A blogger for The New York Times has been requesting thousands of dollars in "expenses" and travel airfare from a public relations firm trying to get its clients covered in the Times, according to emails obtained by Gawker.
"This is a minimum investment and shows the company has some skin in game," wrote the blogger, Cliff Oxford, in an email last week to a PR executive representing tech companies. "My daily rate is 10 grand per day so I am putting my time on line."
Oxford, a former VP at UPS who sold his technology outsourcing company in 2003, once tried to run for senator in Georgia and currently manages an education company called Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. He also writes for "You're the Boss," a group blog on the web site of Times' business section that dispenses advice on how to grow companies. The Oxford Center's homepage prominently links to Oxford's Times posts at the top of the page.
When a PR executive representing tech companies reached out to Oxford in January to try to get his clients covered in "You're the Boss," Oxford responded by asking for the tech company to cover his travel costs. As the two continued discussing coverage, Oxford's demand increased to $1,188 per company for travel expenses, including flight, hotel, food, parking, and car.
Oxford's blog posts may seem like an odd choice of publicity for budding tech companies, but the value of a New York Times logo to your small startup's press page can't be overstated. And he does occasionally mention outside companies, like Tumblr. "That’s what I call a winner," he wrote of the CEO of an indoor trampoline park company. In December, he profiled an ear, nose, and throat facility in his home city. Oxford also devoted an entire post to an accounting firm that sponsors the Oxford Center, noting the relationship in a parenthetical disclosure.
Oxford first requested airfare and hotel reimbursement from our PR tipster in February, in exchange for agreeing to meet and research one of the PR firm's clients for a potential "You're the Boss" post. The flack scrounged to meet Oxford's request with Starwood Points and Delta Miles, but the client had to cancel the trip because of a family emergency. (Gawker obtained a receipt for both.)
But when Oxford tried again in June, he upped the ante, requesting expenses as well:
"The only way we can make my visits fair, efficient and substantive is to to charge each company a minimum And flat rate for expenses. We will do all the bookings, upgrades etc"
Oxford did not promise coverage in return for paying his way. "There are no guarantees other than my time and focus to learn about these companies," he wrote in an email on Friday.
Asked if there may have been some confusion between Oxford's role as a consultant and his gig for the Times, the PR exec was clear: The flack was interested in getting Oxford to write about clients on the Times' web site, and Oxford was demanding expenses and travel to even consider it.
"[Coverage] was exactly what I'd been pushing the entire time," the exec told Gawker. "I was never asking to get this dude to do consultancy. I don't even know what he consults on." The flack's initial email to Oxford (reproduced below) was sent to the email address—firstname.lastname@example.org—listed on Oxford's profile at "You're the Boss."
In an email from January regarding the aborted February trip, Oxford appeared to blur the line between his role as a consultant and blogger, and made clear that the expenses-paid trip was for his "own understanding" and would only become a Times story if he sees "a worthy story":
[Redacted] and Team
I look forward to it and my specialty is high growth. If you have some time please take some time to read past 3 or 4 blogs I basically help fast growth entrepreneurs "Scale or Sale" I would like to be very clear that this trip is for my own understanding and I am not representing NYT this time. If I see a worthy story, I will engage in that capacity. I do find what you have quite remarkable and [redacted] is quite brilliant in his approach. I think we will have an enjoyable and productive time. Best Cliff
But the PR exec insisted to Gawker that in phone conversations, Oxford said he was traveling as a representative of the Times.
The Times policy on ethics in journalism states: "When we as journalists entertain news sources (including government officials) or travel to cover them, our company pays the expenses." It's unclear whether the publication's notoriously strict guidelines apply to Oxford.
We've reached out to small business editor Loren Feldman and the New York Times public editor. A representative said they were looking into the matter. We have also reached out to Oxford and will update the post when we hear back. The full correspondence is below (emphasis ours):
????? The Oxford center is not going to pay expenses to learn about your companies. This has worked well with other companies and without one Hitch.
this whole situation has kinda skeeved me out the more i think about it......
I totally understand and appreciate it but it is too complicated. Maybe another way another time. Thanks
On Jun 28, 2013, at 2:37 PM, email@example.com wrote:
They were planning to use miles a lot of them...
