Journalists' Afterlife in Political Dark Ops and 'Bespoke Journalism'
The publication of salacious allegations that Donald Trump cavorted with Moscow prostitutes — under the surreptitious eye of Russian spies — sparked a firestorm over some media outlets’ decision to spotlight an unverified report debunked by critics and denounced by Trump himself as "fake news."
Getting less notice is the former journalists behind the report. They represent a significant new trend in post-newsroom employment.
The now-infamous anti-Trump dossier originated with a niche Washington research outfit called Fusion GPS, a company founded by three former foreign correspondents for The Wall Street Journal.
Fusion’s work reflects a broader development sometimes called “bespoke journalism,” in which former reporters and editors use their investigative skills to dig up information for corporations, political organizations, and anyone else with money and questions.
Tailored to a select audience rather than a general one, the reporting produced by these firms is designed for the boardroom or the political dark-ops team rather than the front page. As the newspaper industry continues to wither, bespoke journalism offers a lucrative new market for the old-fashioned tools of reporting.
“Their ships are going down and everyone is building their own lifeboats,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic consultant and TV pundit. “These are new media entrepreneurs, essentially, and they are showing up in a lot of places you never saw them before, as entrepreneurs who have started million-dollar properties. It’s not like they are going to go to law school or become chemical engineers.”
The former journalists and others contacted for this story insisted upon anonymity because of the confidential nature of their work — an irony in the case of sleuths who in their earlier incarnations were proud to put their bylines on their exclusives.
The political-oriented work they do has a hierarchy like that of any other business, according to several former journalists involved in it, and can prove lucrative. While a Washington reporter at a top national newspaper can expect to make between $125,000 and $150,000 a year, according to published figures, bespoke work, which is usually done on a retainer basis, pays much more, especially when done in niche areas by those with extensive and international experience, like the people at Fusion GPS.
Not all of it is lucrative, of course. There are different kinds of reports, and different sorts of opposition-research shops. At one end are the bucket shops of the industry, where scores of hires, some making minimum wage, watch hours of film. These foot soldiers review every speech, forum, town-hall meeting and television appearance they can find, scouring a candidate’s record for slips and flip-flops.
As the Trump “Russia dossier” indicates, bespoke journalism does not only look for news that is “fit to print.” Rumors, gossip and gotcha moments can be even more useful to clients.
Often providing the raw material for political attack ads, this information can reach millions through websites and social media platforms. The juiciest material that can be verified is often peddled to cash-strapped mainstream outlets happy to accept free scoops. Columnist Walter Shapiro stressed that point in the Columbia Journalism Review when Barack Obama’s campaign flooded the zone with anti-Mitt Romney opposition research in the summer of 2012, and this past campaign continued that trend.
Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, said the rise of such post-newsroom employment is dispiriting and revealing.
“Reporters who used to call me when I was a staffer on the Ways and Means Committee or in the White House have become advocates for the other side,” Fleischer said. “It’s not balanced, and it reinforces the problem people have in that reporters are liberal.”
Corporate clients often provide steadier, less controversial and more lucrative work than political patrons. Diligent digging on behalf of hedge funds and private equity funds, for example, can command high prices. Experienced ex-reporters from elite publications do deep dives into federal and state civil and criminal courts, property and tax records, possible federal regulation violations, debt, and in some cases more expensive gumshoe work such as on-the-ground research in foreign locations where a business may be considering an expansion, merger, or acquisition.
In both the political and corporate work, top-tier former foreign correspondents can land clients around the world, including in dicey locales such as Ukraine or Colombia. Fees for these assignments can run from $20,000 to $75,000 a month, consultants said, depending on factors such as how sensitive the topic or how unstable the environment.
Some of this work can stretch beyond diligent reporting and into grayer areas such as political intelligence and opposition research.
What’s clear is many clients think they are getting value for money.
“This is all still evolving,” Trippi said. “But Jeb Bush spent $100 million attacking Trump and Trump still wins. That’s the old model. That isn’t lost on big companies in terms of advertising and marketing dollars, or on political campaigns. And into that environment come a bunch of people with a lot of contacts or sources from the shrinking pay-journalism world.”
Traditional media outfits have long offered premium news products, but they have turned to this area for its untapped revenue potential. The Guardian newspaper, for instance, offers “masterclass bespoke training” seminars to individuals and companies interested in using journalism skills for their own purposes. The Wall Street Journal, too, is getting into the game with its WSJ Custom Studios.
For now, however, former journalists involved in true opposition research are rare, with Fusion GPS, run by Glenn Simpson, Peter Fritsch and Tom Catan, occupying space very few other shops do, according to several people familiar with the territory.
Thus far, Fusion’s high-profile assignments have been for liberal groups. Published reports say they include Planned Parenthood. It was also linked to an Obama campaign attack on a Mitt Romney supporter, an episode recapped by Kimberly A. Strassel of the Wall Street Journal in a recent column and detailed in her 2016 book "The Intimidation Game."
It is an irony is that even as traditional news outlets shrink, the demand for skilled journalists who can gather and sift information in this information age should grow. A former investigative reporter who runs a firm specializing in financial research, who insisted on anonymity, said the legacy media’s woes are making bespoke journalism a growth industry. “We’re seeing a lot more of it because there are a lot more talented journalists looking for work,” he said. “We once struggled to find people and now we are flooded with resumes.”