Getting the Journalism You Pay For; What happens to in-depth reporting in the age of the blog post? We need to find ways of paying for it.

March 10, 2013, 7:07 p.m. ET

Getting the Journalism You Pay For

What happens to in-depth reporting in the age of the blog post?


Journalists naturally worry about the future of journalism as technology upends traditional business models, resulting in huge job losses. A recent kerfuffle involving a veteran foreign correspondent turned freelance journalist illustrates why readers also should care how serious journalism will be funded.

An editor of The Atlantic magazine’s website last week asked Nate Thayer to rewrite a 4,000-word article he had published on another site (about 25 years of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy) into a 1,000-word version for The Atlantic. Mr. Thayer balked and instead posted the email exchange on his blog site under the headline, “A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013.”

The Atlantic’s Web editor wrote: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month.” Mr. Thayer responded: “I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.” Mr. Thayer suggested, “I am sure you can do what is the common practice these days and just have one of your interns rewrite the story as it was published elsewhere, but hopefully stating that is how the information was acquired.”

Hundreds of journalists joined discussions on websites such as Branch and Hacker News. One generated more than 100 comments by making the point that while short blog posts can be interesting, deeply reported stories, whether online or in print, are different: With in-depth magazine articles, “I was astounded at what I had been missing: articles where I couldn’t predict the next paragraphs based on the headlines; articles that answered my objections in the next paragraph; articles which clearly had taken a month to write.”

This drives home one of the points Mr. Thayer was trying to make, which is that there are fewer news organizations able to fund enterprise journalism. The no-pay model can’t support journalism that takes weeks, months or years.

As Cambodia bureau chief in the 1990s for the Far Eastern Economic Review (which, like this newspaper, was owned by Dow Jones & Co.), Mr. Thayer broke the story that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was still alive. He was the first to locate, interview and photograph the secretive communist leader and the last to interview him about the killing fields where some two million Cambodians were murdered through executions, torture and starvation. Mr. Thayer spent a decade reporting from the jungle hideouts of the Khmer Rouge and has been hospitalized more than a dozen times since for cerebral and other malarias.

Mr. Thayer is best known for his Pol Pot scoop, but his most enterprising reporting was exposing corruption in Cambodia. He profiled Theng Bunma, who was so feared that Cambodians would only whisper his name and so wealthy that he funded the Cambodian military.

When I was publisher of the Review and learned of death threats against Mr. Thayer because of his reporting on corruption, I called to order him to leave Phnom Penh. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t hear you. Too much static on this mobile phone. Call later.”

He left for headquarters in Hong Kong only after gathering voluminous documents to support his reporting against the inevitable lawsuit. After Mr. Thayer’s reporting, Bunma was banned from the U.S. as a drug smuggler.

Mr. Thayer told me last week, “This has nothing to do with The Atlantic.” Instead, “someone needs to figure out a way to make a profit bringing a free press to a free people. In the meantime, it would be nice to be able to pay my rent.”

The tumult in the news industry is driven by declines in advertising revenues. Readers still value news, both light blog posts and in-depth reporting. Some journalism will be unpaid, but the kind that makes a difference—that finds and questions Pol Pots and drug lords—will continue to cost money. We need to find ways of paying for it.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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