Lately, media pay has become something of an extreme sport.
Last we checked, this was an industry in the midst of a recession and a scary transition. And yet Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently ranked the 10 most overpaid CEOs in America last year, and three of them hailed from the media industry: the heads of Viacom, CBS and Comcast. All three of those companies are controlled by old-line media families, and membership in that club has its privileges. Brian Roberts at cable giant Comcast (and putative owner of NBC Universal) is the son of the company’s founder, and both Philippe Dauman of Viacom and Leslie Moonves of CBS work for Sumner Redstone, who controls both companies and, as The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out cheekily, was himself paid around $33 million last year for working from his Beverly Hills home.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, are executives who are paid next to nothing-or just plain nothing-for their efforts. This category has been getting a lot of attention lately with the rapid emergence of a Santa Monica-based company called Demand Media, which pays freelancers $15 or so to produce quick articles or short videos geared to whatever happens to be trending on Google searches at a particular moment. The company coughs out hundreds of these articles a day, and is reportedly planning an IPO. Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine pondered the lowering of the value of the word in the digital realm by looking at start-ups like True/Slant, which basically gives writers a digital home, pays modest retainers and compensates them further according to how much traffic their posts generate. Because online ad rates are so low, “the money isn’t enough to live off,” the article noted, but is one input in the new economy of the journalist-entrepreneur.
Then there are the flat-out free content sites like Yelp, IMDB and Wikipedia, where the social good of sharing information is all the reward people need to devote their time and effort. Arianna Huffington has taken heat for having a handful of paid journalists at her Huffington Post but relying mostly on hundreds of unpaid bloggers/contributors for the bulk of her site’s content. Yet her model is really not that different from how all the 24-hour cable networks or news shows have long operated: Joe Scarborough and is cronies get paid handsomely, and most of the guests and experts who come on are given their moment in the spotlight, and perhaps a buffet spread in the green room or car service.
It’s a similarly nuanced story with the likes of Demand Media and Associated Content (another of its instant-article ilk). These outfits don’t so much as compete with mainstream news media as with the rest of the stuff that is out there in the Web’s endless maw. The trouble is that a lot of that content-how-to, where-to service information-traditionally made up the soft end of publishing and drew a lot of advertising to help pay the freight for things like foreign bureaus. As Nick Denton of Gawker Media said hauntingly in The Times, the definition of digital success may be that “[y]ou can have destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, of revenue for other people, but without capturing it all yourself.”
So no one is going to start another New Yorker, but you get the sense that the media moguls’ place atop the best-paid lists is secure for a while yet. For lesser mortals, there are pockets of promise along the media-pay continuum where good writing still has some market value. In contrast to Demand, consider Thrillist, which sends daily email alerts about hot new things targeted to young males in 17 cities. The company’s 20-something founder, Ben Lerer, tells me he pays editors who receive no bylines for their work upward of $30,000 a year to write 200 words a day on the coolest finds in their respective markets. Yes: 200 words. “We aren’t embarrassed that we hire talented people and pay them livable wages,” Mr. Lerer said. Sensing an opportunity, I volunteered to pick up half a dozen or so of his cities and perhaps cut him a bulk deal. Mr. Lerer politely declined.