Editorial Ethics, Yes; Rigidity, No

I am a firm believer in a strong code of editorial ethics, as many editors who’ve worked with me would be all too quick to affirm. But I also believe that to be successful, a code of ethics must be flexible, adapting organically to the norms and expectations of different media and communities. Recent evidence from the New York Times only underscores for me the problems with rigidity in editorial ethics.

Several months ago I wrote about how a strict code of editorial ethics like that of the Times might have a dark side as a competitive weapon. The idea, suggested by tech journalist John Dvorak, involved the paper’s editorial policy forbidding reporters from accepting any reimbursement for travel expenses from outside sources. To Dvorak, who doesn’t believe paid press junkets are necessarily evil, the Times’ motivation is not strictly ethical.

The darker motive, he argued, was to set a standard that disadvantaged smaller competitors. While the Times could afford to pay the travel costs of its writers, smaller papers could not. Feeling obliged to match the high ethical standard set by the Times, those papers would simply relinquish coverage of costly events to the Times.

This week, a new twist on this theme emerged from a recent uproar over how the Times applies its code to freelancers. Now, it seems, even the Times can’t afford its ethics policy. Its solution? Freelancers.

Like many publishers, the Times is not very generous regarding travel and research expenses, and yet it expects freelancers to observe exactly the same standards as full-time staff.

The issue first came to light last October, after the Times responded to criticism of its continued use of a freelancer, Mike Albo, who went on a press junket unrelated to work for the Times. For an employee, that would be unacceptable. But for a freelancer, the Times at first reasonably suggested, it was not relevant. But when shown that its own policy made freelancers subject to same rules as staffers, the Times fired him. Earlier this week, Times public editor Clark Hoyt reiterated the policy: “The paper’s rules apply even for work done for others.”

Then late last month, the NYTPicker observed that a Harvard business school professor writing for the Times had more clearly violated the newspaper’s guidelines. In her column, Mary Tripsas had written about 3M’s innovation center, which she had visited earlier in the year as part of a trip paid for by 3M. The genesis of the trip was not her newspaper connection but her academic one; 3M invited her as an expert speaker and accordingly reimbursed her expenses. Once the Times learned this, they dropped her as a writer.

Did either of these freelancers behave unethically? Not in my view. Even Hoyt seems to have mixed feelings, like a reluctant executioner telling his victim that he doesn’t want to do it, but policy is policy.

Is it reasonable to expect outside contributors to hew to the same standards as staff? Virginia Postrel, a Times freelancer herself, doesn’t think so. The paper, she asserts, expects expertise and careful research from its contributors, but isn’t willing to pay for it:

“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.”

The Times’ policies, according to the Dvorak view, arose out of robust budgets. But now, it appears, the paper is feeling the economic pinch of those policies. Postrel suggests it’s time to rethink that code:

“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.”

My interest in this is not to criticize the newspaper, which I admire. Rather, it’s to reflect on the impracticality, even perhaps for the rarefied Times, of a rigid code of ethics amid today’s new-media realities.

For mere journalistic mortals, like most of us in B2B, editorial ethics need to be both situational and flexible. (And we’re fortunate to have just such a model of flexibility in the recommended code of the American Society of Business Press Editors.)

In an age of tight budgets, when the survival of both publishers and independent writers is at stake, guidelines need to adapt. There’s no value to a code of ethics if the only option it leaves you is silence.