The Value of Checkbook Journalism

Did you see LeBron get dunked on yet? "The Dunk" had become stuff of legend – it was Larry vs. Michael off the rafters, top of the backboard while eating a Big Mac, blindfolded kind of legend. What a let down. Now everyone is asking why LeBron and Nike would confiscate such an innocuous video. LeBron didn't exactly get dunked on, so much as he played lazy defense in a summer pickup game and didn't fill the lane fast enough. The dunk was good, but I don't think anyone's making a poster out of it anytime soon. Well, maybe Jordan Crawford, but nobody else. ↵

↵The question isn't if you saw the video – everyone has seen the video – the question is where? ↵

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↵Megagossip site TMZ promoted the dunk like they uncovered the lost Watergate tapes, in a tunnel inside King Tut's tomb, that leads past where Jimmy Hoffa is buried to the lost city of Atlantis. The video was set to air last night at 6:45 p.m. ET, but TMZ scooped themselves, putting the video out far earlier in the day, in what turned out to be a race to get the first version out. ↵

↵In this fast-paced internet world, first still wins. ↵

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↵Or does it? Shortly after TMZ put out their grainy cell-phone-from-across-a-gym version of LeBron getting royally faced (ahem), website ebaumnation.com produced a version they procured that shows a much crisper video from the closer side of the gym, totally undercutting TMZ's exclusive in the process. ↵

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↵Two videos of the same dunk come out on the same day when there was nothing for the last few weeks. How does this happen? It's simple: the owner of each video needed to drive up the price. ↵

↵How much would you pay for a video of the biggest star in a sport getting (somewhat) embarrassed? Is it more or less than a photo of the biggest start in a sport taking a bong hit? What is the going rate for this kind of stuff? ↵

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↵It turns out, in the case of LeBron's video, we're talking five figures at least. A.J. Daulerio posted a story on Deadspin yesterday titled "TMZ Purchases LeBron Dunk Tape Before We Do" in which he explains that he was authorized by Gawker brass to spend upwards of $10,000 for the video. ↵

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↵⇥Now — another wrinkle. When I first received word yesterday that the tape was being shopped around, Sir Denton, in all his checkbook journalismy wisdom, suggested I "put out a bounty on it." You may recall he did a similar thing back in Jezebel's training bra days. His suggested offer? $10,000. ↵
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↵Smarter internet minds than I can quickly determine how much a pageview is worth and how getting two million or so of them to watch a video of LeBron James can be worth paying that much for a video that will end up on every other site in the world anyway. But $10,000? That just seems like a lot. In fact, for video to use on one post, Deadspin was willing to spend nearly as much as it would pay its weekend staffers to write 400 posts throughout the year -- for one grainy dunk video they could steal and post ten minutes later. ↵

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↵(UPDATE: It turns out $10,000 is a lot. Too much in fact, as TSB has learned TMZ paid just $3,000 for their version of the dunk. There is also word that the video procured by ebaumnation.com was shopped around for a week, including an offer by ESPN for $500. ESPN has confirmed they made a small offer for one of the versions that was declined.) ↵

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↵That’s about how long it took for every other site to grip the videos from TMZ and ebaumnation, right? Ten minutes. Sure people flocked to TMZ and ebaumnation, and sure we’re still talking about those two sites today, but is the end result worth paying (overpaying) for the video? Ebaumnation’s Media Relations Manager Mike Parker believes it is. ↵

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↵When asked by The Sporting Blog (h/t Chris Littmann) if they felt the video would get a return on their undisclosed investment, Parker explained that: ↵

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↵⇥“We did feel this video would be worth the price paid as the views would
 show. As of (8:30pm last night) the video has received nearly 1 million views on our
 site alone, this does not count the hundreds of uploads to YouTube and
 other
 sites, crediting ebaumnation.com.” ↵
↵Clearly what ebaumnation paid for the second video to trump TMZ, they felt it was worth the cost. In fact, Parker explains that part of the reason they did go ahead with the purchase of the video (for an undisclosed amount (UPDATE: $5,000) to an undisclosed camera person) was because they saw the screen grab of TMZ and knew they had a better version of the events a checkbook away. ↵

