The Trump Dividend

Newspaper reporters are earning big money as TV pundits and speakers.

“Lucrative gig” and “newspaper journalist” tend not to be mentioned in the same sentence these days (if they ever were). But for columnists and reporters on the elite US press, the hunger for authoritative voices on the Trump administration has led to some well-paid sidelines.

Buzzfeed reports that “the nation’s leading political reporters are flourishing.”

“Reporters’ windfall has stemmed, in part, from a shift in strategy by CNN President Jeff Zucker and NBC News chair Andy Lack, two old-school executives leading the major networks that supplement reporters’ income. (The contributor well for Fox News tends to differ from its rivals.) Dinged by critics for featuring roundtables of talking heads, Zucker and Lack have been on a buying spree to sign reporters who break news to paid contributor contracts. That way, when the Washington Post or New York Times breaks a big Russia–Trump story — and they often do — their network will have exclusive access to the bylined reporter. In the hyper-competitive world of political television, the coin of the realm has become five magic words: “The author joins us now.””

The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg and AP supply some of the bigger names, but reporters on relatively new media like the Daily Beast and the even younger Axios have been signed up too.

Buzzfeed reports that contracts start at $30-$50,000 a year, rising to $90,000 for top reporters and as high as $250,000 for leading names.

Compare with the average newspaper salary in the US – $44,000 – or $88,000 in Washington D.C., and a name reporter can double their salary.

Aside from the dosh, TV appearances put newspaper reporters where the action is. Trump’s is a TV administration and appearing on-screen introduces reporters to the policymaking ecosystem.

Reporters agents are also pushing book deals. There are rumours of six and seven figure advances for books on Trump and Washington, since the Fire and the Fury appears to have reawakened the public’s appetite for political non-fiction.

Another nice earner is speaking. Buzzfeed claims Jonathan Swan, political reporter on news startup Axios, can earn around $25,000 a time for a speaking gig. His colleague, former Politico columnist Mike Allen is also a speaker.

There was some agonising over speaking sidelines decades ago. Here’s a report from the American Journalism Review (1994) on the dangers of speaking to hedge funds, big businesses and Wall Street and how it might damage credibility. Another, from 2012 in the Columbia Journalism Review, worries that the ethical trajectory “is apt to be downward” if journalists are allowed to make their own policies on who they speak to and what they’re paid.

Another 2012 report, from Reuters, looks at differing standards across newspapers, from the Wall Street Journal’s blanket ban on all paid speeches to the FT’s apparent tolerance of the practice.

Have we moved on, even from 2012?

Journalism is a precarious job. It’s badly paid. A lot of what’s published emanates from PR firms. Much more is clickbait or churnalism designed to lure casual views. Reporters need to be on the front lines, and need to be embedded among the major players on their beat. For political correspondents, that can mean appearing on TV news (though this doesn’t always buy them credibility with viewers, as the comments following the Buzzfeed report suggest).

It can mean taking paid speaking gigs. If publications ban their reporting staff receiving renumeration for giving talks: We hope they’re compensating them properly for any missed income.