Today’s New York Times carries the weekly column on ethics and standards by the paper’s columnist, Clark Hoyt.
Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer…
Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.
“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”
Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.
Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.
I’ve twice in 20 years made errors that had an editor there call me, demanding an answer and a correction — now. I know the pressures that editors are under and how incredibly difficult it can be to gain and keep their trust. I’d already written many, many pieces for the paper when I approached a new-to-me editor a few years ago who said, “Well, it’s a bit of a risk.” I’ve gone on to write a lot for this person and we’ve enjoyed a collegial relationship. I didn’t like the apprehensiveness about my skills, but I understood it.
That’s how they think. That’s how a freelancer needs to think about working freelance with anyone there, as a writer, illustrator, photographer. It’s not all about you.
This crap gives freelancers a bad name, one we already have with many people who just assume “You’re too lousy to get a real job.”
We all know that Times‘ clips can open some terrific new doors, inside and outside of the paper; I got yet another email yesterday from a younger writer desperate to write for them and eager for my contacts there. I’m proud of my work for the paper — and stupid and unethical behavior, by any writer, makes me nuts.
It will also make my life with them a lot more annoying as every editor will now feel compelled to climb up my rear with a flashlight to make sure I’m not being deceptive with them and my sources.
When outright lying about your affiliations — which you know full well adds deceptive value to your brand — doesn’t “seem applicable”, it’s time to think about what “applicable” means.
Everyone but you?