The New York Times' Junket Ethics Firings: Futile, Embarrassing

The New York Times has travel writing issues; specifically, the accepting of junkets by their writers, and then having to fire them to the public in Clark Hoyt's ombudsman column. It's come to a peak. Special appearance by Mike Albo!

Last week, we learned about Mary Tripsas, the Harvard Professor who found herself exempt from being fired via the Times freelance rules, from the anonymous blog parsing the New York Times', the NYTPicker. She was pretty clearly in violation of the Times ethics guidelines regarding taking junkets, and they called her out on it.

Well, guess what happened:

Today, an editor's note in the paper says that, had The Times known that 3M paid Tripsas' expenses to Minnesota in November, the column would not have been published as it was written. Tripsas violated a policy against accepting travel or anything else of value from the subjects of coverage. She will no longer be writing for The Times.

But that's not all! Another young reporter, just two years into his Times writing career, is now banished from writing for the Times, too:

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.

This is the second column Hoyt's run about travel writing, which he already covered three weeks ago. He didn't cover the firing of the Times' Critical Shopper (and former Gawker Underminder) columnist Mike Albo (pictured!) previously, but he has now. Albo was fired because he took a junket on a JetBlue trip to Jamaica while he was at the Times. And the Times' draconian junket rules state:

In connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.

But Albo's situation looks stranger by the day. For one thing, theTimes didn't fire anyone after Jeff Bercovici printed his initial column on Albo. It wasn't until Ryan Tate ran his post on the story later that day that the Times started their review of Albo's employment with an email to us and Bercovici. In it, he noted:

Albo is most definitely a travel contributor, filing at least half a dozen stories over the past two years, including two this past May.

Which, interestingly enough, the Times never bothered to correct us on: four of those stories were, in fact, travel stories, but two were Critical Shopper pieces. Albo already talked to the NYTPicker, back in October, about the incident, which ended for him in a letter from the Times:

""The letter also cited that a trip sponsor, H&M, was a direct conflict given my duties reporting on retail and consumer products," Albo said. "H&M's presence at this trip was a water bottle in the gift bag. I left it in the hotel room."

Didn't matter. The story had gotten out there, and not long after, Mike Albo was fired for a project he wasn't working on for the Times.

The lesson, of course, being that travel stories can only be written to the Times standards when the Times foots the entire bill. In order to do that, the writer has to pay for the story upfront, and after, has to be compensated for expenses. Some problems, here:

1. Do you really think broke freelance writers can afford to do this?
2. Do you think a newspaper that is experiencing buyout after buyout or layoff after layoff can really afford to cover both expenses and a writer's fee?
3. Is is really in the best interests of the Times to fire good writers because they're sticking by rules made when publications could afford to cover writers' travel journalism expenses?

The answer, for most freelancers in New York, and—going out on a limb, here—for the New York Times, in light of their recent money problems: no.

So what's the final word from the Times today when Hoyt reviews his employment and firing?

...Albo did not consult an editor responsible for enforcing the ethics policy, and his friends gave him the wrong answer. The paper's rules apply even for work done for others......To [Times Editors], 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...The system is not working well: these cases keep coming up with dismaying frequency.

Not working well? Forget about undue influence. The Times' system as it stands is works to monopolize travel writers' talents. It creates a non-compete for someone who is a freelancer—i.e. free of contracts like non-competes, because they're not paid health insurance, benefits, etc—and tries to put a stranglehold on what they can and can't do with their personal time. It also bankrupts already broke writers. Meanwhile, the Times keeps on star columnists, like David Pogue, who's breaking that same set of ethics rules, who Hoyt has already recognized as having violated those rules once before, to no consequence.

What Albo didn't say is that his firing was so clearly a quick, shoddy attempt by the New York Times to save face. Which it, from some angles, very clearly appears to be. I asked Albo if he was embarrassed about any of this, and he noted by email:

I am not embarrassed. I am more in awe, and also sad and disappointed that I am no longer writing the Critical Shopper column. I really enjoyed it...I especially loved giving talented, struggling designers and independent retailers well deserved attention. Despite all this, I only have good things to say about the staff and the editors there. Also the Times pays very efficiently. I have always been simultaneously obsessed and grossed out by our commercial culture: how media infiltrates our lives, how we are all becoming part-product, how branding imprints on the brain, how actresses in hollywood are now required to have faces that look like smooth flounders, how Underminers thrive like cockroaches within this system. Pretty much everything I write - monologues, plays, novels, comedy sketches, freelance articles - deals with these themes in some way. This experience has clarified a lot of suspicions I had about the bizarre and blurred Commercial Industrial Complex in which we live. I don't expect to stop writing about these subjects... On the contrary, if anything good has come out of this, it's that my comedo-critical faculties have been given a electric jolt of energy. My knives are sharpened.

As for what he's up to now:

I am writing a zillion articles for whomever asks me and nervously waiting for them to mail me checks sometime within this decade. I am also doing a comedy show on Jan 8th, Friday evening, at Galapagos in Brooklyn, 8pm.

As for the future....I gotta say, this thing is making me reassess my life as a freelance writer. I am trying to be pretty Zen about this whole thing. I consider it a door opening....although I am still sort of wandering the halls a bit, looking for that door. Hopefully I will find it soon because right now I have $124 in my bank account.

Also, I am working on another book, which is, strangely enough, turning out to be about a writer on a very bizarre junket.

Naturally.

[Full Disclosure: I'm going on a junket tomorrow for BlackBook. And I'm going to enjoy it. A lot.]