According to reports, the New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor just inked a seven-figure deal to write a volume about the Obamas. The New York Observer reported that this was partly due to the access to the White House she received as a representative of the New York Times:
"It could not be determined whether Ms. Kantor has secured the Obamas’ cooperation, but the fact that her story featured an extensive interview with them in the Oval Office seemed to indicate that she is going into the project with a good working relationship with them.
"… During the campaign, Ms. Kantor produced a number of biographical stories about the president and his inner circle, including one on his time at the head of the Harvard Law Review, one on his career as a law professor, one on his basketball-playing and one on how his friends were bracing themselves for his presidency."
Of course, Kantor is not the only one in close proximity cashing in on the Obama publishing craze. And there is nothing new about authors cashing in on the access they get as journalists. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has turned it into a high art form. He reportedly gets a salary of $100 per month from the Washington Post and mostly works from his Georgetown home churning out best seller after best seller.
(But who needs a salary when your title as a Post editor helps with access to all the major Washington power players since Nixon? Because said title also provides access to the Post’s front page for your book excerpts—the kind of publicity that other Washington authors could only dream of.)
I will leave to others the question of whether Woodward’s reports provide value-added information Post readers would not otherwise learn—or if his work is basically what Christopher Hitchens described as acting as “stenographer to the stars.” The reality is newspapering is unglamorous work. Woodward and Bernstein made it sexy. They also set the standard for how to cash in.
It’s a blueprint most journalists hope to follow, which may be one reason so few in the mainstream news media complain about how individual reporters leverage the public trust of their news organization into big money deals. (Full disclosure, The Root is owned by the Washington Post, and heck yeah, I’m still grateful that the Post published an excerpt of my 2006 book when I was a staff writer.)
But traditionally, this is the deal of the Fourth Estate: The powerful agree to sit down with journalists as representatives/stand-ins for the larger public that their news organizations serve. But as traditional news media profits continue to fall into the toilet, it’s getting harder and harder to make a living by writing for The People. But there is money selling access to the famous. So as the desperation in the field increases, the game is going to be increasingly scoring these big interviews with an eye toward getting that book/movie deal—where the checks still clear.
Thanks to Obama’s historic precedent, we are living in extraordinary times. There is no stopping the frenzy around the Obamas; their brand will continue to make a lot of people rich.
But I don’t judge, and my babies gotta eat, too. So here’s my free advice to the White House: the Times isn’t the only way to speak to millions of people these days …. Next time you want to give a sit-down in the Oval Office, make it easy on yourself—pick me!
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.