Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, has been writing a monthly column in The Times called “Prototype,” about corporate innovation, her academic specialty. Last Sunday, she highlighted the 3M Company’s customer innovation center at its headquarters in St. Paul.
Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer.
And the byline of Mike Albo, another freelancer who was one writer of the “Critical Shopper” column, disappeared from the paper in the fall, after — separate from his work at The Times — he accepted an expenses-paid junket to Jamaica, organized by Thrillist, a consumer e-letter, and sponsored by JetBlue and other corporations.
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. Some writers do not read the guidelines carefully, and although they are encouraged to raise possible conflicts of interest with an editor, some don’t tell and are not asked.
Transgressions are heavily chewed over on the Web, doing no good for the reputation of a paper trying to protect its integrity from even the appearance of improper influence. Tripsas’ problem was uncovered by www.nytpick.com, an anonymous Web site devoted to critiquing The Times, and Albo’s was revealed by Jeff Bercovici, the media columnist for DailyFinance, another online site. Robinson’s case was brought to my attention by someone at an airline who was approached by him and his collaborator.
The standard freelance contract states, “You will not accept free transportation, gifts, junkets or commissions/assignments from current or potential news sources.” Before being paid, freelancers must fill out a conflict-of-interest questionnaire. But Philip Corbett, the standards editor, said, “We haven’t done enough,” and he said top editors plan to discuss this week how to get greater compliance with the ethics rules, spelled out in a 54-page booklet that all contributors to The Times, staff and freelance, are expected to read and obey.
Despite all the precautions, the cases of Tripsas, Robinson and Albo show how differing views of ethics, a failure to read or remember the fine print and a failure to communicate can lead to embarrassment all around.
Tripsas, who accepts speaking fees from companies to share the findings of her academic research and conducts executive education at companies that pay Harvard for her services, now realizes that she was probably ineligible to write for The Times from the start. But the newspaper recruited her for the expertise she gained through her academic work, and she said she did not read the contract carefully or consider its full implications. “I should have,” she said.
The trip to 3M was arranged before she began working for The Times in August, she said, and she wasn’t thinking about a column when she flew to St. Paul. Instead, she and other professors were going to learn about 3M’s customer-centered culture. Only after she saw 3M’s innovation center did she propose a column to her editor, Patricia Kranz.
Tripsas said, “It should have computed that there might have been, from the journalistic point of view, a conflict.” But from her point of view, she was doing academic research, as she normally did, and there was nothing remarkable about allowing 3M to pick up the $820 bill for air fare and a hotel. The money could just as easily have come from her Harvard research budget, she said. “It wouldn’t have changed what I wrote,” she said.
Tripsas made clear in her proposal to Kranz that she had visited 3M, but she didn’t mention who paid for her trip. “It just didn’t even occur to me,” Tripsas told me. Kranz said the fact that a trip was involved never registered with her, let alone the question of who paid for it. “She and I both overlooked a thing we shouldn’t have overlooked,” Kranz said.
Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.
“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”
Albo, a novelist, comedian and freelance writer, said he also separated his junket to Jamaica from his work at The Times. He said he took the trip “explicitly to see how such an overhyped and oversponsored junket worked,” expecting that it would provide satiric material for a monologue or a piece of fiction. He said he informally asked friends who were reporters at The Times if they thought the junket would violate the paper’s ethics rules, and they agreed it would not because he was a freelancer. “It seemed clear that I was a free agent when it came to my other work,” he said.
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 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. Postrel said Tripsas’ main job was to understand and improve business practices, so it did not matter who paid her way to 3M.
Times editors reject such arguments because, to them, the most important consideration is that everything in the newspaper, no matter who produces it, must be free of even the smallest hint of undue influence. “I think it is important for us to be clear and strict about our rules so readers have reason to trust our credibility,” Corbett said.
I come from the same place, but the system is not working well: these cases keep coming up with dismaying frequency. That could be because the system is so elaborate — written booklet, written contract, written questionnaire — that editors take false comfort and neglect the most important element: constant conversation with freelancers over every assignment about the paper’s expectations. Then, even when considering asking someone else for free air fare or taking a junket, a freelancer would know better, or stop and ask.
“I do wish someone had kind of beaten me over the head,” said Tripsas, whose first column was already in print before she received her conflict-of-interest questionnaire.