The Collapse of Professional Journalism, Cont'd
by Virginia Postrel • Dec 28, 2009 at 3:08 pm
The latest "ethics" scandal buzzing through the journalism blogs provides another reminder that the culture and norms of the traditional journalism guild are ill-suited to the new "FREE" era. But first, a bit of personal context.
Back in June, I got an email from Tim O'Brien, the editor of the NYT's Sunday business section, asking if I'd be interested in writing a monthly column called PROTOTYPE about "creativity and innovation in the business world." I appreciated the invitation and was tempted by the subject matter. But, after a quick calculation, I demurred.
"The subject is certainly an interesting one to me," I replied, a bit snarkily, "but unless the Times has significantly increased its freelance payments and decided that research budgets aren't a waste of money, it's probably not worth the time away from my book writing."
Given my immediate no, our discussions never got far enough to hit the deal-killer: I am, in fact, ethically ineligible to write about innovation for the NYT.
I occasionally do paid speaking for companies that might conceivably be sources for a column on innovation. (Those speaking engagements generally pay quite a bit better than writing for the Times.) As an old journalism pro, I naturally know enough not to take a speaking gig and then turn it into an article, at least not without getting my editor's OK and disclosing any potential conflict to readers. But that's no longer enough for the Times. Its ethics guidelines now prohibit freelancers from taking honoraria or even travel expenses from anyone who might, in some theoretical future state of the world, be a source. In October, "Critical Shopper" columnist Mike Albo, a freelancer, was canned for taking a travel junket that had nothing to do with his NYT gig.
This overly broad policy presents the Times with a major problem that is only going to get worse. The paper wants writers who take no money, including expense reimbursement, from anyone who might conceivably be a "current or potential news source," even on beats unrelated to their NYT writing. The traditional way to achieve this goal was to pay staffers full-time salaries and cover their expenses. But the Times is no longer willing to foot that bill. To save money, it wants to use freelancers with independent expertise, gained through research the Times didn't fund. Yet for well-understood reasons of supply and demand, writers who have independent expertise nowadays rely on in-person engagements (speaking and perhaps consulting) for most of their income. Any freelancer you'd be eager to read on innovation--Michael Schrage, say--is almost certainly someone who also gets paid to share that expertise in person.
To fill the PROTOTYPE slot, the Times turned, as it does increasingly for business and economics coverage, to someone who wouldn't care about its low article fees or nonexistent reporting expenses: a
Along with some other academics, she visited 3M's innovation center, with the company covering her travel expenses. On Sunday, she published a column about such centers, with 3M's featured in the lead and spotlighted in photos. Charges of ethics violations were soon flying. If Mike Albo lost his slot, media bloggers argue, she should lose hers.
I don't believe Professor Tripsas did anything remotely corrupt. The main value 3M gave her was, in fact, the same thing journalists are bought off with every day: access. The travel expenses were incidental and surely would have been covered by Harvard had 3M not picked up the tab. But she did violate the Times's extraordinarily strict guidelines--guidelines so broad that she arguably shouldn't even have quoted the work of a colleague at Harvard Business School, since she relies on that organization for her salary and benefits.
The real problem was not that 3M covered some of Tripsas's reporting expenses. It's that the column wasn't very good. It lacked context about 3M's long history of internally driven innovation, the work of design consultancies like IDEO, or academic research on customer-driven innovation. It was old news. I wrote about a similar innovation center, at GE Plastics, in The Substance of Style, published in 2003 and researched several years earlier. (Tripsas's column in fact acknowledged that 3M opened its first innovation center more than a decade ago.) And the writing was noticeably cliched and strained: "In a world of online user communities, social media, interactive blogs and other technological means for companies to elicit customer feedback, you might think that face-to-face interaction is a thing of the past. Think again."
Instead of focusing on inputs, the Times should focus its quality control on outputs: what actually appears in the paper. Drop the absurd ethics guidelines, hire freelancers who know their subjects and how to write about them, and disclose any potential conflicts so readers can make up their own minds. Think about delivering value to the reader rather than ritualistically adhering to journalistic guild customs. Alternatively, the Times could shrink the paper to include only that reporting whose costs it can cover out of its own budget and stop trying to free ride.
CORRECTION: I sloppily jumped to a mistaken conclusion about Mary Tripsas's tenure status without actually checking. SMU's David Croson (a mutual friend), emails, "Mary Tripsas doesn't have tenure yet. (Harvard doesn't tenure its associate professors -- one of a very few places that doesn't.) She does, however, have an extremely generous research budget, so your points (about the Times' free-riding, and about HBS being willing to pay if 3M hadn't) seem essentially correct."
ADDENDUM: For those interested in the institutional context, this article (minus a couple of pages) by the eminent HBS accounting professor Robert Kaplan gives a picture of the ideal relationship among research, teaching, consulting, and case writing at Harvard Business School.
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