Revenge of the sources

March 10, 2013

I understand why a professional journalist like Nate Thayer would be frustrated at being asked to work for "exposure" rather than work for pay, though I think it's unprofessional to vent that frustration by publishing the e-mails and the name of the junior editor who made the request.

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post/)
(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post/)

But behind this debate lurks an uncomfortable fact: The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free.

Call it the revenge of our sources. For a very long time, we got them to work for nothing more than exposure -- and sometimes, we didn't even give them that. Now they're getting more and more of us to do it.

Ask somebody who writes for a magazine or a newspaper what they do and it's rare, at least in my experience, to hear them say they're a "writer." Instead, they say they're a "reporter" or a "journalist." The difference between "writer" and "reporter" or "journalist" isn't that the journalist reports -- she develops sources, calls people, takes them out to lunch, and generally acts as an intermediary between her audience and the world of experts.

The journalist also writes, of course, but anybody can write. Or, if not anybody, then certainly too many people for comfort. But few can get their calls returned by key congressmen, top academics, important CEOs or even, absent the legitimacy of a media organization people have heard of, a factory worker sitting at home on a Tuesday night. That is the powerful advantage that the journalist has over her audience: She's got sources and they don't.

If the transaction between the journalist and the audience is that the journalist has the time, talent, and access to clearly communicate the ideas of newsmakers and experts, what then is the transaction between the journalist and those newsmakers and experts? After all, the journalist, and her institution, are profiting, hopefully handsomely, off their contribution to the enterprise. It's not going too far to say that the whole business would collapse without their participation. Journalists without sources are, well, mere writers.

Moreover, those sources are giving up something of value. They're giving up time, for one thing. The fine folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have spent countless hours walking me through the minutia of the federal budget. They're giving up information that, in other contexts, people pay them for -- consider a CEO who gives paid lectures or a tenured academic at a private college. They are exposing themselves to considerable professional risk, both by telling the journalist things they're not supposed to share and simply by making themselves vulnerable to being misquoted or misinterpreted in public.

So how does the journalist compensate these sources, given how much they contribute to the final product, and given the very real costs and dangers of that contribution? Well, the natural answer in a market economy would be that the sources to get paid. But, in a brilliant (and proper) maneuver, journalism as a profession has deemed it unethical to pay sources for information. We've cartelized the decision not to pay sources for their time and risk. Paying sources, we've decided, is the province of bottomfeeders like the National Enquirer, and we've created such strong norms around that judgment that no one who wants to be taken seriously dares cross it. If I paid a source to talk to me and that information became public, I'd be fired.

No, the transaction between journalists and their sources is that the sources work for exposure -- either for themselves or for their ideas -- and the journalists repackage that work and sell it for money.

And the exposure isn't even a sure thing: Sources rarely have any guarantee that they will appear in the final article, and if they do make it into the final piece, they have no control over which two sentences from their hourlong interview will be chosen. Many are the sources who talked to a journalist for hours only to find themselves left out of the final piece or quoted on some bit of useless trivia. Many are the sources who worked hard to help a journalist on a piece only to be misquoted, or embarrassed by the inarticulate or indiscreet quote the journalist chose to publish.

But exposure in the media really is a valuable thing, and except for entering the op-ed submission lottery, what other option did non-journalists have? If sources separate a journalist and her audience, then access to newsprint separates a journalist from her sources.

That, at least, was the situation until the Internet made the supply of "newsprint" virtually infinite. Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong's blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn't pay -- at least not at first -- but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It's a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

If you look at who's turning out copy for major media outlets but isn't being paid, it's not, by and large, professional journalists, or even wannabe professional journalists. The former typically won't write without pay and editors generally don't want to publish the latter. It's people who, in another world, would be sources for professional journalists. It's academics  and business consultants and market analysts and former politicians. They have the expertise that makes editors --and readers -- trust them. They have good ideas for articles. They have day jobs that are happy to subsidize the time they spending working for media exposure. And they're often very good writers.

There are also, as it happens, a lot of them. And so they've created a reality where editors can get a fair amount of high-quality copy from people who don't demand to be paid, or at least don't demand to be paid very much. That's given Web editors the idea that you actually can get good content for nothing, particularly if you're just asking people to repackage work they've already done -- that's the precise situation in which academics are most likely to write pieces for free. And that's part of how you get a young editor asking Thayer if he could hand over a short version of his feature article for nothing more than exposure.

Working for exposure has long been a crucial element of how professional journalists made their money. It's just that before, we were the ones profiting off of that work, at least in part, and now, we're often not.

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