Where USF faculty, students and graduates are invited to talk about journalism and its problems and opportunities. This blog is not affiliated with the University of San Francisco, nor is the university responsible for any of the opinions expressed herein -- though it is certainly responsible for the people who entertain those opinions, having educated them. They make us proud.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Your Starting Salary Will Probably Be Less Than $30,000 a Year

Here are some dilemmas:

• You are a theater critic for a big-city newspaper. You have built relationships with publicists, especially those at the smaller theaters where the companies are struggling to make ends meet but are really trying to give young directors, young playwrights, young actors a chance. One of these companies presents a play that is really terrible; it deserves to be ripped apart. But a city needs small independent theaters. Also, the publicist has made sure you were at the front of the line for various premiers and galas related to this, and other, theaters. She has put you in the best seat in the house for the past five shows by this particular company, and you have panned four of them. And here’s another stinker. What do you do?
• You are a lifestyle writer at a big-city newspaper who has been assigned to do a story on day spas in San Francisco. Your budget for the story is limited – and then seven out of the 10 days spas you are writing about offer you a free day of treatments. If you don’t take the treatments, you are going to have to write a story that’s based on the spa websites, on the spa press releases and on the spa PR people. What do you do?
• You are a lifestyle writer etc. etc. doing a story on chocolate shops. When you visit the chocolates shops, each one offers you samples. What do you do?
• You are etc. doing nightlife stories. You tour four or five hip new bars and attractive bartenders in tight-fitting garments offer you free cocktails. Seriously, three of the bars give you first-class treatment, generous with the Grey Goose martinis, while the other two offered you only a glass of ice. What do you do?
• You are a writer/editor at a music magazine that has a limited travel budget. The magazine is repeatedly offered free junkets to see a new violin shop open in Italy or to follow a famous performer on tour. As part of an invitation to review a summer jazz camp, you are offered a luxury cruise to Alaska. What do you do?
• You are a writer for a music magazine etc., and you are offered free tickets to many local musical performances, far more than you could possibly review. What do you do?


Lia Steakley said...

Pan the play. Take all the free spa treatements. Take the samples and share them with other reporters at the office. Take the drinks ( only drink as many as you can and still be able to write. notes are important) and reveiw the bars based on ambiance.Turn down the cruise. Take the free tickets and give the ones I don't want to see to reporters in the office or friends.

1. Pan the play because if you don't and readers see the play expecting greatness your career as a theatre critic is over. Make some caveat in the review about how it's not Broadway and thank god for struggling actors in the city's small theatre scene. But don't risk your reputation vouching for a play that stinks.

2. Spas are fluff stories. It's just a facial. You're not taking bribes from Republicans. Readers want to know what the spa treatments are like and to give them that you need to have the treatements. No one's credibility will be shot becasuse they got free spa treatments to write a story on day spas.

2.5 (because I forgot to add this in). Take the free chocolate samples and share with the office. This is common practice. Besides, you need testers for the stories. Other reporters will have comments about what's good and what's bad, those are helpful and often funny additions to such stories.

3. Free drinks in bars. People go to bars to be seen and see others not expressly to get drunk (they can do that cheaper at home). So your job is to review the atmosphere of the bar (decor, music, crowd, specialty drinks) not really the level of alcohol in the drinks. As long as you don't get blasted and then can't read your notes it's fine. Besides, the bartenders might tell you some good gossip about city officials after hours that you can pass to the city reporter.

4. The cruise has nothing to do with the story is screams "free perk." No self respecting reporter would take it. Unless you're a travel writer going to review a new hotel or new travel hotspot ditch all travel offers such as this.

5. Take the tickets. Just because you aren't writing about the bands doesn't mean you won't later and you'll need to develop an understanding of their musical history. For the tickets you don't use or can't use give them to other reporters in the office (or friends). That's just good karma.

I'm in a rush to get out some stories and I'm not spellchecking this post so don't hold it against me as a USF grad.

Anonymous said...

LBJ told a young congressman if you can't eat their food, drink their booze, fuck their women and then vote against them, you don't belong here.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

But is that advice valid for a reporter? I quote item 24, NY Times big book of ethical conduct:

Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster
an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they
provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage.
And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified
or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial
news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.

P.S. Is someone trying to bait me into deleting another item?

sonresia said...

'lia steakley' said it all...and anyway, i'd never by chocolate from a chocolate shop that didn't give away at least one free sample. which is why i never waste my money on godiva...

jackson said...

steakley answered all teh questions saying what i would said but much better. in response to LBJ, political positions, as discussed in class, are one of the only jobs lower in ethical values then journalism. hmmmmm.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Lia's comments are, of course, wise and good -- but don't just say, "she said!" and walk on by. Let's deal with the obvious: Why not take anything you are offered in the course of a story if it's relevant to the story? Where do you draw the line? Where is the gray area? It's one thing to say a music writer should not take a free cruise that has nothing to do with an assignment to write about a music camp. But what if the cruise is a "music camp" cruise? Should restaurant critics accept free meals from the restaurants they are covering? Should automobile writers accept long-term use of new cars so that they can better write about these vehicles?

And how about this one from Milwaukee Magazine?

