Is Katie Couric really worth $20 million more than Bill Stall?

At the moment, a conversation is taking place on the relative importance of
“the anchor” in network news broadcasts, and taken in context with other
rumblings from the news business and elsewhere, that discussion reveals more
than any of us want to know about our collective value system.

Much of the buzz lasers in on Katie Couric, co-host of NBC’s “Today” show. A
rival network–CBS–is wooing Couric to anchor the Evening News. It is said
that Couric wants to be taken seriously as a journalist and that a stint on
the anchor desk would add fiber to her reputation. It also is said that CBS
will pay whatever it takes to filch Couric, with the most recent figure
pegged at $20 million a year for seven years.

While digesting Couric’s price tag, let us plug into another planet in the
news cosmos.

The Tribune Company, struggling to de-agitate the demands of stockholders
(full disclosure: I am one), is attempting to reduce costs by a process
we’ll call “indiscriminate weeding.” Among the targeted papers is the
Trib-owned Los Angeles Times, and among the weeded is Sacramento-based
editorial writer Bill Stall. Stall has plenty of fiber in his reputation,
and his breadth of experience–both as a participant in and observer of
government—lends unique context and insight to his work. The news industry
recognized him with a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. The Tribune
Company rewarded him with the pointy end of a boot.

Couric, despite her aspirations, is an entertainer. Stall is a veteran
newsman. Their fates expose priorities that not only exist in the news biz
but also in other corners of America’s job market.

Set aside Couric’s potential marketing value for the commercial enterprise
that is CBS. It is unclear what CBS viewers gain from a mega-dollar
investment in her. Moreover, the money lavished on Couric makes a unsettling
statement: It is more important for CBS to land a big name than to invest
similar resources in ways that improve its news operation and better inform
its viewers. As Philadelphia Inquirer TV critic Ellen Grey emailed last
week, “It’s ridiculous to think that paying her $20 million wouldn’t mean
something else would suffer at CBS.”

As for Stall, the Times will save his salary and benefit package, which
probably reaches into the mid-$100,000s per year. For that savings, Times’
readers lose something substantial—an informed and perceptive voice.

Couric is charming but she is not currently a newsperson. We do not know if
she has journalistic instincts or if she is thoughtful about larger issues
confronting a troubled world. Yet news resources will be spent on her,
despite the fact that CBS cares not a whit about her talents as a reporter
or editor; it is investing in her celebrity. Without news instincts, Couric
is a fungible commodity. If she were to disappear from the airwaves
tomorrow, it simply would not matter; the next charmingly famous,
instinct-challenged newsreader could replace her.

There is nothing fungible about Bill Stall. The experience and worldview he
brings to his readers require a life of preparation that the Times cannot
easily replicate.

Is Katie Couric really “worth” $20 million more to consumers of news than
Bill Stall, or Dan Weintraub, Lynda Gledhill, Dan Morain, Jim Sweeney,
Xochitl Arellano, Herb Sample or a long list of reporters and editors with
fiber in their reputations? This argument has been made ad nauseum and
applies to any number of job markets. Not more than a week ago, for
instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers paid $13 million a year for a shortstop,
while the Los Angeles school system pays about $34,000 to a new teacher.
That kind of whacko economic inequality is pervasive and
too-readily-accepted these days.

Acceptable doesn’t mean that disparities should be ignored, because how we
identify and recognize “worth” helps define who we are. The issue ought to
be probed and poked; all of us should question what we consider to be our
collective value system.

Should we value shortstops more than teachers, celebrity newsreaders more
than talented reporters?

Is this how we want to define ourselves?

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