From the Ethics Roundtable Q&A: How Should Editors Vet Freelancers?

This edited version of remarks from the May 10 Ethics Roundtable audience reflects some concerns that were raised during and after the ASBPE National Conference’s panel presentation. As interim Ethics Committee chair, I moderated the panel and the Q&A. The following begins with my remarks about freelancers, and the importance of vetting them about possible ethical conflicts.

ROY HARRIS: When I worked at CFO Magazine we had a terrific group of freelancers who were really experts in certain areas. And gradually, over my time there, I began to discover that experts in a certain area [also often had] worked for the very people that they were writing about for us. Increasingly, this has been a huge issue. If someone is an expert in some particular business area, they know their way around the other side, and occasionally will write for companies [in those businesses.] We had a policy at CFO of vetting — asking potential freelancers about their connections. But it’s really easy to hide this stuff, especially if they’re doing [un-bylined] sponsored pieces…. It strikes me that a lot of people in our organizations may have some of those same kinds of worries about freelancers….

[Another question] associated with this: Is transparency enough? If you have someone who really knows something about manufacturing, for example, but also writes stories for the National Association of Manufacturers–articles that may be paid for [by the NAM]–what would you do? Is it enough to disclose the freelancer’s connections in the article? There are some real dilemmas here, which a lot of editors and publishers perhaps would rather not deal with. But as an organization, ASBPE should be dealing with it. These are major ethical issues.

MOLLY McDONOUGH, ABA Journal: This is an issue we’re constantly dealing with, partly because so many of our freelancers go in and out of public relations or media relations. Lately, we’ve been … disclosing conflicts, if there are conflicts. If they’re too great, then we’ll exclude them from our assignments. And we have an ethics policy we’re in the middle of updating. We give that to all of our freelancers, and then ask them to disclose conflicts. It’s regimented now. When we send out a writer’s agreement, it goes with the ethics policy.

DOM YANCHUNAS, American Metal Market, and ASBPE national president: When I was editor of Professional Mariner magazine, if we had a writer who did PR work or marketing writing on an aspect of the industry we cover—the maritime journalists tend to do that—it was kind of impractical for us to not allow them to write for us. Let’s say they were doing contract writing for, say, the lubricants and coatings part of the industry. So [in that case] I would say, “That’s fine. You cannot write for us about that aspect that of the industry. But you can write about navigational electronics, accidents, training, the coast, et cetera. But where you’re being paid by somebody else [to write about a specific topic], I ask that you disclose that to me or to one of the other editors. And we’ll figure out how we can make the arrangement make sense.

ROY: That’s a good practical approach. Then the question comes up: What do you disclose in the article, if anything? It’s pretty embarrassing in a way to tell readers, “This is the writer for this story on autos. And this writer also writes for, say, Ford Motor Co.

MOLLY: One thing we’ve started to do lately is fleshing out the bios. One of the reasons I’ve hired people is because they’re experts and have a certain background. It doesn’t necessarily exclude them, but I want to be up-front about who they are.

Unidentified Questioner No. 1: As a former full-time freelancer, it becomes harder and harder [for me] in that per-article fees are going down and staying flat. So for a freelancer to earn a living, they often have to take on sponsored-content jobs. The other factor is that you have publications that do have an ethical policy and disclosure form, but then they they’ll say, “I don’t want you writing for any of our competitors.” As a freelancer, that’s taking revenue opportunities [away from me.] I left full-time freelancing back in 2009. I expect those situations to get more and more sticky.

MIMI BELL, president of Alchymist Publishing and national conference speaker: Before we had a policy in place we had a writer specializing in a small niche, agricultural and related topics. Long story short: We explained verbally what was expected of the writer, a kind of honor system. At the same time, she had taken on sponsored content. She was not thrilled [with our freelance terms] because she was going back and forth, sharing info. I pulled the article from her; she didn’t demand compensation. But I don’t know what else I should have done. Even today, I still wouldn’t have [freelancers] sign an agreement, which is a silly thing. It’s a verbal agreement, on their honor.

Unidentified Questioner No. 2: I’m a freelancer; have been for 13 years. It’s getting worse. When I started out, 80% of my revenue was from straight journalism. Now, 80% of my revenue is from custom content. And it’s tough; I have not run into any publications that asked me to sign a pledge, except Dow Jones–actually a 10-page contract that asked me to disclose every financial investment I ever made. I said “no” [to signing it]. For me, it’s about transparency. If an editor asks me, I’m going to tell that I do this, this and this. And it’s up to them if they want to hire me or not. But it’s definitely hard to make a living without [disclosing affiliations.] The other part of the picture is, I may not get hired on the editorial side of the organization, but by the custom content division. And they pay me a lot better.

