Freelancers’ ethics

January 4, 2010
very happy when I managed to get Ben Stein fired from the New York Times for violations of its ethics guidelines. Yes, he was a freelancer, but that didn't excuse his sleazy and predatory extracurricular actions.

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I was very happy when I managed to get Ben Stein fired from the New York Times for violations of its ethics guidelines. Yes, he was a freelancer, but that didn’t excuse his sleazy and predatory extracurricular actions.

I fear, however, I might have helped to unleash a rather virulent strain of smug holier-than-thouness at the NYT, whose ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, today addresses the cases of three other freelancers fired for ethical violations — none of which were remotely as egregious as Stein’s. It comes as no surprise to find bloggers heavily involved:

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, 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.

Hoyt quotes Virginia Postrel at some length on the subject of how it’s quite unfair to hold expert freelancers to the same standards as NYT staffers. But he concludes that such considerations don’t ultimately matter:

Times editors reject such arguments because, to them, the most important consideration is that everything in the newspaper, no matter who produces it, must be free of even the smallest hint of undue influence.

This kind of high-mindedness would be all well and good if the NYT’s freelancers were easily able to afford such strictures. But as Postrel, a former NYT columnist herself, explains today, they’re not:

For Economic Scene, I was paid $1,000 a column and was grudgingly granted airfare once a year to attend the American Economic Association’s annual meetings; my hotel expenses were covered by my husband’s academic department, since I shared his room. I was under the strong impression at the time that the NYT would not have sprung for the hotel room.

Postrel’s already noted that the NYT is moving increasingly towards hiring tenured professors as freelance columnists, because they are paid in a non-conflicting way for the research they do for stories. (Unless and until, of course, a conflict arises anyway, as it did in the case of Mary Tripsas.) But the point here is that a good reported column, written by somebody with real expertise, is quite an expensive commodity, and the NYT seems to be trying to get such things for well below cost.

There can be something admirable in a corporate CEO working for $1 per year, but there’s nothing admirable about a company paying normal staffers that kind of money. The NYT treats its full-time staff pretty well, and those individuals get a well-paid union job with decent job security and benefits. Freelancers, by contrast, get very much the short end of the stick, and it’s depressing how the NYT seems to be happy hanging them out to dry — especially in the case of Mike Albo, whose transgression was utterly unrelated to his column, and who was even, at first, defended by a NYT spokeswoman.

Journalism is unusual in the professions, in that freelancers often get paid less than full-timers. That sets up an invidious incentive structure whereby newspapers — especially important ones like the NYT which effectively have a bottomless pool of people willing to write for them for nothing — can treat their writers very badly indeed, so long as they’re not on staff.

I do understand the NYT”s desire to protect its reputation at all costs, and the ease of simply holding freelancers to the same standards as staffers. But Hoyt is wrong when he blames the elaborate freelancer system for the latest spate of ethical infractions. It’s not that at all: instead, it’s the simple fact that people earning at most a few thousand dollars a year from the NYT are going to have to earn money elsewhere to make ends meet. And when you’re getting paid by other companies, in cash or in kind, ethical issues such as these are certain to arise.


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