Will The New York Times Wrist-Slap Another Freelancer, A Harvard Professor?

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...
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Here’s the latest New York Times freelancer who might get sent to the woodshed for ethical lapses — Mary Tripsas, a Harvard professor — reports Gawker.

In today’s column, Tripsas waxes ecstatic about about the 3M Company’s “innovation center,” which helps their customers provide input in the design process. Cool! Except NYTPicker has learned that Tripsas and other “innovation researchers” were flown to the center last month—airfare and accommodations gratis. Imagine the infamous Thrillist junket with less booze and more whiteboards.

This is not kosher with Times freelancer rules, which state:

In connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.

Clearly, 3M was a “potential news source” at the time they flew Tripsas out to their Innovation Chocolate Factory, since they became a current news source in today’s column. But Tripsas, who is a professor at the Harvard Business School, is trying to work the “In connection with their work for us” clause into a loophole, according to NYTPicker:

“I am a professor who does research on innovation and, in fact 3M was not aware of my recent NYT affiliation when they invited me,” Prof. Tripsas told The NYTPicker via email. “As a professor, I am sometimes invited to speak to companies about innovation, and it is not unusual for the company to reimburse travel expenses, so 3M did pay for my hotel and airfare. I did not inform the New York Times of that since I viewed the visit as a speaking engagement that was part of my broader academic research.”

As schadenfreudian New York City writers all know, freelance Mike Albo, who wrote a long-running twice-monthly shopping column in the Styles section, lost his gig after accepting a free trip to Jamaica on assignment for someone else.

It’s an interesting game the Times plays, this ethical squeeze play with the talented freelancers whose copy fills almost every single section — national and metro generally excepted. I agree entirely with the spirit of it, and as a Times freelancer, have abided by it for years. But the definition of “freelance” usually means “I sell my skills to the highest bidder”, not “You own me and get to dictate my behavior.”

The very spirit of this code violates the way freelancers run their businesses, using their own standards and definitions of what is fair and ethical, the trade-off we make for the financial insecurity of a life free of corporate shackles, and rules. But we’ve all known or heard of writers who stuff anything they can get into their suitcase or handbag or apartment, which makes the rest of us who don’t do so, whether Times’-constrained or not — look stupid — and, depending on your ethics, these people brain-dead, greedy and up for grabs.

Does it matter to you, dear readers, if a freelancer has their airfare or meals or lodging paid for (as is completely standard in most travel writing) by a source? What do you think of the Times‘ ethics code?

15 thoughts on “Will The New York Times Wrist-Slap Another Freelancer, A Harvard Professor?

  1. palavering

    No one can force a writer–freelance or otherwise–to be moral. Nobody can be said to be acting morally at the point of a gun. Guidelines for freelancers should exist; but these guidelines should be invoked, however, to make judgments on an individual basis, not en masse.

  2. inmyhumbleopinion

    My immediate reaction is, does The Times pay for your travel when you’re on assignment for them? If not, it seems disingenuous of them to wag their fingers but still accept your copy. If they do, then they probably have the right to keep church and state separate.

    But the other thing that comes to mind is, what is the nature of the piece? Presumably, Times movie critics like A.O. Scott go to free screenings (or get advance copies on DVD) of movies from the various studios–why is that any different than someone traveling on the subject’s dime? My point is, it would be one thing if the story is an investigative piece trying to uncover things that might not be so Kosher, and quite another if we’re talking about a review of a fashion show or product demonstration.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    The Times will pay for freelancers’ assigned travel — but they’ve so tightly pulled in their expenses that those trips are rare.

    The larger issue remains — a freelancer, de facto, has many, many clients and has to work hard to earn anything near a staffer’s salary, $80-100K+/year at the Times for people at my level. Each client has their own needs and we often work with a mix of journalism, PR, non-profit and corporate assignmemts. That’s where it can get messy; while a Times clip is lovely, it won’t even pay a month’s rent or mortgage for most people.

    palavering, that’s the challenge. I sit on the board of a 1,400 member writers’ group, the ASJA,and who knows what deals each of them is making?

    1. palavering

      Caitlin, I hate to ask this of such a warm and friendly person, but What’s your point? I have stated that the rules should exist, but that each alleged infraction should be judged on an individual basis, because circumstances vary from writer to writer. Do you disagree with this view, fair lady?

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  5. dtafs

    It’s a tough question to answer.

    Does the fact that the journalist has a broader audience base, than say a low or mid-level retailer, play into the fact that he/she was flown out and wined/dined at 3M’s expense?

    Through the course of a normal marketing transaction, between a 3M and say one of their business partners, the eventual audience who will receive the review (IE corporate executives, board members, etc.) is much smaller and more focused. The wining and dining is nice, but it’s a sideshow to the fundamental information gathering that takes place. In turn, the marketing professional who is on the receiving end is just that, a marketing professional, who at the end of the day will review and report back in the interest of his/her company, and with a background that supports his/her conclusions.

