Archive for January, 2007

Weighing in on the NY Times Article

I didn’t have time to think about the New York Times column about freelance ethics yesterday. I only read and mulled it over.

At first glance, I didn’t see what some writers on other forums were getting themselves worked up about. I read it as a column looking more at The New York Time’s policies, rather than a swipe at freelancers.

But this morning, I did. The overall tone of the column is insulting. The fact that he points out that we independent journalists are doing the work cheaper than staffers – that, to me, is almost a similar tone used in the immigration debate – as if we are doing the work others are unwilling to do.

And while a column doesn’t have to have balance, he didn’t seem to want to get the point of view of freelancers. He didn’t point out that while we are doing the work maybe cheaper, we are also doing it at greater risk than many of our counterparts in newsrooms. In most cases, we assume greater risk because we cannot get media libel insurance, much less basic health insurance at reasonable rates. And he fails to point out that if media companies were paying a fair rate to freelancers, instead in most instances, the going rate of about $1 a word or less (and I know, I’ve heard from those of you who are making upwards of $2 a word – but I still think this is the top, top rate and very uncommon) that we wouldn’t have to seek work to supplement our true love (journalism), which woud allow us to completely and forever avoid potential conflicts.

But then my mind switched back to a discussion I had with other writers a couple of weeks ago regarding the tactics used by a New York Post “correspondent,” who reportedly lied to see an accused kidnapper in a Missouri jail. Comments such as “Good for her,” or other comments that applauded her because afterall, we’re out to get the story so we can sell it, right? came to mind.

And those kinds of attitudes allowed me to understand the overall tone of this column when I reread it this morning.

So, what do SPJ independents think? Are we the exception because of our association with the organization that pretty much sets the tone for ethics in journalism?

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New York Times Addresses Freelance Writers in Column on Ethics

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Lawyers Want Notes in the Missouri Kidnapping Case

As reported on The Independent Journalist yesterday, a writer for The New York Post reportedly gained access to accused Missouri kidnapper Michael Devlin by lying to guards. According to Devlin’s attorneys, who have already been front and center saying their client will not be able to get a fair trial, the reporter told the jail staff she was a friend of Devlin’s family.

Kate Beem, an independent journalist from Kansas City, posted that Devlin’s attorneys now want the reporters notes. She’s wondering where SPJ might stand on this issue. Kate writes:

That’s a no-no, of course. If Cahalan’s lied to gain access to Devlin and her story was riddled with inaccuracies, as the lawyers claim, what sorts of protection is she entitled to? Just curious.
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Ethical Lapse by an Independent Journalist?

The Kansas City Star reported this morning that Susannah Cahalan, the woman who interviewed Michael Devlin, the man accused of kidnapping 2 boys 4 years apart (the boys were found safe last week) and who is suspected of possibly kidnapping more, obtained access to him in the county jail by telling guards that she was a “family friend” and not a reporter. Devlin (and why should we belive him) then told his attorneys she told him she was with a college paper. It’s unknown if this woman is a staff reporter, but I’m thinking not, since the AP is reporting she’s a student at Washington U in St. Louis and my own google search turned up several articles by her for several publications – including the New York Times.
She’s listed as a “correspondent” with the Post.
If in fact she is a freelancer, will this sort of ethical lapse tarnish freelancers, or do you think it says more about the publication for which she writes? Do you think it is ever ok to misrepresent yourself to get a story?

Note: This discussion is sparked by SPJ’s own code of ethics, which states: Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

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Dangerous Business Models for Freelancers

There’s never been a shortage of scammers in the writing industry – vanity publishers taking writers for their life savings with promises of making their books best-sellers; agents who charge reading fees and just low-paying assignments that have helped keep the average rate of pay no where near the cost of living.

I was very startled last year when I responded to an ad for VP Magazine, (a publication I had seen many times in the sitting rooms of corporations) and the editor called me to explain that VP writers are given a list of 150-200 companies which to call. Only those that agree to help the magazine generate ads, which will accompany the profile are given to the editor, who then assigns the piece. Once the piece is assigned, the writer has to interview the subject and obtain a list of his vendors, write the article and type up the list to be given to the ad reps. The pay out of 200 calls and basically selling ads for the magazine? Depends on the ad sales. In this business model, we’re in the same category as used car salesmen, drawing on our commission.

This next one is even more startling: Grand Magazine, a magazine aimed at the grandparents lifestyle charges a reading fee of $10 to be placed on their approved writers list. That’s right, to even submit a query, you must pay them first.

What’s next?

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Hey, Freelancers! We Lobbied For it and We Got It….Let’s Use it!

The freelance database was activated a week ago today…so far, there are over 30 freelance SPJ members listed, but we need more!

This is a milestone moment in SPJ’s history, they’ve created a benefit specifically for us! Thank you to those few who’ve emailed me about glitches in the system. I understand that there may be a problem with browsers such as Firefox allowing you to access the link. If you can, please use Explorer when going to the database. I had no problem with it.

Cut and paste the link into your browser. Make sure this is the ONLY thing showing in your browser. This should take you to the SPJ database, which cannot be accessed through the site yet because it is not live.

Follow the instructions completely. NOTE: It is very important to fill out all of the required fields and to not include restricted characters in the URL fields.