↵  ↵

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↵⇥"Today we saw all the buzz TMZ was pulling and their screen cap of their video. We realized how bad the
quality of theirs was and pursued our contact further. We completed the deal earlier this afternoon, and TMZ was tipped off aboutthis and we believe that is why they went off schedule and featured their version nearly 4 hours before their original 6:45 feature time." ↵
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↵Did TMZ have to pay that tipster too? Are there any rules in checkbook journalism? Could the camera man have given ebaumnation the video, gotten his cashiers check (or Western Union transfer) then jumped it over to Deadspin for ten grand, or TMZ for three times that, leaving ebaumnation with nothing but a video someone already ran? The professional cameramen had their tapes confiscated by Nike (I smell lawsuit) and the tapes that have since leaked were presumably filmed by random on-lookers (or maybe camp staffers?) lucky enough to be in the gym at the time. ↵

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↵This video is viral. By today everyone will see the video on sites all over the world. Clearly both TMZ and ebaumnation felt it was worth whatever investment they put into procuring these tapes and their return would be far greater than what they negotiated to pay. Honestly, I don't know how smacking a logo on a video that every other website in the world will run today translates to pageviews for you and advertising dollars in the long run. Sure, we're talking about ebaumnation today, and many of you will probably go over to the site today to see whatever else they have on the site. (Note: their tag line is Funny Videos, Crazy Pictures, Cool Games, Entertainment Updated Hourly). ↵

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↵But if you go to ebaumnation.com you'll also notice that of all the funny videos and crazy pictures they have on their front page, none has more than 750 views outside of the LeBron video that rounds close to 1.4 million at this time. In fact, ‘EBN's Hot Girl Of the Day' link, posted just five minutes before the LeBron video in classic internet-lead in fashion, had just 134 views as of this morning. We're not here to question anyone's business acumen, but we do wonder how any of these sites that pay for viral videos see a return on their investments. ↵

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↵This seems to be the future of the business. TMZ employs thousands of ‘citizen journalists' who make money by following around celebrities in airports and outside restaurants asking them inane questions while they shakily hold a minicam. Harvey Levin has turned this kind of ‘journalism' a cottage industry. And most of the flash-bulbing paparazzi who follow celebs around do it on a freelance basis. Does your website or magazine want to run a photo of Paris Hilton passed out in the bathroom of a bar? It'll cost you six figures, I'm sure. ↵

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↵How far will this style of journalism go? I spoke with Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl this week about the process of writing his new book, The Beckham Experiment, chronicling the first two years of Beckham's invasion into America and his time with the LA Galaxy. While Wahl spoke with Beckham on many occasions during the time he researched this book, he told me that in order for him to get a series of sit-downs with Beckham specifically for the book, they'd need upwards of one million dollars. ↵

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↵One million dollars to sit down for an ‘authorized' conversation or two. Both Wahl and Crown Publishers scoffed at the notion of paying to talk with Beckham, Wahl going so far as to question the journalistic integrity of those who would. ↵

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↵⇥"(Beckham's people) are in the UK, where I guess it's not ethically bankrupt to pay the people you interview, but in the US at least, that is not part of journalistic ethics. I don't pay anyone, ever, that I interview. The way journalism works in America, if I'm paying him for this book of journalism, then it's pretty hard, for me as a consumer, to think it's on the level." ↵
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↵But is that the way journalism will work in America in the future? If a random spectator can cash in on a cell phone video into the five figures for an anticlimactic dunk, who's to say we won't be paying for more of this kind of scoop-to-the-highest-bidder? Will athletes plant cameras in real-life situations and sell those videos to the news outlets to run? Will informants and whistleblowers hold out for the most money? ↵

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↵Reports came out last week that many of the cable and network news outfits were soliciting Governor Mark Sanford to conduct an interview, each offering their own concessions in an effort to land the embattled public servant. People have questioned the ethics of some of these news organizations for inviting Sanford to frame the conversation how he would like to and offering ‘friendly ground' for the interview. ↵

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↵What if someone just offered to pay him a million bucks? And what if he took it (as a donation to the party of course)? Are we getting to the point where that will become business as usual? I understand it's a far leap from a highly-sought after video being purchased by a few websites to start thinking of payoffs for public officials, but it seems that leap is getting closer and closer by the day. Barry Bonds was paid by ESPN to do a television show. T.O. is doing the same right now with VH1. What if T.O. refuses to speak to the media this season and only provides quotes to Viacom subsidiaries? ↵

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↵Wahl had an interesting spin on that notion, in relation to why Beckham should have talked to him for the book without asking for money: ↵

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↵⇥"I'm not saying I'm Bob Woodward, but the reason people talk to Bob Woodward when he writes about Washington politics is because they know that everyone else is, and there's a value to helping to shape the narrative of a story, of a book, that doesn't have anything to do with getting paid. There's a different value than just money." ↵
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↵Tell that to the two guys who cashed in on home movies yesterday, and the websites that paid them for the value of pageviews. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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