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Up for audit: 'Checkbook journalism' and the news groups that buy big stories

ABC also got an exclusive interview last year with Michael Jackson's father, Joe Jackson, after paying $200,000 for rare Jackson family video footage.

An ABC News spokesman, Jeffrey Schneider, also said the fees were not tied to any promises of an interview. "We compensate a rights-holder for video or pictures that they own in the same way that The Washington Post would pay a photographer for his pictures," Schneider said.

The situations are not entirely comparable, however. Photographers are journalists with no vested interest in a story. Anthony and Jackson, on the other hand, were the subjects of the stories and had huge stakes in how ABC portrayed them.

The networks' justifications amuse Nick Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, the New York-based company that owns Gawker, Deadspin and Gizmodo, among other Web sites. Denton and Gawker make no bones about paying for stories. Gawker openly proclaimed its willingness three years ago when it offered $10,000 for an un-retouched photo used on the cover of a women's magazine. It got what it sought when an anonymous seller offered a "before" photo of country singer Faith Hill that was used by Redbook magazine after extensive Photoshopping. The before and after images offered a startling statement about the illusion of glamour and beauty.

Denton dismisses criticism of the Favre, O'Donnell and iPhone stories, and proudly points to huge spikes in traffic to his Web sites as a result of them. He says that Gawker has gone from 300,000 visitors per week in 2008 to 1.4 million, in part thanks to scoops it paid for.

"I'm content for the old journalists not to pay for information. It keeps the price down," Denton writes in an exchange of electronic messages. "So I'm a big supporter of that journalistic commandment - as it applies to other organizations."

Denton argues that paying for a story changes little about the source-journalist relationship, or about the underlying credibility of the information. "All sources [compensated or not] have an agenda, whether it's bureaucratic rivalry, mischief-making or the mercenary impulse. They always have to be doubted. . . . I'm content for us to be judged by results."

O'Donnell's campaign condemned the Halloween story, as did her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, but no one disputed its assertions or offered evidence to contradict the events described in it. Favre has declined to comment specifically on the "sexting" story, pending an investigation by the NFL; meanwhile, other women have come forward, claiming that Favre sent them inappropriate messages. Apple asked Gizmodo for its phone back, thereby tacitly acknowledging that the prototype obtained by the Web site was authentic.

For all the unsavory connotations of paying for stories, the reality is that money often elicits important information that might never be obtained through traditional means. In 1987, the National Enquirer paid for a photo of model Donna Rice sitting on the lap of the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Gary Hart, helping to doom Hart's candidacy (Hart's apparent marital infidelity had already been exposed by reporters from the Miami Herald, who caught Rice emerging from his Washington townhouse one evening, but the photograph seemed to offer visual confirmation).

The Enquirer also paid for information beginning in 2007 that helped link former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and their baby, and to some of the women involved with Tiger Woods, which initiated one of the biggest celebrity scandal stories of the past decade in 2009.

The Enquirer actively solicits its readers for such tips, running brightly colored ads in its editions reading, "Got News? We'll Pay Big Bucks." Such payments are typical in the highly competitive world of celebrity journalism - the popular Web site pays, too. But the pay-to-play ethic can backfire; in 2003, the Enquirer had to retract a story about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case when it learned that it was based on false information it secretly bought from two Salt Lake Tribune reporters.

For some organizations, the question is not whether to pay but how much. A network TV executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the subject publicly, said the amount essentially is determined by market forces. A big story, with several bidders seeking exclusives, will inevitably drive up the cost, he said.

But such bidding wars can pay off for the buyer. The British celebrity magazine Hello! often made a profit on its checkbook journalism by reselling material it had bought to other news organizations, says Jack Vitek, a journalism professor at Edgewood College in Milwaukee who worked for the magazine in Europe in the 1990s.

With the ability to determine instantly how much traffic an online story is generating, Gawker's Denton has the pay scale almost down to a science: "Our rule of thumb," he writes, "is $10 per thousand new visitors," or $10,000 per million.

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