Words are Cheap

This article was published in the March 10, 2013 issue of The Wall Street Journal.

Journalists naturally worry about the future of journalism as technology upends traditional business models, resulting in huge job losses. A recent kerfuffle involving a veteran foreign correspondent turned freelance journalist illustrates why readers also should care how serious journalism will be funded.

An editor of The Atlantic magazine’s website last week asked Nate Thayer to rewrite a 4,000-word article he had published on another site (about 25 years of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy) into a 1,000-word version for The Atlantic. Mr. Thayer balked and instead posted the email exchange on his blog site under the headline, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013.”

The Atlantic’s Web editor wrote: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” Mr. Thayer responded: “I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.” Mr. Thayer suggested, “I am sure you can do what is the common practice these days and just have one of your interns rewrite the story as it was published elsewhere, but hopefully stating that is how the information was acquired.”

Hundreds of journalists joined discussions on websites such as Branch and Hacker News. One generated more than 100 comments by making the point that while short blog posts can be interesting, deeply reported stories, whether online or in print, are different: With in-depth magazine articles, “I was astounded at what I had been missing: articles where I couldn’t predict the next paragraphs based on the headlines; articles that answered my objections in the next paragraph; articles which clearly had taken a month to write.”

This drives home one of the points Mr. Thayer was trying to make, which is that there are fewer news organizations able to fund enterprise journalism. The no-pay model can’t support journalism that takes weeks, months or years.

As Cambodia bureau chief in the 1990s for the Far Eastern Economic Review (which, like this newspaper, was owned by Dow Jones & Co.), Mr. Thayer broke the story that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was still alive. He was the first to locate, interview and photograph the secretive communist leader and the last to interview him about the killing fields where some two million Cambodians were murdered through executions, torture and starvation. Mr. Thayer spent a decade reporting from the jungle hideouts of the Khmer Rouge and has been hospitalized more than a dozen times since for cerebral and other malarias.

Mr. Thayer is best known for his Pol Pot scoop, but his most enterprising reporting was exposing corruption in Cambodia. He profiled Theng Bunma, who was so feared that Cambodians would only whisper his name and so wealthy that he funded the Cambodian military.

When I was publisher of the Review and learned of death threats against Mr. Thayer because of his reporting on corruption, I called to order him to leave Phnom Penh. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t hear you. Too much static on this mobile phone. Call later.”

He left for headquarters in Hong Kong only after gathering voluminous documents to support his reporting against the inevitable lawsuit. After Mr. Thayer’s reporting, Bunma was banned from the U.S. as a drug smuggler.

Mr. Thayer told me last week, “This has nothing to do with The Atlantic.” Instead, “someone needs to figure out a way to make a profit bringing a free press to a free people. In the meantime, it would be nice to be able to pay my rent.”

The tumult in the news industry is driven by declines in advertising revenues. Readers still value news, both light blog posts and in-depth reporting. Some journalism will be unpaid, but the kind that makes a difference—that finds and questions Pol Pots and drug lords—will continue to cost money. We need to find ways of paying for it.

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