    A writer has the potential to affect a much larger, and less focused audience whom are the eventual consumer. Likewise, in today’s world, stock fluctuations are acutely affected by even the smallest piece of good, or bad, news.

    So, in conclusion, I have no idea if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing lol!

    I would give the freelancer the benefit of the doubt, considering it seems that he has a long background in journalism, and assume he can see through the fluff. Maybe, if he was a greenhorn writer for the times, I could understand their worry. But a seasoned journalist? Seems a little far fetched that he would write something feeling like he had to “repay” the small debt 3M showed him.

    But then again, stranger things have happened.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    dtaf, I’m not wild about such rules, but there are many who care not a fig for ethical breaches – and many lined up to grease their palms. I also wonder if the Times’ putative endorsement — via this professor — even carries nearly as much weight as someone from a tech mag or, really, a website or someone influential, a non-journo, with thousands of Twitter followers instead.

    How much influence do traditional journo’s even have anymore? I bet it’s waning.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    palavering, you’ve said you come from working within an academic institution. Surely (?) it had clear ethical policies for its workers, and those probably included the many poorly paid adjuncts who now teach at most colleges; no benefits included and no chance at tenure.

    The challenge of keeping it all “individual” is that every individual making the judgment call is subject to their own whims. I could cite you a few examples I know of that might truly shock you, or anyone else who heard them, because the employer in question hates conflict and lawsuits and so keeps shuffling problems to another department and keeps some mighty creepy people employed.

    It’s deeply hypocritical to ask freelancers to behave one way when some staffers get away with some mighty dubious behavior — not at all uncommon within journalism (and likely many other industries.) Let ’em all play by the same rules.

    1. palavering

      Caitlin, why must you always refer to people as “poorly paid” (it’s obvious that you feel sorry for the world’s population)? Yet, you rarely refer to those who are not poorly paid, who have good lives, that are in constant pursuit of happiness.
      Caitlin, you are a fine writer and very pleasing to the eye, but you must learn that we don’t live in a perfect world. And you should consider the possibility that some adjunct professors don’t deserve more than what they get–and millions of other people reap exactly what they have sown. Sure, some competent people get lost in the shuffle, but we have no choice but to accept the circumstances that fall into our laps–most of the time. But all is not lost: My fate was to meet you. Now how ’bout that!

  8. It seems to me that readers should be able to expect uniform ethical standards from a publication. They may not detect that writer X is on staff and writer Y is a freelancer, and that therefore different standards apply to their work. And how strange would that be anyway, to have different ethical standards for stories that may appear on the same page? Also, isn’t it ultimately better for the freelancer to have their work held to a high standard? Tripsas enjoyed a 3M junket and then wrote a positive story about 3M, which raises a question about the integrity of her work. Even if the relationship stems from her position at Harvard, do you think she should have disclosed it to us as well as her editors… before she got busted?

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Jeff, I agree, clearly. Especially as budgets tighten and many publications cut their low fees even further, the temptation to take whatever you can get free gets even greater for many freelancers. Staffers — they’ve got salaries, and no excuse.

    I’ve disclosed relationships that have, as I knew they would, scotched the deal on a Times and WSJ assignment. As it should be. Annoying, sure. I write for a living. But a writer no one trusts doesn’t get work either.

    I doubt that Tripsas, seeing her primary employer and source of income/status being Harvard, would even have thought of the Times’ ethics code as being an impediment to her decisions.

    I think it’s incumbent on anyone writing for the Times — whose ethics code de facto demands an altruism and corporate loyalty that’s really inimical to freelance behavior — to disclose a conflict of interest. Then, we know, you lose the gig: the clip, the status, the visbility, the deal you made with the source(s) and — oh that — the income from the piece.

    My POV has been that a longterm relationship with the Times and the many editors there I’ve written for – more than ten, in many different sections — is worth more to me professionally than some stupid junket. I still can’t believe Mike Albo took for granted what so many of his competitors would kill for: a bi-monthly, high-visibility, dead-simple (hello, shopping one store) NYT column and its guaranteed income. Yeah, why would you want anything so easy?

    It really gets tricky because all these ethical dances and dekes deal with relationships of mutual or reciprocal value — the Times gets a Harvard prof in their pages, 3M gets a nice write-up in the Times by a Harvard prof, the prof gets Times bragging rights.

    1. palavering

      I know of few people who get less than they deserve. I do, however, know many people who receive much more than they are worthy of.
      You’re not a Marxist, Caitlin; you’re simply a good person.

  10. vpostrel

    One point worth pulling out from the blog post: Nobody would have complained if Tripsas’s expenses had been covered by Harvard (and if 3M hadn’t paid, she almost certainly would have used her academic research budget, not her personal funds to cover what was, in fact, a business trip). In fact, the Times is almost certainly counting on its academic contributors to have research funds so it doesn’t have to cover their expenses. Yet Harvard, which also provides her salary, is also mentioned favorably in her column. Why not forbid that mention as well? It’s the reductio ad absurdum for a ridiculous policy.

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