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How to Pay for Journalism? Morning Joe Brews a Lucrative Solution

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I cursed my parents when I first heard about the product-placement deal MSNBC’s Morning Joe had secured with Starbucks. The news-talk show, on which Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski regularly trade barbs over their choice of caffeinated beverage, is being paid upward of eight figures, according to the New York Times, to officially incorporate the beverage-pusher into its already coffee-themed logo.

Over ten million bucks! To drink coffee! Something I do every morning for free! And all because the show is called Morning Joe! Why, Mom and Dad—why couldn’t you have given me a name that doubles as a slang term for a popular consumer product? Then I too could sip a delicious espresso-based beverage while enjoying friendly banter with the CEO of my corporate patron, as Mika and Joe did this morning.
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Of course, Joe and Mika have been praising and freaking out about Starbucks on air for years now, free of charge. I, on the other hand, generally make my own coffee. Because Starbucks is expensive and, like most people in the journalism business, I expect to lose my job any day now.

It’s a hard time to make a buck in journalism today. Circulation and ratings are down. People are getting news online for free. Our benefactors in the auto industry are going through bankruptcy. We’re praying that people will pay $359 and up for a gadget from Amazon so they can pay even more to read the publications they’re not paying for now. Newspaper executives just held a quasi-secret meeting to figure out whether they can collude to charge for news online without breaking antitrust laws. And Barbara Ehrenreich just told a graduating class of J-school students that they are like millworkers and miners. You’re working in “a dying industry,” she told her audience. “You have abundant skills and talents – it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.”

So I have to at least be open to the idea of “branded content,” or “new paradigms,” or whatever the hell they’re calling it now. One of these ideas might just save my job someday, right? And news has always been paid for by somebody, whether via Camel cigarettes’ sponsorship of TV news in the ’50s, pharmaceutical company ads today, corporate backing for PBS, or the deal last year to place McDonald’s coffee drinks on local TV-news desks. You have to pay the bills, and you have to maintain editorial integrity anyway.

I talked to Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, and he unsurprisingly agreed with that take. Starbucks, he said, was a natural partner for a morning news show, not just because of the tastes of its hosts. Each company, he says, is trying to cultivate the same kind of audience: “smart, well-read, educated, young.”

The channel, in fact, already partnered with Starbucks to simulcast its inauguration coverage in 650 stores. And in a way, MSNBC is coming full circle in trying to cultivate the youthful, upscale vibe of coffeehouse culture. Way back in the mid-’90s, when the fledgling channel was still a joint partnership with Microsoft, it aired a show called The Site, in which a young anchor named Soledad O’Brien exchanged banter in a “cafe” with a CGI-animated barista named Dev Null (they were the Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat of cable news): 

Microsoft, GE, GM… is any news program going to be more compromised than it already is by having one more corporate benefactor keep the lights on and the macchiatos flowing? In theory, the Starbucks deal should have no effect on MSNBC’s journalism.

In practice—at least this morning—it was awful. Particularly when Scarborough, Brzezinski, Willie Geist and Donnie Deutsch interviewed Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and, journalistically, lathered him in sweet, low-cal soy whipped cream.

Before Schultz came on, the show cut to commercial—with Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed” as bumper music—and ran a chyron that read “HEALTH MATTERS: Starbucks provides health coverage to more than 75,000 individuals.” Things just got friendlier from there. Scarborough praised the company’s charitable work on the Gulf Coast. Deutsch congratulated Schultz on the “partnership” and praised him as a corporate leader: “He’s one of the best guys in business.”

There is, of course, the small matter that Starbucks has been getting its clock cleaned in recent years by the recession and competition from the likes of McDonald’s. Willie Geist did ask Schultz, briefly, about Mickey D’s move into coffee drinks, but the CEO argued that rivals’ advertising would only help Starbucks by growing the overall coffee market. And while Mika tweaked Joe, as she often does, about the healthiness of his iced latte with whipped cream—”It might be a heart attack in a cup”—Schultz got the last word in on that too: “The key is not how many calories, [but] how does it taste? And it makes your day.” The Morning Joe hosts complimented Schultz on the smartness of the deal—”It’s great to be your partner,” Scarborough concluded, “we look forward to working with you”—and Schultz complimented them on the smartness of their show.

You couldn’t buy better promotion than that! Fortunately, however, you can buy promotion equally as good as that. It costs somewhat over ten million dollars. (OK, to be fair, I honestly believe Joe and Mika would have done an equally puffy interview with the maker of their fave yuppie-elixir even if there were no sponsorship deal. It’s just that without the deal, Schultz would not have been on the show this morning at all.) 

The hosts took exaggerated, winking slugs on their tall S-bucks’ beverages, trying to do that knowing, 30 Rock thing of saying: yeah, we’re doing a shameless product placement, but we’re being funny and ironic about it—but, seriously, we’re totally doing it anyway, so deal with it. This is a delicate enough act to pull off, though, for a sitcom, much less a news and politics show. Maybe NBC needs to bring in Tina Fey to run a company seminar on ironic corporate sponsorship.

The curious thing is, you can’t write this deal off as the act of a desperate media entity. MSNBC is actually doing relatively well, for a journalism business, anyway. While they still lag far behind Fox News in the ratings, they’ve overtaken CNN (TIME’s corporate sibling in Time Warner) in the primetime race.

But, Griffin told me, they’re looking at the same future as anyone: “You can live by the rules of a different era and die, or you can figure out ways of doing things differently without giving up your standards, and thrive.”

It may be too late for me. Instead, I’m trying to decide which of my two sons to rename Chip. People will still be eating snack foods in another 20 years, right?

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