Should journos pay scientists for their expertise?

I recently came across a question posed on Twitter, asking if experts whom journalists consult to write articles should be compensated for their labour, especially since, in the tweeter’s words, “it’s quite a bit of effort”. The tweeter clarified their position further in some of the conversations that sprang up in response. I felt compelled to have a go at a reply, so here goes.

To begin with, it’d be worth splitting the answer according to the size of the publication that is expected to pay this fee.

Smaller v. larger organisations

Based on my experience at The Wire, I don’t believe experts can be paid for their labour as long as 1) the newsroom covers the news through news reports, and is therefore required to maintain a certain minimum scale of operations, instead of sticking to publishing analyses and features; 2) the labour is to clarify a concept, an idea, a point, whatever or is to supply comments; and 3) the money goes straight from readers’ pockets to the pockets of reporters, editors and freelancers in quantities that would mean the journalists are paid competitively.

We could expand (3) to include erecting soft/hard paywalls, organising ticketed events, raising funds for predefined reporting campaigns, publishing sponsored content, etc., but a) doing any of these things tends to break the economics of scale at which a small newsroom (that covers the news) can operate in India; b) paywalls work well either for large organisations or for organisations that occupy a specific niche, and less so for any other kind of organisation; c) it’s hard to find additional revenue streams that don’t compromise editorial independence in the absolute sense; and d) income security becomes iffy if the organisation is registered as a nonprofit (for-profit outfits, of course, will have to deal with investor pressure, including on editorial decisions).

Taken together, smaller organisations don’t have the liberty of considering the principles because they need to figure out much more germane issues first. Larger organisations could on the other hand make it work – but should they? Let’s consider the principles in a specific scenario, the only one with which I’m any kind of familiar.

Science journalism: Principles

How do we determine the value of labour? Does all labour need to be paid for? Is money the sole acceptable form of value? A lot of labour certainly needs to be paid for but which and to what extent depends on the context in which it operates.

A couple years ago, a physicist asked me to contribute regularly to a good but not quite popular physics magazine after reading some of my blog posts. I said I would love to but that I was constrained severely by time. However, I added, whenever I do write, I would like to waive my fee. The physicist was quick to reply that I shouldn’t have expected to be paid because if magazines like the one she was part of had any chance of becoming more popular (this one deserved to be), it couldn’t afford to pay all writers until it became wealthier.

The physicist and I spoke for half a day and at no point did I get the impression that she was taking my work for granted; in fact, it was clear she placed a flattering amount of value on it. Her point was instead centred on the notion of service, and I agreed fully. When I ask scientists to help me understand a concept or to comment on a study after reading a highly technical paper, I don’t take them or their expertise for granted, but when I refuse to pay them for it (although none have asked thus far), it is because a) I simply can’t: science journalism just doesn’t make much money; and b) I don’t expect but will sincerely appreciate a measure of service-mindedness.

A metaphor that another scientist used comes to mind: first, we need to haul the big rock out of the ditch in which it is stuck; once it is out, we can figure out how to roll it around in different directions. Service is a form of value also – and right now science journalism in India needs both money and service. Money alone won’t fix it. And I take neither for granted as much as I emphasise the difference between expectation and requirement.

When I edited The Wire Science, I informed prospective writers beforehand of how much I could afford to pay and I didn’t force them to accept it. Similarly, a scientist is free to decline writing or commenting requests. But for the nascent stage in which science journalism in India is today, paying scientists for help making sense of an idea or to comment on a paper is a bridge too far.

Science journalism: Mechanics

So much for the principles; now to the mechanics. My friend M.J. had this to say:

“How do you decide who is an expert? You have a science degree and you are an expert, so you need to be paid. But what about a farmer with 40 years of agricultural experience? Does this mean we conclude that we pay everyone? Business-wise this is impossible in journalism.”

In continuation: What is expertise? Is an opinion on a research paper an expression of one’s expertise and thus to be paid for? On the one hand, we have things like open access in science, but if on the other I had to pay scientists for expressions of their expertise, science journalism will be buried alive, in much the same way subscription journals have threatened the integrity and relevance of science.

In fact, the truths, especially the social truths that are distinct from scientific truths, are things that experts and journalists must construct together, instead of – cynically – the task being left to journalists and journalists being expected to pay the experts. M.J. again:

Incentives would disrupt the very foundation of the journalist-source relationship, which is based on trust and a shared commitment to communicate a story. If you were to pay someone, would they speak their mind or would they tell you what you want to hear? That is, will they be objective?

Say it’s not for a quote but to clarify a concept or certain technicalities. Many things in science are objective but many other things aren’t – such as the lab-leak theory of the origin of the novel coronavirus.

Many more arguments wait in the wings – but they will all be fairly pointless because journalism at large is too far from perfect to ask what journalism can do for you instead of… you get the drift. Again, I take neither experts nor expertise for granted. I just deeply doubt journalism’s ability to simultaneously fulfil its own purpose, be gainful for its practitioners and reward expertise and its proper expression at this time, in this country.

Finally, the original question may highlight the danger of principles that are isolated from material considerations, contrary to our popular experience of journalism in practice deviating from its foundational principles.

The idea that all labour must be paid for has been engendered by a culture that seldom pays, or pays enough – a culture fond of exploitation, of corporatisation, contractualisation and commodification. Journalism-in-practice, rather than the newsroom in which it happens, isn’t a part of that culture; understanding it to be is what flattens public service in the specific cases where that is applicable and where it is voluntarily on offer into the lower-dimensional notion of exploitation. If an expert feels exploited by a journalist interacting with them, money isn’t going to fix it. Instead, as M.J. said:

What would be more ideal is, say, if a news organisation knows it needs technical inputs for science or health reporting, then it should have someone on contract, on a consulting basis. This is apart from its sources. And it can use these contracted individuals’ help to understand some technicalities and also for fact-checking.

Does this narrative hold beyond science journalism? 🤷🏾‍♂️.