The NYT's "Ethics" Rules Cont'd
by Virginia Postrel • Jan 3, 2010 at 12:38 am
Mary Tripsas is out and NYT flak catcher Clark Hoyt devotes his public editor column to the issue. He and I talked at length on the phone and exchanged a couple of emails. While he doesn't exactly get what I said wrong, I'm concerned that some subtleties got lost. In particular, I made a distinction between doing the job of a management professor and doing the job of a Times columnist and a distinction between giving a journalist a junket to influence coverage and paying writers (professors or journalists) to share their own ideas as speakers or consultants. Maybe I wasn't fully clear, but here's what I wrote to him. First, in response to his initial query.
I did not turn down the column because of the rules. (Don't believe everything you read on Gawker.) As I said in my post, I never got that far. I turned down the column because it looked like a black hole of time and research expenses. I have a contract to write a book on glamour for The Free Press and wanted to focus any freelance writing on subjects related to my book. If I had entered into negotiations, however, the rules would have eventually led to my disqualification.
As you may know, I was an Economic Scene contributor for six years, before the new restrictions were in place. At that time, conflicts were considered on a column-by-column basis, and no significant issues arose. I wrote about academic economists, who weren't ever going to pay me for anything. (There were a couple of minor situations that Tom Redburn, my editor, and I hashed out. I don't remember the details, except that one involved my ownership of 100 shares of Amazon stock. I know that Hal Varian, who is a great economist and a great columnist, did run into a lot of conflicts with his consulting, but he just didn't write about those topics.)
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. Although we never got to discussing fees for Prototype, my assumption was that similar payments would apply, although the Prototype column would require much more time, both to develop new sources and report individual columns. To be done right, it would also need fairly in-depth, on-site reporting of the sort the Times is loath to fund for freelancers. Keep in mind also that the Times, unlike most publication, also demands all rights to stories rather than, say, first and nonexclusive rights.
Under the new rules, I don't see how I could write anything other than an op-ed or occasional book review for the Times, and I may be skirting the rules on that.
I'll give you a call tomorrow to discuss this further.
After we talked, Clark was kind enough to send me a copy of his draft for fact-checking. It included the following paragraph about me.
Virginia Postrel, a writer and former Times columnist who was recruited for the "Prototype" column before Tripsas got it, thinks the paper's rules are unfair to writers and are themselves "borderline unethical." The paper wants to treat freelancers like staffers without paying them or giving them the benefits of staffers, she said. It expects in the case of a Tripsas that Harvard will pay expenses the paper should pay. She said The Times is operating under "the false assumption" that companies like 3M are flying out a professor to influence her when they are instead trying to learn from her, as much as she is trying to learn from them.
I probably should have left well enough alone, but I sent the following email:
Thanks for sending the piece. I understand the space constraints, but you've actually conflated two issues: why companies that hire potential Times writers (like Tripsas or, for that matter, me) to speak or consult because they learn from them, and why 3M offered Tripsas and other professors a plant tour. (I'm sure 3M wanted to continue to build its reputation as an innovation leader among Harvard profs.) The revisions below, while not as graceful as your original graf, more accurately reflect my points.
Virginia Postrel, a writer and former Times columnist who was recruited for the "Prototype" column before Tripsas got it, thinks the paper's rules are themselves "borderline unethical." The paper wants to treat freelancers like staffers without paying them or giving them the benefits of staffers OR FUNDING THE RESEARCH EXPENSES THROUGH WHICH THEY BUILD EXPERTISE, she said. It expects in the case of a Tripsas that Harvard will pay REPORTING expenses the paper should pay. She said The Times is operating under "the false assumption" that companies PAY SPEAKING OR CONSULTING FEES TO PROFESSORS OR AUTHORS IN ORDER TO INFLUENCE THEIR FUTURE WRITING, rather than to learn from them. IN THE CASE OF TRIPSAS'S 3M TOUR, SHE SAID, A BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSOR'S JOB IS TO UNDERSTAND AND IMPROVE BUSINESS PRACTICES, SO FOR THAT PURPOSE, AS OPPOSED TO COLUMN RESEARCH, WHO COVERS THE EXPENSES IS IMMATERIAL.
I strongly believe that the Times is using its market power to freeload on the human capital--including both personal reputations and the expensive process of learning things--of its freelancers, which is one reason it is so happy to have so many professors on board, (something that will end if you seriously start enforcing the prohibition against earning any money from anybody who might conceivably be a source for any theoretical future article). But, hey, you can always dig up some more 24 year olds.
I 100% guarantee you that the blogs will be buzzing with the words "David Pogue" after this column runs. Since he has a bigger brand than the Times in his field--and thus more to lose if he loses readers' trust--I think the Times is perfectly justified in ignoring its policies for him. But a lot of people don't.
I had hoped that in response to this controversy the Times might adopt a more reasonable policy. But, at least for now, it appears that the paper is going to continue to drive away talent while substituting increasingly complex and intrusive rules for disclosure and editorial judgment.
(See my original posts on this topic here and here.)