A whirlwind Washington era has vaulted White House reporters into a charmed, somewhat awkward, but characteristically Trumpian reality: fame and fortune.
Since the 2016 election, the nation’s leading political reporters are flourishing. A media renaissance has juiced salaries for those who can break news about characters in the Trump orbit, thanks to their sourcing on the most intensely followed beat in the world. Blessed with a TV news presidency, CNN and MSNBC are entrenched in an arms race to land “contributors” exclusive to their airwaves. Book publishers and agents are searching for the next Fire and Fury. And print reporters — used to a workmanlike life behind the scenes even on a high-profile beat — have been cast as celebrities of #TheResistance or visible villains trafficking in Fake News.
Reporters’ windfall has stemmed, in part, from a shift in strategy by CNN President Jeff Zucker and NBC News chair Andy Lack, two old-school executives leading the major networks that supplement reporters’ income. (The contributor well for Fox News tends to differ from its rivals.) Dinged by critics for featuring roundtables of talking heads, Zucker and Lack have been on a buying spree to sign reporters who break news to paid contributor contracts. That way, when the Washington Post or New York Times breaks a big Russia–Trump story — and they often do — their network will have exclusive access to the bylined reporter. In the hyper-competitive world of political television, the coin of the realm has become five magic words: “The author joins us now.”
“With the sheer amount of breaking news now, you really are trying to differentiate yourself, and the way to do that is to have all the news breakers if you are a network,” said one CNN source.
CNN contributors include the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Josh Rogin, Politico’s Rachael Bade, Time’s Molly Ball, Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev, and AP’s Julie Pace. NBC News and MSNBC have signed on contributors such as Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, David Fahrenthold, and Ashley Parker from the Washington Post, the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff, Gabe Sherman and Emily Jane Fox from Vanity Fair, and Peter Baker, Matt Apuzzo, Jeremy Peters, Charlie Savage, and Michael Schmidt at the New York Times.
Compensation ranges widely, but it has risen in recent years, according to reporters, agents, and network sources. Starting contributor rates for political reporters fall between about $30,000 and $50,000 a year. Top reporters can earn between $50,000 and $90,000 for their TV side-hustles, and some seasoned pros — boosted by loyalty and multi-year arrangements — make as much as $250,000.
That money is, of course, on top of a base salary from their main written-word employer — meaning that some political reporters are raking in low-to-mid six figures per year in an industry that has for years experienced widespread buyouts, layoffs, and belt-tightening. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual average wage for newspaper reporters and correspondents in the United States is about $44,000 per year nationwide and $88,000 in Washington, DC.
Political reporters say that appearing on television isn’t about money. It’s about getting in front of sources in a political environment where TV news is central to the ongoing conversation. TV hits, reporters say, have become key to their status in the White House, and they have to be careful not to get too far ahead of their own reporting. Journalists have been reminded by White House officials — like former communications director Hope Hicks — that the president is watching what they say about him.
“Being seen through the filter of an HD screen in some ways makes you more legitimate and more credible and someone [White House sources] feel is more ubiquitous,” said one White House reporter. “There used to be a period where you were a TV reporter or a print reporter or a blogger. Now to be a journalist you have to be able to do everything.”
When it comes to television, attitudes within print media have shifted — most notably, the New York Times opened up its newsroom for a Showtime documentary and inked a deal with FX for a weekly show. Reporters at the Times and Washington Post often appear from the pop-up studios in their own newsrooms, allowing them to be near their desks while in the mania of deadline pressure but also plopping a big logo and bustling newsroom behind them (something that news organizations have come to recognize offers branding potential).
There are other factors at work. “Let’s be honest, DC is the most careerist, thirstiest town of climbers that there is,” said one reporter with a network contributorship. “You have all these print journalists who have decided that TV is not a lesser thing as soon as they were invited to be on it.”
For TV networks, the arms race for political talent has turned the daily White House press briefing into a career launching pad like it’s never been before. (American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan and Playboy’s Brian Karem, fixtures in the briefing room, are now both CNN contributors.) But the feeding frenzy has also irked some reporters who work for the TV networks full-time, since the quest for airtime has become more crowded by outsiders.
TV is the main monetary perk, but reporters say that agents have also been pushing ideas for books, particularly in the wake of the success of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Early on in Trump’s presidency, some in the publishing industry worried that the public would lose its appetitive for political books given the overwhelming amount of day-to-day news. Instead, Trump-related books have soared.
“We’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm among editors for acquiring books by journalists, especially those reporting on Trump and Washington,” said Keith Urbahn, founding partner of Javelin, which represents former FBI director and recent author James Comey. “The trick for selling a book that not only fetches a major six- or seven-figure advance is coming up with an angle that helps the book stand apart in a crowded field and offers a genuinely new understanding of the bigger picture beyond the day-to-day chaos. Lacing that narrative with a blistering scoop or two that hold until publication doesn’t hurt either.”
Forthcoming political books include a look at Capitol Hill in Trump’s first two years written by Politico Playbook authors Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, a book about the right and the rise of Breitbart by the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray, and an account by New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters documenting whether the Republican establishment can survive Trump.
“Trump surely didn’t intend it this way, but one of the legacies of his presidency will be a golden age for the kind of honest, probing journalism that he dismisses as fake news,” Peters told BuzzFeed News.
For some in the media, another revenue source in the Trump era has been making paid speeches. Speaking fees have long been common for front-and-center TV news personalities, but newsroom rules typically prevent regular print reporters from accepting most paid appearances. Jonathan Swan, a rising star at news upstart Axios, speaks for about $25,000 a pop, according to two people familiar with the matter. Swan, who is listed through the Washington Speakers Bureau, declined to comment. (His counterpart on the beat, newsletter stalwart Mike Allen, also is listed as making appearances.)
The money is nice, White House reporters say, but they point out that they work constantly and live under the threat of a morning-altering Trump tweet or an evening-altering scoop from a competitor, not to mention frequent attacks on their profession from the president and his allies.
“The money also comes with a lot of misery,” said one White House reporter.
Still, the deep irony underpinning the toxic relationship between the president and the White House press corp is that Trump has been an enormous financial boon for a beleaguered news industry — something reporters often joke about privately.
Comedian Michelle Wolf made that point during her performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a remark overshadowed by the ensuing controversy over jokes about press secretary Sarah Sanders.
“I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you,” Wolf said. “He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.”