When one of the editors at the Washington Post said those words to me, I realized that the financial disaster that has befallen the media must be worse than I thought. The Post was turning down a story that had everything: a local angle, brilliant visuals, interesting characters. More, it would be an exclusive. And they were doing so because they didn’t want to pay me $100 for it.
On Friday, December 10, I was at Nationals Park, the baseball stadium in D.C. where the Washington Nationals play. The stadium is about a mile south of the Capitol, in a Southeast neighborhood that is what they call “transitional.” It’s the home of the Navy Yard, row houses for low-income people, giant construction pits, and shiny new office buildings. The streets and the sidewalks are wide, and with the Anacostia River right next to the park one can get the feeling off being in the middle of nowhere. It’s a very quiet place.
I had come to the park to buy some Christmas presents — Nationals shirts for my brothers and sisters. I was the only person in the store.
As I was leaving, I noticed a crew of several men and a young woman outside the stadium working on a gigantic silver-colored baseball. It was about six feet tall, and six or seven people could stand comfortably around it. I looked up and noticed that it was only one of a string of similar baseballs that were lining the outside of the parking garage outside the stadium. The balls descended down from the third floor of the garage. It was as if a giant had thrown a curve ball.
I was looking at “Untitled,” a work of art by sculptor Thomas Sayre. Sayre, a native Washingtonian who now lives and works in North Carolina, had been commissioned by the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to do a baseball-related work at Nationals Park. His concept: on both sides of the entrance to the stadium, he would attach rows of huge stainless steel baseballs — on one side the balls would resemble a pitch being thrown, on the other the straight trajectory of a ball being hit. Sayre has created public art projects all over the world. He grew up near the National Cathedral, which helped inspire his art.
It was a remarkable work. And I was the only one seeing it being installed. “Usually when we install public art like this, there is massive media,” Sayre told me as a few snow flurries fell. “But in Washington, nobody is here.”
I had my camera with me. It was the kind of moment a journalist dreams about: I had stumbled upon a great story purely by chance. It had art, it had characters, and it had local history. I would gather some information, and then take it and my footage to the Washington Post. I guess that at 46 years old I still considered the Post a powerhouse, despite the fact that the paper has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the last few years. To be sure, it was no longer the place of Woodward and Bernstein, and a lot of the writing was crap, and they were paying E.J. Dionne to issue DNC press releases. But still. Surely they would cough up a couple hundred bucks for a piece about a massive work of public art going up at our city’s brand new baseball stadium. And wait until they saw the pictures! I spent a couple hours with Sayre and then headed to the Post.
I breathlessly arrived in the lobby and called the news desk, which put my in touch with the Post’s internet guy. I explained to him what I had seen, and what I had. I told him there was no one else there. “Well, you can give it to us free if you want,” he said. “I mean, are you expecting to get paid?”
I told him I was realistic. I didn’t want thousands of dollars. How about a couple hundred bucks?
“A hundred bucks?”
And that was it. As I was leaving I realized I had probably made a mistake. The old media was truly and surely dead. The only way to make a living in the business anymore was if you were subsidized — like the Post-owned money pit Slate. And maybe it was OK not to be. By feeding at the Post trough — after years of being at Bill Gates’ nipple — Slate, as the New York Observer recently noted, has become enervated. Yet if I had given the Post the footage and the story for free, and they had used it, I could have had a great platform.
So the old days are well and truly over. We have arrived at a point where nothing pays, and we have more freedom to write and publish what we want than at any time in human history. I recalled that the artist, Thomas Sayre, had an uncle who had been the editor of National Geographic, where my own father had worked. Maybe I would try them — I’m pretty sure they still pay.
Driving through the city, I felt disappointed. And not for myself. What was striking was the editor at the Post seemed to have absolutely no curiosity or journalistic competitiveness. He listened to what I said, indicated some interest, then became indifferent when the subject of money came up. There was no cajoling to get the story. A decent editor would have said, “Let’s see what you’ve got and we can talk.” I mean, is E.J. Dionne really earning his paycheck anymore?
The story on Thomas Sayre’s “Untitled” can be found here.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including Damn Senators and God and Man at Georgetown Prep. His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.