The Price of Covering the BP Oil Spill

Mac McClelland

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Some Mother Jones end-of-the-year fundraising copy came across my desk yesterday (you’ll probably see it in the box to the right), and the part that points out that our content is “expensive for us to produce” has inspired me to share the numbers from my very long assignment reporting on the BP oil spill. So what did it cost to keep me covering the Gulf all summer long?

Well, first, here’s what it should have cost: $45,000, at least.

There were plane tickets, car rentals, cabs to and from airports. Meals and snacks and enough water to combat a heat index of 105°. A place to sleep for 120 nights. Four months worth of paychecks plus benefits like health care. Then add in all sorts of random extras like steel-toe boots so I could walk around on the relief well, laminated nautical maps for kayaking around the Louisiana barrier islands, gas to drive to Pensacola, and the pricey door charge of female-oil-wrestling events.

But this was a trip of great resourcefulness and thrift. I persuaded people I knew in New Orleans, as well as Grand Isle-based Twitter followers, to let me stay at their houses. I bribed these people. Generally it was with bottles of nice booze. Often it also involved going to the grocery store, plus cooking meals and/or doing the dishes; sometimes it was a matter of watching some kids, driving the kids to school, giving the whole house a hardcore Midwesterner’s scrub-down. As a result, 16 weeks of lodging—one of the biggest pieces of the reporting-budget pie—cost Mother Jones about $2,000. I also cut my exorbitant car rental charges in half when I ingratiated myself with someone who was going out of town and lent me his pickup truck for a month, then worked a combination of public transit, occasional cabs, and borrowed rides for another month.

So in the end, the bill for my reporting extravaganza was deeply discounted, but it was still far from cheap: about $30,000. And that doesn’t include institutional overhead, or web costs, or all the hours my brilliant editor had to spend untangling my sentences and reminding me via email that I swear too much. Nor does it include the wages and expenses of the rest of the (award-winning) Mother Jones oil-spill-reporting team, with Kate Sheppard busting ass in DC and Julia Whitty briefly joining me down South and editors blogging and webmasters staging and so on.

And then I went straight from the Gulf to Haiti, which is like the most expensive place in the world.

There’s your partial breakdown from just one-half of a year from my little corner of the magazine. It’s what our editors in chief call The Price of Truth. “Sure, information wants to be free,” they wrote in an ed note last year. “Alas, it’s not.” 

(You can contribute to Mother Jones via credit card or PayPal. Just btw.)

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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