More freelancers, more ethics problems

3 01 2010

The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, reports that the newspaper’s increasing use of freelancers has given it ethics headaches.

These cases illustrate how hard it is for The Times to ensure that freelancers, who contribute a substantial portion of the paper’s content, abide by ethics guidelines that editors believe are self-evident and essential to the paper’s credibility but that writers sometimes don’t think about, or don’t think apply to their circumstances, or believe are unfair or unrealistic.

Hoyt quotes Virginia Postrel, a former Times columnist, as saying:

[She] thinks the paper’s rules are unfair to writers and are themselves “borderline unethical.” The paper wants to treat freelancers like staffers without the same pay or benefits, and without paying for their research, Postrel said. She said The Times operates under “the false assumption” that companies pay fees to professors or authors to influence their writing rather than to learn from them.

But Postrel, on her own blog, says that’s not all she told Clark. She includes an e-mail she sent him, which states:

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.

It’s just another band on the newspapers’ death spiral. Loss of readership causes cost cutting, which causes quality problems, including ethical issues, which causes credibility problem, which causes more loss of readership ….

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