go get that story.

Lindsey Hoshaw, discovered by a Times editor on a recruiting trip for interns, has so far raised $4,050 and says she needs another $1,950, to report her story, which the Times says they’ll buy — for about $700. Typically, for that price, (for whatever they pay) the Times buys all rights to that material.

What do you think of this new model?

6 thoughts on “How Much Is This Story Worth To You? The New Checkbook Journalism

  1. Marcelo Ballve

    I think the real problem is that this method may work for some stories, like Hoshaw’s (who is writing about garbage off California’s coast), but the overriding issue here is that it’s not a cure-all for the news industry. Hoshaw is essentially asking folks to pay for the product (news) upfront, which only works in some cases, as when public interest, readers’ guilt (over some sort of horrible problem) and charitable instincts coincide. It’s asking the public to pay more than the New York Times (i.e. the market) is willing to pay. That will only suffice to subsidize a small percentage of news.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Well, in fact, Hoshaw’s asking for the money to report the piece, not paying for the time it will take to write it. So some of her labor looks like it’s free, except for the money the Times says they’ll pay. At an hourly rate, it’s not very much.

  3. libtree09

    The new model sucks.

    What I would like to see is a strike. No news from anyone for a week, everyone just stop.

    Then we can see how the new model holds up.

    Let us have our cable and television networks get their own news, no talking about what the newspaper’s dug up or a wall street journal or ny times editorial…they can go out and gather the news because the salaries of the top newsreaders on television could float the real news gatherers for some time.

    The internet has brought an attitude that everything is free…no need to rent a video my niece tells me…she can download one, even a new one and at times before release from someplace in Iceland. Music, same. News, it’s free. YouTube. Free. Free cable shows on Hulu. FREE.

    Public interest. Whatever.

  4. misterb

    Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a reverse gear. The Internet is here to stay. While nostalgia for our old ways of life might be comforting, the math says that the old ways of life aren’t going to work any more.
    It’s not just journalists, anyone who used to work with information has to realize that middlemen are no longer necessary. You’re either a producer or a consumer. Journalists are going to find themselves ghost-writing/representing for producers or running clip services for consumers. Information wants to be free; humans want to sell it – information is going to win.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    misterb, the issue for me is two-fold. Who is going to pay anyone enough to do the real work of reporting (not simply packaging up press releases) and what real value for you or anyone else is there in buying/accessing information whose grounding in reality is dubious. Nostalgic or not, what I want from journalism are checkable facts, not a “breakthrough miracle” medical story that’s in fact sponsored by a drug company. I’m not indulging in nostalgia by wanting reliable, sourced, checkable data about the world I live in.

    As you and others have likely noticed, many T/S contributors come to this site with years, if not decades, working to the high standards of old media. Without that, would our work here be as interesting to you just because we’re witty, or whatever?

    1. misterb

      Caitlin, I understand your point completely and sympathize absolutely. We need the press to remain free, and nothing could be more important. But, I’ve been in the Internet business since Al Gore liberated the Arpanet, and I’m convinced that the free market will no longer support a newspaper oriented press. Everything in your post confirms my suspicions.
      So your non-Internet options are: government support, non-profit status or patronage. Perhaps a return to 18th century journalism – a single journalist writing a broadsheet once or twice a week. I wish I had better ideas.

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