Opinion pays its own way

by Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. December 27, 2008

Do you like reading Op-Eds? You may be reading more of them in the news sections of the papers, thanks to the changing economics of journalism.

Consider a typical newspaper opinion section. The section includes unsigned editorials written by full-time staff of the newspaper. Newspaper staffers also may write their own signed columns. The staff-written articles are expensive. After all, the paper has to pay the salary for a full-time employee. So even for a staffer who writes four articles per week, the cost per word for the staffer's output is relatively high.

Other space in the opinion section is filled with material from writers who are not employees of the newspaper. This includes outside columnists who are paid on a per-article basis (such as Paul Campos, Jason Salzman and me). It also includes syndicated columnists, for which a fee is paid to the syndicate. Depending on the particular fees involved, the cost might be comparable to a staff-written article, or it might be considerably less.

Cheapest of all is content for which the writer gets paid nothing. This means letters to the editor and also, for most papers, Op-Eds. The author is someone who is not affiliated with the newspaper. Op-Eds are so named because they originally appeared opposite the page containing editorials written by the newspaper staff.

Only a few papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, pay for an Op-Ed. For Op-Eds and for letters to the editor, the newspaper does have to pay for its own employees to read the submissions, choose which ones will be published and edit them. But even including the production cost, the Op-Eds and letters to the editor are a relatively less expensive way for the newspaper to fill a given amount of column inches.

You obviously can't make a living by writing letters to the editor or Op-Eds. The writers are, in effect, paid for their writing by somebody else - such as the universities, think tanks or interest groups where they are employed. Or they just enjoy "psychic income" because they like to write and have some other source of income.

Can the economic model from the Op-Ed be used in other parts of the paper? In the olden days, the news sections of the papers were generally sacrosanct, reserved exclusively for articles by full-time newspaper or wire service journalists.

The barrier was broken, quite successfully, by YourHub. Most writers for YourHub get paid nothing. Yet the zoned editions of YourHub provide plenty of interesting news regarding activities in local communities. YourHub is not known for the in-depth investigative journalism that might uncover financial corruption in the City Council. But it does at least offer room for citizens to express concerns about local school policies or other local issues that might not get covered otherwise.

Another barrier fell in The Denver Post on Nov. 17. The front page featured a huge, 39-paragraph article titled "Alarm over water supply." The article was an investigative piece about alleged environmental harm caused by a particular process - hydraulic fracturing - involved in natural gas extraction.

Normally, in-depth investigative reporting is very costly for a newspaper. The article may requires days or weeks of work by at least one reporter, and many articles use more than one reporter. But for The Post, the article was free.

It was supplied, gratis, by ProPublica. ProPublica describes itself as an "independent, nonprofit" organization. It is subsidized by the billionaire Sandler family, who are generous donors to a variety of leftist groups, such as ACORN. ProPublica hires journalists to write investigative articles and gives its product away for free to mainstream media. The general theme of ProPublica's work is that the government is not doing a good enough job in controlling things, particularly things involving big business.

The ProPublica article in The Post was slanted, sly and opaque. For example, we are told, "In one case, a house exploded" because of nearby hydraulic fracturing. Where was the house? Who determined that hydraulic fracturing was the cause? ProPublica does not say.

The article points to a 2005 federal law which put state government, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in charge of regulating hydraulic fracturing. The article is replete with complaints from EPA employees. Yet in an article focused on natural gas extraction in Sublette County, Wyo., the article shows no indication that the author (Abraham Lustgarten) talked to a single state or county official in Wyoming. Although the article makes assertions about what "state regulators" think, the article does not quote or a cite a single state regulator.

Like an Op-Ed, the article presented a one-sided series of facts arrayed to support a point of view. Even when appearing in the news section, such articles should be labeled as "opinion."

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