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 ….

Do scoops still matter in a digital world?

13 04 2009

Funny, I hadn’t thought about this at all.

When I was a newspaper reporter in the last era (through 1995) getting the scoop drove the industry. Nearly anyone who worked there would tell you that the real downfall of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began the day the St. Louis Globe-Democrat folded. Oh, we still prided ourselves on scooping the broadcasters, but it wasn’t the same. I will always remember the outrage I felt when a TV reporter got wind of an investigation I was working on and went on the air the night before we published with a 30-second story about “questions being raised” regarding a developer’s relationship with local officials. His story had nothing, but I had lost my scoop, and the satisfaction for the weeks of work I had devoted to the story evaporated.

When print dominated journalism, the paper with the scoop could bask in it a full 24 hours, relishing how the competition was writhing while struggling to catch up. You accelerated your efforts to get a great second-day story that scooped them again.

In the mid-1990s it shook the industry when the first major dailies started “scooping themselves” by publishing stories on their Web sites before they could get the dead-tree edition on the streets. Now it’s routine and expected. The result? A scoop may last minutes at most.

The loss of this motivator could have sweeping consequences on the practice of what is left of journalism, perhaps not all bad. The egos of reporters lusting for the big scoop surely led to many an ethical lapse or unbalanced treatment of a story. Perhaps now that there is little reward for being first, the  motive will be getting it right or getting an angle or insight no one yet has considered. That would be a good thing.