Gawker Pays for Balloon Boy Story, 'National Enquirer' Loses Out

Last Updated Oct 19, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

Far be it from me to go on endlessly about Balloon Boy, but if you're a dedicated follower of media fashion, here's the most fascinating development in the story over the last few days: that the research assistant who worked with Balloon Dad Richard Heene earlier this year -- and basically has all of the circumstantial evidence one might need to haul Balloon Dad into court -- sold his story not to a member of the so-called mainstream media but to Gawker. You can read his story in its bizzaro entirety here.

Not, of course, that all mainstream media pay for stories, but if someone came up to you and asked you who might buy this story, wouldn't other media first come to mind? However, the story of the researcher, Robert Thomas, moved entirely through channels that didn't exist only a short time ago. For whatever reason, Thomas -- who is also a college student -- first contacted a beta site that is part of Henry Blodget's Business Insider. Here's what Lawrence Delevingne, who wrote the post, told me when I emailed him for more information this morning:

Basically, he tipped us he had proof it was a hoax. When I called to conduct an interview, he said he was trying to sell the information. We declined to pay for it, but wrote the post you must have seen instead, putting in the last line about brokering it as an almost tongue-in-cheek remark. Sure enough, Gawker asked for his contacts, and we passed them along.
Delevingne's post, which went up on Friday, says that the National Enquirer was interested in buying the story for somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000. By Saturday, however, Gawker had bought the story for an undisclosed sum, and the rest is history. Thomas' story, which went live at 5:00 p.m. EST on Saturday night is closing in on 400,000 views.

I know I'm supposed to seque here into a discussion of how blogs shouldn't pay for stories. However, while I get a little creeped out at this kind of payola, it's still much better to 'fess up that money changed hands than to not saying anything at all. The truth is that blogs are merely publishing platforms, nothing more, and nothing less. While some sites, such as Business Insider, adhere to the straight-and-narrow that paying sources is not how sites should be acquiring information, in the case of Gawker, obviously, other decisions were made. Not to get off point, but as the FTC puts new rules into place regarding disclosure in blogging, it's important to remember that blogging is far from being a one-set-of-ethics-fits-all enterprise.