Monday, January 04, 2010

The Press Junket and the Future of Journalism

Mike Albo, a freelance writer who penned the Critical Shopper column in the New York Times, was fired by the paper late last year for going on a press junket sponsored by Jet Blue (and others) to Jamaica. The catch was that Albo wasn't going there to write for the Times. Still, his agreement with the paper stipulated that he could not ever accept a free trip. After his firing was examined and re-examined all over the Web from groups as varied as Gawker and Daily Finance, Albo said this to Gawker today via e-mail:
"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."
While it may on the surface sound like Albo was wrong to take the trip and crazy to think he could get away with it, consider this from Gawker's Foster Kamer:
"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 it 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."
There are two illusions journalism students have about media that I'd like to shatter. First, that there is some separation between the editorial side of a magazine or newspaper and the advertising side. There are idealists out there, yes, but the truth is that neither print nor online versions of dailies and monthlies can survive without making some concessions to advertisers who, pinched by the recession, need incentives to pony up ad dollars. Not that there weren't major conflicts of interest before.

The second illusion is that writers make a reasonable living, and are immune to gifts, perks and schwag. Freelancers have always worked without benefits and now are often asked to write for cheap or free. Staff writers are told by those at the top of their companies that they may not accept free shit from any advertiser, story subject or potential story subject. But in many cases, particularly in the lower levels of consumer and trade magazines, staff writers are told by their immediate superiors to take what they can get, the message being, "We don't pay you enough, so enjoy it; just don't talk about it."

And then think about travel writing for a moment. How often do you think writers who review luxury hotels and exotic locales actually can afford to pay for those trips? How often would a newspaper or travel magazine (or any magazine that has a travel story in it) have a budget to pay for a writer's days-long stay in fancy hotels with meals at expensive restaurants? And how often do you read luxury travel stories that aren't glowingly positive? What must happen, more often than not, is that local chambers of commerce or tourism boards foot the bill, helped by hotels, resorts and other groups.

This is what's happening in the comfy parts journalism. Constant conflicts of interest, free gifts from the very groups that writers are assigned to scrutinize, and tacit bribes that aren't called bribes because the stakes are deemed to be too low. Now imagine what could happen when you combine the following:
1. Underpaid, overworked journalists;

2. Newspapers struggling for advertisers and owned by corporate interests or wealthy ideologues, losing money every year;

3. Stories about political and corporate corruption in which individuals and groups are paid off between tens of thousands and hundreds of millions of dollars to help ferry in or cover up deals worth much more.
And it all starts with the journalist who lives paycheck to paycheck, watching his or her college chums raking in salaries ten times as high in the corporate sector. Or is the weak link those ad-starved papers who are urged to bury or not pursue the tough stories?

There is no future of journalism. It isn't sustainable for writers or our democracy.

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