Should Journalists Pay for Information?

A tricky one, this, and easy to get on one’s high horse but not analyse one’s own self interest. 

Robert Boynton here does a good job of exploring this in more detail, concluding:

As professional skeptics, though, we should be suspicious of the knee-jerk way in which journalists invoke the “no money for information” rule. How convenient that our personal gain and our profession’s ethical principles are so perfectly aligned! Isn’t it possible that this prohibition is simultaneously true and a way of banishing awkward questions of money and exchange from our moral calculations? In the murky intimacy that comes with immersion reporting, we owe our sources everything. Perhaps this is why we try so hard to avoid the topic.

I quite agree. In Asia it’s hard to draw a line somewhere, and I’ve covered sleazy politicians and (even sleazier) tech PR companies, all of whom expect to get something for something. One former minister in the Habibie government insisted on money for an interview after he’d retired, arguing that it taught journalists the value of information (I argued it only taught them the price of it) and another, a senior politician and minister who is now a presidential candidate, demanded 9 million rupiah (then a little under $1000) for an interview. (We didn’t pay.)

But it’s easy to get all pompous about this. As Boynton points out, it’s sometimes easier to teach the ethics of journalism (the theory) than to teach good journalism (the practice).

And, more important, I think journalism is under far more serious threat from the other side: journalists accepting payment or making financial compromises in exchange for print space. More on that anon.

In the meantime, this all came up because I was asked to explain the ethics behind refusing to pay for information and found I couldn’t, at least in a way that made any sense. The example arose with a school run by nuns reportedly demanding money for access to records of a former pupil, now famous. They were tired, I guess, of the time and effort of catering to sweaty film crews stomping through their office.

They have my sympathies, and if one crew agrees to pay, a precedent has been set in the nuns’ eyes that is hard to quarrel with. They’re not out to make a buck; they’re just tired of diverting resources to something that they’re not being hired (or asked by God, presumably) to do.

Good luck to them. But they need to see it from the perspective of the journalist, too. Paying a nun for information isn’t likely to compromise the information very much, but how about if the person was a pimp/drug dealer/thief/killer/banker? How tainted is the information—and the relationship between the journalist and her source—then?

I guess my advice in that situation would be for a journalist or news organisation worried about such perceptions to offer money to a charity of the source’s choosing but from which they would not benefit directly;  the purpose of giving the money is to acknowledge the time and effort that went into providing the information, but not actually attaching a value to the information itself. It’s also acknowledging the more important principle: that, however much we’d like to think otherwise, information is money in our business—indeed that is our business, turning information into money–and we shouldn’t be too prissy about acknowledging that fact.

CJR: Checkbook Journalism Revisited

Skype SMS’ Teething Problems

You’ve probably all heard of Skype’s new SMS service, which is very cool. If you have a Skype-Out account, you can send SMS messages to cellphones and, if you register you cellphone number with Skype, the recipients can reply to you on your mobile phone. Great idea. Only problem: It doesn’t work.

Well, it does work, but not always. At least one cellular operator doesn’t seem to pass the messages on. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that Skype says that the message has been delivered, and charges you for it. Teething troubles, I guess, but still a nuisance, if you’re counting your Skype pennies. (This experiment has so far set me back €0,44. Money that has gone forever. Forever.) Other folk are reporting similar problems, although it doesn’t sound widespread.

Skype’s technical people say you should raise a help ticket if this happens to you. The only problem is: How do you know that it doesn’t get through? An interesting conundrum as Skype ventures into new waters. Consider: Cellular SMS supports a service which allows you to receive notification of the arrival of your message; Skype users can tell whether other Skype members are online and available. But now you can send an SMS to someone, unless the pending/delivered/failed notification feature works properly, all those presence/delivery indicators are out the window.

A weird disjuncture, given that Skype is best used for non-local calls. Skype is all about reaching beyond the tyranny of long distance communication costs. And the same is true of Skype SMS, I suspect, especially in those places where SMS is very cheap. Here in Indonesia, for example, cellular SMS to an Indonesian phone costs 250 rupiah, or 3 US cents. A Skype SMS costs 14 US cents. No one is going to send a Skype SMS to someone locally if that kind of price difference exists. So Skype SMS might best work if you want to communicate with someone who is not at their computer, or doesn’t have Skype (or doesn’t have a computer) but doesn’t live in your zone. Not a bad niche. But the problem still remains: If SMS via Skype is really going to kick in, reliability is going to be an issue. Who is going to use the service if they have no way of knowing whether their messages landed?

Something that Skype needs to fix.