“I think in the last year I’ve done, I want to say–it’s tough–a few dozen? Thirty to forty would be my guess?”
Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, was on the phone from Los Angeles Monday evening, trying to recall how many paid speeches he had delivered in 2010. Mr. Lehrer, 29, is the author of two books on the brain, is writing a third about creativity and is in high demand on the lecture circuit. Thousand-person convention halls, intimate corporate gatherings–he’s done them all. “I remember being at a podiatry conference in Denver for my first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” he told The Observer.
Foot doctors in the Rockies are paying to hear about a madeleine, and they are paying well. For decades, media critics have scolded journalists who give speeches for outsize sums, deeming it unseemly at best and a conflict of interest at worst. But in an era with fewer watchdogs–and a profession that has had a measure of its righteousness sapped by pay freezes, furloughs, layoffs and bankruptcies–the practice is thriving once again. Scan the rosters of the various speakers’ bureaus, and you’ll find no shortage of names from The Times, TV news and the monthlies, all eager to hit the Hyatt ballroom and fling spittle over a sea of warmed-over salmon.
Not everyone pockets the money. Some speak gratis or donate their fees to charity, and straight newspaper reporters know better–or should–than to take cash from groups that they cover. But opinion journalists and ideas-y magazine writers are largely free to collect five- and even six-figure checks for a single afternoon’s work.
“There are journalists at every price point within the lecture field. You can say anything between $5,000 and $100,000 and up,” Bill Leigh, whose Leigh Bureau represents Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, Atul Gawande and others, told The Observer last week. “I can assure you that journalists are well represented–and that that is new. That much I can tell you emphatically.”
Mr. Leigh recalled, years ago, being unable to even gauge Walter Cronkite’s interest in a speaking tour: The CBS anchor’s reps assured him that the field’s maximum pay did not meet the minimum for the man’s time. Today, pretty much everyone has a price; the Washington Speakers Bureau discreetly lists a fee range next to each of its clients, from Luke Russert ($7,501 to $10,000) to John Heilemann ($10,001 to $15,000) to Christiane Amanpour ($40,001 and up).
It’s the multiplication factor that really pays. For most writers, an idea is only good for a single article, or a single book–and a single paycheck. But that same idea rendered in speech form can be delivered many, many times. “You can assume that speakers as a rule end up doing between 15 and 50 dates a year,” Mr. Leigh said.
Is this a ray of hope for the wily journalist, The Observer asked David Lavin, of Toronto’s Lavin Agency? A new way to actually make a career at reporting and writing?
“Viable? It’s the world’s best-paying part-time job,” Mr. Lavin said. He added: “Some people write books just to get on the speaker circuit.”
Old model: tour the country to promote your book. New model: write a book to tour the country.
“It’s interactive. They both support each other,” Mr. Leigh said. “Initially, the speaking promotes the book, and afterwards the book promotes the talks, and then the talks go on keeping the book alive.”
“The book doesn’t even need to be good. You just need to have written one good book, to get known,” said a longtime magazine editor who has worked at several large media companies. “The book is just the loss leader for the speech.”
Wired editor Chris Anderson cemented his speaker-circuit bona fides with a 2006 book, The Long Tail, that was hailed as cogent and disruptive. His last effort, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, met with considerably worse reviews, and its premise was derided on many blogs. Worse, chunks of it turned out to have been copied and pasted without attribution from Wikipedia. None of that matters on the speaking circuit, where Mr. Anderson’s agency says he is in more demand than almost any other client worldwide.
A PERUSAL THROUGH the media criticism archives indicates that the practice of writers speaking for money was probably invented shortly after writing itself. “The phenomenon of journalists giving speeches for staggering sums of money continues to dog the profession,” Alicia Shepard, now NPR’s ombudsman, wrote in the American Journalism Review in 1995, when the top fees were around $35,000. “Welcome to the era of the buckraker,” Jacob Weisberg wrote in The New Republic in 1986, coining the term; fees at the time could hit $25,000. Just 21 then, Mr. Weisberg knew a devilish way to tweak power when he saw one, and according to TNR legend, he installed a bell at his cubicle, taped to a photo of notorious yakker Robert Novak, that he would ring whenever a senior staffer snuck out to the podium.
These days, event organizers know to clam up when media reporters come calling about honoraria, as The Observer did this week. But numbers inevitably leak out. New York found Malcolm Gladwell netting $80,000 from a dental suppliers group in 2008, and the next year, Thomas Friedman was busted by the San Francisco Chronicle for taking $75,000 from a government agency, in violation of Times rules. “We have all become lax in complying with the parts of the ethics guidelines that require annual accounting of income from speaking engagements,” executive editor Bill Keller wrote the staff in a May 2009 memo that Gawker published. “The rules are vague and need a fresh look,” ombudsman Clark Hoyt frowned in the paper that month. (The policies have not been updated since, a Times spokesperson said.)
The lucrative lecture circuit may be the one thing that Mr. Friedman and his longtime antagonist Matt Taibbi have in common. In many thousands of bilious words over the years, Mr. Taibbi has savaged the Times columnist’s metaphors, ridiculed his worldview, insulted his mustache and worse. But when the $75,000 mistake happened, and readers inundated Mr. Taibbi with links to the news, eager for a fresh beat-down, he gave his favorite punching bag a pass. He didn’t say why.
But the clearest sign of just how unobjectionable the new speaking-fee era is may be this: Last week, the Lavin Agency says, it signed Mr. Taibbi as a client.
THE MONEY IS good. But the speaking circuit is not a glamorous world. “You end up getting existentially sad, where you look through your wallet and you realize you’ve got like seven hotel keys,” Mr. Lehrer said. “It happened last week in San Francisco, where I was convinced this key wasn’t working. I went down to the front desk, and they pointed out that I was using the wrong key. It was from a month ago.”
The way Mr. Lehrer tells it, joining the circuit just … happened. When his first book came out, in 2007, he didn’t even have representation; corporations simply sought him out themselves. Subsequent books and regular contributions to Wired, The New Yorker and other publications have kept his bio fresh.
“To be totally crass about it, I think I got into this for the revenue side, but I’ve been surprised in the last year by the other perks,” he told The Observer. He can see clear improvement in his writing as he tests out loud what elements of a given story work and learns how to build tension, withhold key information, deliver a punch line. His latest book is stuffed with characters he never would have met if not for his travels. The act of taking gobs of money, though, still feels strange.
“The stage fright, that’s something I’ve acclimated to,” Mr. Lehrer said. “But I’ve never really gotten over the sense of fraudulence that comes with being onstage and, you know, dispensing knowledge and wisdom. That’s where I think the feelings of insecurity and self-loathing come in.” He corrected himself. “‘Self-loathing’ is too strong a word. But certainly, it’s a strange business. And the enjoyment that comes from all the perks of it–the getting better at storytelling, the revenue, the meeting new people–that’s on the ledger against the fact that …” He made a digression about airport logistics and eating too many Egg McMuffins, and apologized.
“For me,” Mr. Lehrer continued, “the toughest part of public speaking is kind of psyching myself up onstage beforehand, to be like, ‘Who am I to do this? What could I possibly offer you that will make it worth the price you’re paying me to go up here?’”
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