Checkbook journalism got a moment in the sun this weekend with a story in The New York Times.
Brian Stelter and Bill Carter spoke with executives from ABC and NBC about paying sources to appear on “Good Morning America” and “Today,” respectively, as well as other programs on the networks.
The general consensus: It happens — usually in the form of licensing fees — and it’s only going to increase.
The key quote from the story: “‘It’s been like this for years, this hyper-competition,'” said one participant in the morning show wars, who asked not to be identified out of concern that commenting openly might jeopardize his job. “‘But now we’ve had a huge management change at NBC, a new news chief at ABC, and changes in producers and the talent lineups of the morning shows. That has amped it up.'”
In recent weeks, ABC paid for videos of Caylee Anthony, photos sent by Anthony Weiner to Meagan Broussard, and the movie rights to Jaycee Lee Dugard. Last year, NBC provided a private plane to David Goldman and put money in a trust for Gaby Rodriguez.*
The NYT got “Today” executive producer Jim Bell and “G.M.A.” EP James Goldston to have a nice exchange.
Mr. Bell said “Today” had licensed material in the past for stories, but “we’re talking about in the vicinity of a few thousand dollars,” he said, “not this nonsense of six figures for what everybody understands is the hope to get an interview.”
He said that “Today” and “G.M.A.” had “different ideas” about “what an acceptable dollar amount is.”
Mr. Goldston responded, “Jim always comes out and says something similar to this whenever they don’t win, which is quite often these days.”
To that, Mr. Bell replied, “We are very comfortable letting ABC have the bookings that require a checkbook.”
But there’s more at stake here than simple bragging rights. As checkbook journalism becomes more pervasive and, more importantly, as the public becomes increasingly aware of the practice, people with stories will expect to be paid. It seems like every other week Deadspin, one of the sites that proudly advertises the fact that it pays for scoops, posts an exchange between an editor and someone who wants to sell a story. The “scoops” in question range from useful and interesting to absurd.
Going forward, this is only going to be a bigger issue. As the NYT story says, “Before the subjects of headlining news stories agree to a television interview these days, some have one question: how much money can I make?”
And for good reason. If the networks are willing to pay, the people will come.
UPDATE: Sharlene Martin, a representatibe for Rodriguez, writes in the following: “NBC did NOT put money in an educational trust for Gaby Rodriguez. They licensed video footage for a very nominal fee (to accompany the production package and her appearance on the May 11 Today Show) that was owned by the Toppenish School Board. It was the school board that insisted the money be put into an educational trust fund for Gaby’s college. As Gaby’s literary manager, we helped to facilitate that transaction by purchasing the video directly from the school board and licensing it to NBC. We believe it really helped tell the story and were happy they requested it for their segment.”
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