For travel expenses including flight, hotel , food,0 parking, car etc it will be 1188 per company the stop over in Austin is 877
On Jun 27, 2013, at 7:06 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
Ok let me. Know
There are no guarantees other than my time and focus to learn about these companies.
We don't know yet about costs but it should be relatively a low amount
On Jun 26, 2013, at 4:18 PM, email@example.com wrote:
When you say bookings, what do you mean? how much will it all cost? And what can you guarantee will be the outcome?
The only way we can make my visits fair, efficient and substantive is to to charge each company a minimum And flat rate for expenses. We will do all the bookings, upgrades etc Thanks
On Jun 25, 2013, at 10:47 AM, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
great thank you
Yes we are also working on this so we will not have in problems or time gaps. My team is looking at it. I might hit Chicago in middle but they would be at my expense. Will let you know
On Jun 25, 2013, at 9:34 AM, email@example.com wrote
Okay so from what I gather it's
July 31: ATL-NY
Aug 5: NYC-SF
Aug 7: SF-ATL? or SF-AUS
And are they handling your nights' stay in NYC? I'll need it spelled out to get them to organize it otherwise something will go wrong
On Mon, Jun 24, 2013 at 6:19 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
Great. Send me dates and everything and i'll book.
On Jun 24, 2013, at 6:01 PM, email@example.com wrote:
Ok so they pay travel and that's it...?
Travel is required but should be paid by company and not by you. This is a minimum investment and shows the company has some skin in game. My daily rate is 10 grand per day so I am putting my time on line. Next, I am focused on fast growth companies so if they are start ups or mulling along, I do not want to see them. The company pays travel on the same metrics as suggested by IRS. The travel is prepaid and I never have cancellations. We can talk more later
On Jun 24, 2013, at 5:43 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
sounds good to me. are you interested in these? is there definitely a piece in there? do i have to pay travel again?
I can be in NY Aug 1st and 2nd. Calf aug 5 and 6thand Austin aug 7th
Here's the initial email between Oxford and the PR executive:
Hey there Cliff,Yes yes, I'm in PR and I'm sorry.Short and sweet question: do you ever care to hear from interesting (I have boring ones too) founders? Or products that might help 'em? If so, what kind?
Alright, that's it, sorry if that was annoying.
UPDATE: The parable of Cliff Oxford seems to be a lesson in the kind of degradation of quality—and ethical standards—that can happen when a news organization cedes content to contributors.
Reached by phone, Oxford repeatedly insisted that his demands for airfare and travel expenses were only related to the Oxford Center. “We’re disappointed that [redacted’s] companies didn’t qualify for the Oxford Center and he’s upset. The New York Times was never mentioned once—all conversation was 100 percent on Oxford Center,” he told Gawker.
When we read Oxford back the line from his own email stating: “I am not representing NYT this time. If I see a worthy story, I will engage in that capacity,” he said that was also related to his full-time business. “I write stories for the Oxford Center all the time. I make it clear that it is not for the New York Times.” However, the Oxford Center’s “Don’t Miss” ticker is only filled with his posts from the Times. There is also a prominent “NY Times Blog” link at the top left of the homepage.
Our source vehemently disputes that this correspondence was related to the Oxford Center. According to Oxford, the center has 450 company members. “We could possibly connect you with other people that can help. We provide a curriculum. We provide an online education,” he said.
Typically, said Oxford, if companies agree to pay expenses, then he does a review. “We have a three hour program we take them through and review it with their company—what is their growth rate, what is their leadership team—to see if they qualify.”
Oxford also insisted there was no cost associated with his service. “They’re not paying me, they’re paying expenses,” he said. Sounds like your typical consultant doublespeak, but this is not how journalism, or people holding out an editorial carrot, should function.
Oxford said he would send emails confirming that these requests for expenses and travel were not related to the New York Times. We will update the post if he provides them.
UPDATE 2: A representative from the Times emailed the following comment:
Editors have reviewed this situation in detail with Cliff. He says these exchanges were strictly regarding his role as a consultant with his company, the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. He did not make any suggestion that he would be covering the companies for You’re the Boss and in fact specifically noted that he was not representing The Times.