It should take you less than 10 minutes to fill out the form, which includes conforming your bio to the character limits.

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Freelance Photographer has Applied for LDF Funds


The freelance photographer who was arrested while taking photos of a politician at a parade is asking for LDF funds. Ethical questions include if this photographer is an actual “journalist” because he is also a Green Party activist. Please go to the LDF site and weigh in on this matter if you feel comfortable. Unfortunately, he asked that his application be removed from the blog, but there are many links to articles about this incident at

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SPJ Defends Independent in FOI

Journalist objects to testifying before military tribunal

By Meghan Murphy
SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member

Facing a subpoena from military court, an Oakland freelance journalist says the government is using media as a tool to prosecute free speech.

Sarah Olson was subpoenaed Dec. 14 in the court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, who is charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and missing troop movement. Olson quoted Watada in an article for, in which the officer criticized President George Bush and the Iraq war.

Watada is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse orders to deploy to Iraq. Gregg Kakesako, a military affairs reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, has also been subpoenaed in the case and more reporters may be called.

The Society of Professional Journalists is defending Olson’s objection to the subpoena. “We believe this action is offensive to a free and unfettered press in this nation and creates an atmosphere where journalists will not be able to freely report about the work of men and women in uniform,” President Christine Tatum wrote.

Olson has expressed outrage about the subpoena and obtained a lawyer from the First Amendment Project. “It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion,” Olson wrote in a column.

The military’s case against Watada is primarily built on statements to the press. And, without Olson’s testimony, the prosecution has little ground to stand on. The court can’t simply accept Olson’s article as proof; the reporter herself must testify to the authenticity of her story.

Reporters often do testify in court to confirm their reporting, because fighting a subpoena is expensive, Lucy Daglish of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the Concord Monitor. Olson said she has no issue standing behind the veracity of her report, her concern is that her testimony would chill free speech and free press.

“If conscientious objectors know that they can be prosecuted for speaking to the press and that the press will participate in their prosecution, it stands to reason that they would think twice before being public about their positions,” Olson told the Chronicle.

The trial is expected to begin in February.

More information
See SPJ’s letter to Army and Defense Department Officials:

Journalist pressured to testify, Concord Monitor:

Reporter Summoned to Testify Against War Resister, Inter Press Service News Agency:

ACLU defends free speech rights of Lt. Watada:

Truthout’s Sarah Olson Subpoenaed in Watada Case,

Army subpoenas journalists over officer’s quotes, San Francisco Chronicle:

Take action: Write your own letter

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To Pitch or Not to Pitch

Anna Matetic asks:

Through the local NWU, they are hosting the managing editor of a regional magazine. I have emailed a few times with their travel with encouraging “try again” comments. But I still haven’t  nailed one assignment with them.

I also realize that travel is one of the more difficult areas to break

into. I am also hoping to specialize in environmental/organic areas and technical.  I plan to refresh my memory of the magazine this week at the library.

I would like some guidance on how to approach the managing editor. I met

an editor from another publication via NWU in August. And even though

she was encouraging and gave positive feedback on story ideas I had, I

have not heard back from her. I am wondering if I came on either too strong/eager. Or

if I didn’t sound grounded in my topics. I will admit the fault of being

eager to writing ANYTHING if it will get me an assignment. But reading

yours and others blogs makes me feel this attitude is more of a handicap.


There are usually two different types of meet-the-editor type events:

1.      The first type is really an informal meet-the-editor. I’ve learned that success with a publication means developing a relationship with the editor first. These sessions are usually informal and could require the editor to give a presentation or sit on a panel. Afterward, the people in attendance can ask questions or there might be an informal reception that allows you to go up and speak with the editor. In these types of situations, it’s usually inappropriate to approach the editor with story ideas or shove your query or resume in their face. I was speaking to a well-known travel writer once and she was telling me about a gathering a travel writer’s organization had put together. “You can always tell the newbies. They usually have the editors backed into a corner and won’t let them up to breathe,” she told me. “The editor is sitting there with a ‘get me outta here’ expression on his face.” Not exactly the impression you want the editor to leave with. These events should be treated as networking events. Mix, mingle, talk to the editor about him/her and leave a positive impression. Afterward, send a note to the editor telling him/her how nice it was to meet them. Make sure your query is fully fleshed out and well written before you send it. And do remind them of who you are.

2.      Pitching events are just that. An organization will invite and editor or editors and allow you 5-15 minutes to sit down and speak with an editor about yourself and/or a story idea. These pitch sessions usually have rules that either allows you to give an editor a full-blown query or not. The Magazine Writers and Editors conference, a juried conference held in Chicago each year is an example of a pitch conference. You’re allowed 10 minutes with an editor to discuss the magazine and your ideas, but you’re not allowed to inundate the editor with paper. You follow up with a full query after returning home. At the dinners and informal gatherings planned that mix editors and participants, you’re strictly prohibited from discussing story ideas. The same follow up is appropriate for these type of events.

It’s very important that you understand the purpose of any meet-the-editor function so you don’t come on too strong or maybe miss valuable opportunities.

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Writer’s We’ve Lost Website

Here’s an interesting and informative website from independent journalist Jade Walker. Writer’s We’ve Lost honors writers, editors and journalist who die in 2007.

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