The Pub, Episode 2: Paycheck journalism, the demise of History Detectives, and what makes good theme music

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Friedman is just about done giving away her hard-earned knowledge to reporters for free.

“We already pay people for photographs of newsworthy things, or video clips, right? What’s the difference between paying for a photograph or a video clip, or paying for an interview?”

This is the provocative question posed in The Pub, Episode 2, by Anna Felicity Friedman, an oft-quoted expert source who said she is just about done giving away her hard-earned knowledge to reporters for free.

Friedman is a scholar of the history of tattooing, which has made her a go-to source on tattoo-related stories for NPR and the New York Times, among others. She said she’s had good experiences talking to some reporters, but not all.

“One of the things that I tend to get from the media is they just want me to do their research for them,” she said. “So I get questions like, ‘Tell me about the history of tattooing.’

“They’re looking to me to basically do their research for them, and I have a real problem with doing unpaid research. As someone who left academia, who’s not getting paid a comfortable salary as a college professor, I can’t afford to spend the time to basically write copy for newspaper articles,” Friedman said.

Friedman’s complaint raises uncomfortable questions for us in public media. Like those in all other serious news organizations, paying sources runs contrary to our long-observed professional ethics.

But if you insist on only quoting people who will talk to you for free, you’re only going get people whose lifestyle permits them to talk to a reporter for free, much less go to a studio and appear on a TV or a radio show in the middle of a work day.

“I’m a full-time single mom, and any time I do something like that I need to hire a babysitter,” Friedman said. “Paying for expert knowledge would help to bring in a much greater diversity of voices.”

Also on The Pub this week:

  • A treatise on what makes good show theme music, inspired by a recent episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest
  • The story behind the demise of “History Detectives” on PBS and what it says about the state of national program production
  • Last week’s guest, Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, gets some entirely predictable and arguably justified blowback from the insular Canadian media world he delights in antagonizing
  • The strange (or innovative?) way that WTTW in Chicago is raising money to pay for its star anchor

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We welcome your feedback on the show. You can reach me at ragusea_ac@mercer.edu or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.