Toto, I'm not Dave Kansas anymore

So what's wrong with Web journalists becoming stock tycoons?

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I‘m moving in the wrong direction. The revolving door is spinning so fast into online media — ‘scuse me, Mr. Dobbs! pardon, Dr. Koop! hey, watch the elbows, Mr. Arnett! — one can hardly get through the other way. I am, however, leaving Salon; next month, I’m going to Time magazine to write about television. [Note to copy editor: insert here that malicious and inaccurate attack on Henry Luce that we discussed last week. -- Ed.] In so doing, I willingly forfeited a chance to attend my generation’s Woodstock: being part of a gen-u-ine Internet initial public offering.

This is not a lament: The IPO was announced long before I jumped, and I was hardly going to buy a country — certainly not a good country — with my minor stake in it. What’s a little sad, really, is that I’ll be missing out on my little piece of the 1999 Zeitgeist, the chance, when I’m gray and doddering, to be like one of those old guys who really did do the Charleston and swallow goldfish in the ’20s. More important, even though I wouldn’t have been Croesus-ized, I could have at least let people think I had. Now I will not have the chance to be mentioned in a Dave Kansas conversation.

You probably haven’t had a Dave Kansas conversation, unless you’re a working journalist, in which case you certainly have. Kansas became the young editor of TheStreet.com after leaving the Wall Street Journal to his colleagues’ snickers; the financial site went public in May, as a result of which he held options worth at one point about $9 million, though the stock’s fallen since. (Because of the spate of articles that followed, which naturally estimated his wealth at its peak, the guy will be forever saddled as the $9 Million Man even if the stock never comes back. At this writing he’s in the $4 million neighborhood, if you’re counting.)

I’ve had Dave Kansas conversations. They start with light-hearted head-shaking. They contain phrases like “out of nowhere!” and “dumb luck!” and “windfall!” They detour through conversations about one’s family, one’s future plans, one’s educational and vocational choices. They end with wan, smiling stares into the middle distance.

Internet IPOs have been going on forever — months, years even — but until recently they particularly blessed people who are supposed to get rich. Whatever the fact of journalists reaping the stock boom says to the general investing public (e.g. “Sell! For the love of God, sell now!”), to the journalistic community it means that IPOs are suddenly lifestyle news. The Washington Post, New York Times and others did Dave Kansas stories. New York magazine released its envy issue (precipitating the question of precisely which issue of that gazetteer of the swank life is not the envy issue), with Alex Williams’ href="http://www.nymag.com/this_week/view.asp?id=2431">affecting essay including an account of idly chatting years ago about “the allure of selling out” with hardworking young reporter Dave Kansas.

Well, what else is new? Writers, journalists are liberal arts people by trade, which means they can make a third the money of their college friends yet be five times as guilty and neurotic about it. Let Esquire’s Tom Junod land a contract that pays him like a mediocre NBA rookie with an incompetent agent, and his compeers will carp as though he’d taken Nazi gold. But while the current market may have changed the numbers fueling our drunken rants, has it actually changed the business of journalism?

(Giggle alert: I am about to use the terms “Internet” and “the long term” in the same sentence.) I suspect the Internet IPO windfall that offers hope for writers in the long term is not Dave Kansas’ but C. Everett Koop’s; the former surgeon general took his site drkoop.com public for a paper payday of, at one point, $56 million. (It’s sort of poignant, by the way, that the blizzard of coverage for Koop’s windfall ignored the fact that he’d been involved with a Web site — anyone remember Shape Up America? — since href="http://www.shapeup.org/dated/102996.htm">1996; but hey, that was before the Internet started printing money, so who cares, right?)

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The reason is that employee stock options, unlike entrepreneurial payoffs, are simply another form of compensation. New-media bosses offer them to attract talent — a gamble in lieu of the attractions an established offline company might offer. That’s the case now. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think that there’s anything inherent in the Internet that will force its employers to be more generous, or less greedy, than their old-media analogues. If the Internet ultimately becomes sufficiently fledged as a medium that one can, say, spurn the Wall Street Journal for TheStreet.com without attracting notice, there will eventually be no need for new-media employers to sweeten the pot with options. If it doesn’t become thus fledged, obviously, the options won’t be so attractive forever.

(Mind you, none of this is to say that journalists getting in on IPOs today won’t profit handsomely in the meantime: I’m not a stock analyst, and I certainly hope they do, if for no other reason than the possibility of some of them buying me drinks someday.)

Either all publications will start magnanimously giving away equity, on- or offline, good times or bad — in which case I also expect chocolate-flavored snowfalls — or employers will offer what the market will bear. But Dr. Koop’s cash-in is something different: as Robert X. Cringely pointed out in the New York Times, it’s a well-known person being able to sell equity in his name. Journalists, for the most part, spend their careers building their names, only to rent them for relatively small sums to venture capitalists. If someday writers, having turned themselves into brands, can own those brands, that would be a real transfer of power rather than simply another employee benefit. The Washington Post’s “Media Notes” columnist, Howard Kurtz, ended his Dave Kansas story, “How does MediaNotes.com sound?” He can laugh, but I hope he dropped a line to these nice German chaps with a generous buyout offer.

The other question starting to be raised is whether journalistic wealth is healthy. A recent Newsweek article quotes a journalism professor who says students, offered stock options instead of $20,000 starting salaries, are “asking aloud whether they can be idealistic about journalism and get a piece of the pie at the same time.”

To which I say: Kids, nothing will kill your idealism faster than your
first pay-stub at $20K a year. What’s puzzling is the sense that a
journalist’s striking it rich off his craft is inherently harmful, which
likewise seems the subtext of exercises like Brill’s Content’s href="http://www.salonmagazine.com/media/log/1999/04/20/salaries/index.html">publication
of journalists’ salaries (though I agree the information is of some use
to readers).

OK, you can argue that wealthy journalists become out of touch with the
common man. But a journalist should be able to understand any group of
people, and can’t belong to all. (And here’s a dirty secret: Good
writers do not become writers because they are so much like their
fellow man. They become writers because they believe they know
better than their fellow man.) Of more concern is that online
writers and editors, who already know perhaps too well href="http://www.salonmagazine.com/media/col/poni/1999/05/06/msnbc/index.html">what
pieces draw traffic,
will start making editorial decisions like
publishers — which in fact they will be. But this pressure (please the
market or lose money) may be largely redundant with an old-fashioned,
stronger editorial pressure (please the market or you’re fired).

How much is a writer worth? Nothing. How much is a writer worth? A hundred million bucks. How much is a writer worth? Whatever that writer can get. If Dave Kansas can get $900 million honestly, God bless him. It’s plenty possible, conversely, to earn $25,000 a year without integrity. It’s wrong — not to mention stupid — for writers to make their work solely about the money, but if anything, an indigent writer may be more corruptible than a rich one. Corruption is not about how much you have or how much you’re offered; it’s about how much you want and what you’ll do for it.

If you know the answer to that question, well, you can always give Dave Kansas a call. And if you’re reading this, Dave? I drink Manhattans.

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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