Unidentified Questioner No. 3: I’m a freelance writer. I would ask this question to editors here: Editors also have to look at the sources and articles. And if an article is overtly promoting a company, that’s one thing. But a lot of good journalists find those intermediaries—third parties who are outside of the mainstream, such as academics, independent consultants—to quote in a story…. Not necessarily [to] promote a certain company. I think it’s up to the editor to look carefully at a story, then go to the journalists and press them on whether there is a conflict of interest. And if so, please don’t [mention that the freelance journalist is producing custom content or working in another non-editorial capacity.]

ROY: The editor should probably know about the conflict of interest even before you even look at a draft, yes?

Questioner No. 3: Given the speed of the work today, the deadlines, one would hope that on either side of the equation, freelancers and editors would be up-front about their activities and what’s expected of them. But I also feel that, aside from these forms they ask you to sign, editors need to look at the story and analyze the comments, quotes and sources. [They should] ask, “Are these reliable sources?” Don’t you have a responsibility to do that?

ROY: Certainly, yes.

Unidentified Questioner No. 4: [I’ve freelanced] off and on since I had the bad judgment, but not foresight, to become a freelancer in July of 2001, covering the hospitality, tourism, meeting and convention sectors. Shortly thereafter, I started doing PR writing, too. But because of the expertise I built in the sectors I was writing about, the PR writing I did was for people at small PR firms. I did not write about the industries I covered; I wrote about other industries, such as the tech sector. That’s how I address [any potential conflicts]. I will write advertorial copy for hoteliers and convention centers. For instance, I did help the city of Anaheim, Calif., [commemorate] their 50th anniversary [by writing articles] for a packet they did.

MARK SCHLACK, TechTarget and national conference speaker: Average pay rates for journalists haven’t changed for 30 years; they’re still $1 per word. Many of us are paying less than that now. So I don’t think that [insisting freelancers remain on one side or the other of the editorial/PR fence] is realistic. I do commend the ABA Journal’s [practice]. We had a conversation in my shop about this, and we chickened out on it. I’m sorry we did. [The conversation] was the result of a very embarrassing incident involving [a freelancer] who wrote about a certain kind of technology…. We have a lot of tech writers who are actual technology people and have their own ethos. Their version of ethics is not our version of ethics. Their version of ethics is, Whatever puts money on the table is good, as long as I don’t kill anybody. This guy was very well known to our audience, was well liked and was writing a lot of content for us. One day, we had an all-company meeting at a hotel. And in the hotel, we heard the guy’s voice. And there he is, in a small conference room, doing a seminar for one of the vendors that he’s always writing about. So we had this Aha! moment, realizing that we don’t really know the people we work with. And we had this conversation about what we should disclose [about contributors.] We chickened out. But I think that this is the future.

And one more comment: [Some editorial] leaders are not smart. They’re smart about what they know about; and they know tons about what we cover…. But what they know about the media, I’m sorry: I’ve been in dozens of focus groups, and received hundreds of e-mails from readers, where they say the most outlandish things. And it all boils down to this: They have some sense that we’re bought and paid for. Their examples are way off base most of the time. But the more that we [actually] do that contributes to that [perception of being bought and sold], the smaller the number of people in this room will be year after year. In my opinion, one reason the web took off so fast, was because people were so disgusted with the print world. They had seen over the years so much collusion and weakening of editorial quality. This is not a stain on everyone, but we all know they’re out there.

ROY: Mark, I think that we as publications should be writing more about how we pick our freelancers. Maybe we should have explanations in our publications. People are saying, “Oh this story appeared, and they made up sources.” We now have to start disclosing more, even if we don’t identify a source, so that people who see us writing a good story about a company know we’re not in bed with that company. We have to be proactive.

Roy Harris

Roy Harris is a semi-retired newspaper and magazine journalist who continues to write for, and to write freelance. Previously he was a reporter and deputy bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal from 1971 to 1995; senior editor at The Economist Group’s CFO Magazine from 1996 to 2009; and editor of IDG’s from 2010 to 2016. He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” published by Columbia U. Press in 2015.

A longtime ASBPE member and former president of the ASBPE National Board of Directors, he helped found the ASBPE Educational Foundation, as well as the Stephen Barr Award, ASBPE’s top feature-writing prize. Harris was an ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award honoree in 2016.

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