Paying for News

April 22, 2010 

By now, you’ve probably heard of Gizmodo’s exclusive sneak peek of what is supposed to be the next iPhone. Gawker Media, which owns the technology blog Gizmodo, has been very upfront about its $5,000 payment to an opportunistic bar patron who found the prototype after Apple engineer Gray Powell apparently forgot it.

There’s been some speculation that this was all a publicity stunt by Apple, discussions about the legality of purchasing what is essentially stolen property, and even a brief interview with Powell’s father, Robert, who says his son is “devastated” by the whole ordeal.

What’s most troubling, however, is Gawker Media’s unabashed willingness to buy the device. Legal or not, this could mark a disturbing precedent in the ethics of online journalism. Joshua Topolsky, editor in chief of Engadget, Gizmodo’s chief rival blog, made this safe, but seemingly sneering statement in a CNET story in which he says Engadget never made an offer for the phone, "If (Gawker Media CEO) Nick Denton can pay for a story and he's comfortable with that and they are fine with dealing with the repercussions, then this is the story. If you're going to pay for a story, this is the one to pay for."

True, print and television news magazines pay for exclusive appearances all the time. People Magazine reportedly paid between $4 and $6 million for exclusive rights to the first photos of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s twins, and Richard Nixon earned $600,000 from his famous interviews with David Frost.

Those from the newspaper world generally look down on such practices. Stories are uncovered, not bought. A monetary exchange taints the news gathering process, turning the subject into a commodity, or in this case, a commodity into a sleazy “gotcha!” — a dirty finger in Apple’s secretive eye. It’s splashy, trashy, yellow tabloid journalism.

And it sells.

While most daily newspapers are struggling to keep from cutting into the bare bones of their skeleton crews (and sometimes trying to downplay this downsizing), Gizmodo was able to drop $5,000 on something they say they weren’t even sure was legitimate, earning massive traffic and name recognition, including spots on numerous TV shows.

Meanwhile, old media have turned increasingly toward free sources of content. And with digital cameras making everyone a photographer, this content is most often composed of photos. Our own pet photo page is a weekly feature and our reader scrapbook and photo club pages all rely on unpaid submissions. The New York Times’ Lens Blog is seeking submissions from around the world of photos taken at 8 a.m. Pacific time on May 2 for its “Timely Global Mosaic.”

My first reaction when I heard of this project was mild enthusiasm. It’s a good idea, not wholly original, but it does bring the day-in-the-life-of concept into the digital world and it will be interesting to see the wide range of images that will be included in the project. Then the side of me that wants to continue earning a living as a photographer kicked in and made me groan about the insane amount of chaff that you’ll have to wade through to find the gems in this mosaic and how this is just one further step in the devaluation of photographs.

Still, this is all just a natural progression. It’s simple supply and demand. More photographers (especially photographers who don’t put food on the table with their work) means those photos are going to be cheaper (especially when serious hobbyists are willing to give away photos). In the short run, these types of projects and photo pages are a good way to get readers (i.e. consumers) engaged with their publications, but ultimately, that’s not the real mission of a daily newspaper. Free content is an easy way to drop a little change into the coffers, but that’s not the kind of content people are willing to buy. And though it’d be tempting to argue that Gawker’s willingness to buy the iPhone is a model to aspire to, the difference between buying a story and paying to report on is more than just semantics.

My hope is that these quick and dirty revenue streams will be utilized in continuing the important in-depth work that newspapers have traditionally done as their communities’ watchdogs.

Update: Police raided Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home and seized computers, digital cameras and other gear. PC World has an interesting roundup of early reactions.

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kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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