The New York Times has had a hell of a time in the last six months trying to determine just exactly how much freedom to allot to their freelance (or non-staff) writers. And the latest public editor column makes it clear that the newspaper is not interested in bending its rigid ethics rules for anyone.
A few months ago, there was a controversy surrounding Mike Albo, a Times freelancer who went on a Thrillist junket to Jamaica and, even though he didn’t write about it for the Times, was fired for accepting the free trip. Then there was Mary Tripsas who had her flight (and room and board) paid for by 3M as she checked out the company’s innovation center. She later wrote about it in her New York Times column “Prototype” and gave it glowing reviews. She has been asked to leave the Times.
And apparently there is a third, more recent case of Joshua Robinson,
who sought free trips from airlines pitched stories to airline magazines in exchange for airline tickets, while describing himself as a Times reporter even though he wasn’t working on a project for the paper. (Editor’s Note: To be fair, what freelancer wouldn’t boast about those Times clips on his resume?)
So why, Times public editor Clark Hoyt asked, should these writers be punished? Why should freelancers be held to the same ethical standards as the people who get health insurance, benefits and secure employment? After all, is it worth writing for a prestigious institution if there are no perks to be had?
Hoyt doesn’t have an answer, but instead tries to shift the blame away from the paper itself and onto the “anonymous” bloggers that sell their colleagues short by publicizing their indiscretions and making it impossible for the Times to keep them on:
“Transgressions are heavily chewed over on the Web, doing no good for the reputation of a paper trying to protect its integrity from even the appearance of improper influence. Tripsas’ problem was uncovered by www.nytpick.com, an anonymous Web site devoted to critiquing the Times, and Albo’s was revealed by Jeff Bercovici, the media columnist for DailyFinance, another online site. Robinson’s case was brought to my attention by someone at an airline who was approached by him and his collaborator.
Ah yes. If you were wondering if Mike Albo taking a free trip (along with 150 other journalists and guests, of whom only one other was possibly penalized for it) and not writing about it for The New York Times and getting fired anyway constituted an ethical violation itself, you now have your answer. Except it’s not The New York Times‘ fault, it’s Jeff Bercovici’s for writing about it.
Of course, this misses the entire point — that working as a freelancer is challenging and not very fruitful work that sometimes requires reporters to take on expenses they simply can’t afford. By requiring all its freelancers to only cover things that they can pay for out of pocket, to be later reimbursed by the paper, they are limiting the people who can write for them to a very elite group, especially when it comes to travel reviews. What’s more, Times freelancers are precluded from accepting gifts even when not writing for the paper. This is ultimately doing a disservice to Times readers and potential freelancers.
Read More: Times Standards, Staffers or Not —The New York Times