Among the reasons journalists write, of course, is for the money. Having freelanced for a decade, I am as attuned as anyone to the role money plays in the life of a magazine writer. During that time, I was never in a position to pay anyone for cooperating, nor were most of the subjects of my pieces in need of compensation. So while I never discovered whether money would influence them, I became an expert on the influence money had on me. Put simply, I love writing for money. Being paid is one of the things that distinguishes journalism from scholarship. It makes me feel, rightly or wrongly, that my work has more “purchase” on the world.
I thought a lot about the relationship between money and writing while doing the research for my book, The New New Journalism (2005). The goal was to look at the state of long-form nonfiction by discussing craft with some of its finest practitioners. I was lucky to find some extremely forthcoming interlocutors, and just about the only time the conversation faltered was when the topic turned to money, due in part to my own uneasiness with the subject. After some version of the “I never pay for information” boilerplate, we’d move on. But those who didn’t shirk from discussing money had some intriguing suggestions.
In the epilogue to his book There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz explains that the poor, African-American family he wrote about agreed to cooperate with him without any promise of payment. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Kotlowitz was a firm believer that the journalist must keep his distance. But the intensity of this reporting project tested those beliefs. “I spent two years with this family, and everything I imagined about a subject-reporter relationship went out the window,” he tells me. Kotlowitz would occasionally buy clothes for the two boys who were the focus of the book, or food for the household. “How could I not?” he says. Toward the end of his reporting, he began to think how he might assist the boys in a more long-term way. After completing the book, he used a percentage of the royalties to set up a trust fund. “I know there are some people who will say that I became too involved with the family, that I broke my pact as a journalist to remain detached and objective,” he writes.
Jon Krakauer, the author of the best-sellers Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, argues that there are occasions when a writer’s subjects “deserve to be compensated for their contributions.” For instance, while reporting Under the Banner of Heaven, he paid $20,000 for the rights to a woman’s memoir, though she had already provided him all the valuable information it contained. He recognized that he had benefited from the exchange, and wanted to help her in a way that wouldn’t undermine the project’s integrity. “She was dirt poor, and struggling to overcome some serious problems,” he explains.
When Jonathan Harr, the author of the best-selling A Civil Action, wanted to write about an archaeological dig on the Turkish-Syrian border, the project’s organizer requested a share of the revenue to help fund the dig itself. Harr felt it was a legitimate request and came up with a contract that specified that the archaeologists would profit from any movie that resulted from Harr’s work, although not from the book or article itself. The deal was never completed because Harr ultimately decided it was too unwieldy.
As these writers attest, the question of what, whether, and when a journalist owes a source is never going to be obvious or straightforward. It is a discussion that takes place at the extremes of journalism, where the extraordinary duration and depth of the reporting put the writer-subject relationship on a different plane.
And for every Kotlowitz, Krakauer, and Harr, there is a Joe McGinnis, the best-selling author whose contractual relationship with Jeffrey MacDonald blew up in his face. In order to write Fatal Vision, an insider’s account of MacDonald’s 1983 murder trial, McGinnis agreed to share the proceeds of his book, going so far as to join the defense team. When McGinnis concluded that MacDonald was guilty after all, MacDonald sued him for fraud and breach of contract. That trial ended in a hung jury and McGinnis agreed to a substantial out-of-court payment to avoid a retrial.