Balloon Boy And Checkbook Journalism: Is It All Bad?

King-of-the-blogosphere Nick Denton paid a 25-year-old student an undisclosed sum for his story about unwittingly helping father Richard Heene plan the hoax, which involved pretending that 6-year-old Falcon Heene was trapped inside a shiny, UFO-shaped balloon. How much did the student receive? “Much less” than $5,000-$8,000, which is what Robert Thomas was originally asking, but this isn’t the first time Denton’s opened his wallet.

In August the Gawker owner paid for the “McSteamy” video and he told MediaMemo’s Peter Kafka that he paid $10,000 for Jezebel’s “nominate the worst example of magazine cover Photoshoppery” contest in ’07. “Not really a new thing,” he added. “A story is a story. We’re not squeamish about the means.”

Kafka asks: “Does paying for this stuff make sense?…If you want, you can check out Gawker’s rate card, make some assumptions, and conclude that Denton can’t afford to pay his story-sellers that much and still end up in the black, even at one million page views. And I’m reasonably confident that Denton is very interested in measuring profitability and has worked out an equation that pays his story-sellers in proportion to traffic, but without breaking his bank.”

We wonder: is this really all that new?

When we were a wee freelancer we were told that three things sell stories: either you’re a talented writer/you have an interesting voice/you have something interesting to say; you have information that nobody else has; or you have access to someone or something that nobody else has.

We’re not surprised that Denton is willing to pay tipsters who have access or knowledge, even if they’re not “traditional” writers or journalists.

When the lines get crossed and it looks more like Gawker is paying sources rather than contributors is where things get tricky. Where’s that line? You tell us.