Home > Uncategorized > Who Can Afford Checkbook Journalism?

Who Can Afford Checkbook Journalism?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 29, 2009

As you climbed out from under your piles of wrapping paper (or Midwestern snow—whichever was deeper) this Christmas weekend, you may have had time to follow the exploits of one Jasper Schuringa.  Mr. Schuringa was, of course, one of the passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 who helped subdue the man who tried to detonate an explosive on the plane on Christmas Day.   The Dutchman was quick to contact the media with his “hero” status, willing to tell his story in exchange for what now appears to be certain “considerations.”

In addition to his story of overpowering Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab on the plane landing in Detroit after a transatlantic crossing originating in Amsterdam, Schuringa was also peddling a couple of cell phone pictures.  It was one of those pictures—one in which you can make out the suspect only by the contrast of his white shirt to the darker ones around him—that CNN says it paid a “licensing fee” to use.  CNN told TVNewser it did not pay for the interview that accompanied the photo.  You can see that entire interview here:


It’s a good thing CNN “didn’t pay” for the interview.  It’s not very good.  Schuringa is a lousy subject who talks about his experience like he’s describing the latest “Die Hard” movie to a friend in an Amsterdam club.  To me, his interview lacked emotion and any semblance of a personal connection to the event.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s just business now.  CNN didn’t disclose what it paid Schuringa, though TVNewser reports a price tag of $10,000 was running around other media outlets interested in the same “picture.”  Gawker.com reports the New York Post and ABC News coughed up another $8,000 for more picture “rights.”  But overpaying for a crummy interview and a blurry photo isn’t what’s at issue here, not from where I’m sitting.  Checkbook journalism has been around for as long, I suspect, as there have been checkbooks and journalists.  It was a core business strategy for the likes of Hearst and Pulitzer.  But it’s crazy to be relying upon it now.

You see, that’s the angle I’m taking here today.  It’s easy for anyone to write a column or blog and rage against the sin of checkbook journalism. Anyone can talk about the arms race that begins when opposing journalistic forces look to outbid one another for the big story.  It’s simple to point out the story that you have to pay for comes with a lot of questions about how much truth you just bought versus how much fiction.  So I won’t repeat those criticisms you’ve all heard so many times before.  Instead, I’ll raise my objections today on just how shortsighted it is to try to beat the competition by spending what could easily be a five-figure sum to get one interview.  In the new economy of the media today, what sort of decision is that?

This is the era of UGC—user-generated content.  Like no other time in history, news sources—our consumers—will give you their pictures/videos/interviews for free.  If I’m not mistaken, CNN actually had me and maybe a million of my friends pay Apple $1.99 (I assume CNN got a cut) for the CNN iPhone app.  That app allows me to upload pictures and other content directly from my phone.  It’s an extension of the network’s iReport brand.  So CNN not only has people willing to give it all kinds of content for free, it actually has people paying to be able to send in their news through photos and other means.  If that’s the case, is paying an eyewitness really a good idea?

Take a look at this story, also from CNN:


In it, other passengers on Flight 253 tell their stories about those harrowing few minutes at the end of the flight.  I’m pretty sure no one paid them.  The one passenger quoted, Syed Jafry, was actually sitting much closer to the would-be bomber than Schuringa.  But he didn’t work to sell his story as much as his fellow passenger.  So he didn’t get any money to tell his story (which in my mind offered a lot more insight than Schuringa’s “I’m a hero” story).

What I’m saying is that if someone has an honest story to tell, they’ll do it for free.  We’ve always known that.  In fact, it’s what’s made our system of journalism work for the last 100 years or so.  Now, in a time when we’re wondering how we’re going to keep the news industry afloat financially, it’s unconscionable to think about a bidding war for sources on important—or unimportant—news stories.  Any company that’s laid off journalists but is still willing to pay sources for interviews is on the wrong side of the ledger here.  Let’s leave CNN out of it for a minute.  If a hypothetical news organization SNC (Super News Channel) pays $10,000 for photos or interview or whatever just three or four times a year, that’s the salary of another journalist—at least an entry-level one.  How many stories could that young journalist have turned in the course of his first year on the job?  I’d say at least two hundred.  So paying for a story—a recognized journalistic wrong—yields four stories.  Cultivating a budding reporter—I think most people would see that as a good thing—yields fifty times more.  Even the bean counters at the top of our companies we love to complain about see the first scenario makes no sense.

So make your argument on the old turf of journalism ethics.  Or make it on new battlefield of economic survival.  Either way, checkbook journalism doesn’t make any long term sense.  Sure, you win this story.  But where do you end up in the long run.

So when the next Jasper Schuringa comes knocking, listen of course.  But don’t pay.  You’re buying a ticket on a one-way flight to ruin for our profession.

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