*To prepare for duty as embedded journalists during the war in Iraq, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Katherine Skiba and Nahal Toosi received thousands of dollars worth of combat training at media boot camps. After meeting her assigned unit, Skiba later flew to Kuwait on a chartered Northwest Airlines jet full of soldiers. Toosi, joining her unit in the Kuwaiti desert, donned an imposing military gas mask during gas and Scud missile drills.

Who paid for this media training, transportation and equipment? Unwittingly, American taxpayers picked up the tab for these and man yother expenses in the military's embedded media program.*

Comps, freebies and perks are a potential ethical headache. Can you come up with a rule of thumb that helps you quickly decide in the great majority of instances what you should do?

pjhaughey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
pjhaughey said...

The other day I read that When Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning for Charles Hughes, he spent all his free time charming the reporters that accompanied him, having them eat meals in his train car, telling stories, and making friends. By about a week into the trip, he had befriended and charmed the reporters so much that on one occasion, they found themselves throwing “Vote Hughes” pins into a crowd.

An honest reporter should be able to take a free piece of chocolate and still write an honest piece, just as they should be able to interview a particularly charming person and still write an honest piece. You can take all the free crap in the world and still write an ethical story. the question to ask yourself in a free drink situation is, what’s your ethical threshold? Is this free stuff going to make me biased (and do i care)?

B. Wieder said...

I'm in a rush, and hope to get back to this later, but just for now:

In cases where the perk is germane to the context--drinks in bars, the spa treatment--I don't see the problem. You're not marrying these establishments, or shilling for them, you're just doing what you have to do to write the piece: experiencing them on behalf of the reader. (The more subtle ethical hangup is that whether you pay or not, if you are known to be working on a story you may get service so far superior to that received by the average patron as to be misleading.)

I actually assumed the cruise was part of the experience, that the camp was in Alaska, but if it's just a bribe, no connection to the subject, I'd pass--but that's primarily because cruise ships won't let you bring your dog.

Too many of these situations included the "limited budget" proviso. Maybe I'm speaking from the bubble of somebody who did too many assignments for the Playboy publications, but if you can't afford to cover the story and find yourself dependent on the charity of those you're writing about, maybe you shouldn't cover the story until you can.

By the way, I used to cover the local comedy scene for the Pink on a freelance basis, and any club that didn't comp me in for all shows didn't get written about by me, for the simple reason that I considered my admission a part of their public relations overhead. Their call. I almost never was turned away. And I bought my own booze, primarily because no club in the city could afford to pick up my tab on a recurring basis.

Katherine said...

I honestly do not think taking a free drink, facial or chocolate will change what you are going to write, i say that just because someone gets you front row seats at plays at thier playhouse doesnt mean you should say the play was fabulous when it was a flop. Getting a free facial should not hinder an accurate story or review being written.

Diane Faith said...

From my point of view, I would take the chocolate samples. I would take the free spa treatments. I would take the drinks and the front row seats, as long as the freebies are helping me to produce a story that is necessary for the public. A writer has to be able to produce an unbiased story regardless of the freebies. I would not bother accepting freebies that had nothing to do with the story I am writing.

Juan said...

I also think the same as the others. I would take the things but my story could stay objective. For some moments these dilemmas remember me the movie "almost famous" from Cameron Crowe in which a journalist get involved with a rock band as a fan, but at the end he writes a real cronicle of the advantages and disadvantages of a new rock band.

Dave Rinehart said...

As far as the theatre dilemma goes, OF COURSE you have to pan it. If it sucks it sucks, no two ways about it. A tiny theatre company - just like an indie movie, an indie label, an unseen TV show - needs good, strong press if they do good, strong work. If they're not, there's absolutely no reason to give them undue love. As far as free stuff goes, the fashion editor for the Chronicle came into my J-1 class and told us that when she goes to fashion shows, big companies always leave a huge gift basket in her hotel room. Which she promptly turns away, or gives to friends. They're plying for good coverage, so I would say you always refuse stuff like free chocolate, free drinks, etc. but try the free spa because your readers will want first-hand experience.

William said...

Obviously thre is a point where a gift can be considered a bribe. However there is a gray area. Do what you feel is right and stop before you feel that what you are doing (accepting) could jeopardize your job. For the extra tickets that you cant take it would be wrong to freely give them to your friends or colleagues. When we compare a story on day spas with using the internet web sites rather than visiting the spas and getting treatments, it is clear which story owuld have more uumph. Later.

Tiffany Martini said...

Well, I am glad so many of you know that in the face of temptation, you can take that decadent cake, eat it, and spit it out if you so damn well please. I admire everyone's strength and unshaken morality. However, for myself - I did find that for the spa treatment story, I did feel that after 7 out of 10 spas agreed to lavish me with treatments, I couldn't help but feel a bit snarky at the other three who snubbed me. I definitely tried not to let that perceived could shoulder to get into my reviews and I am pretty sure I was successful, but that little green monster I call envy was tapping me on both of my shoulders. I think the problem is not as easy as one would think.

You do become friends with these small theater companies who are starting to make a buck. And frankly, when you go out with the same City Hall contact whose fed your as many great scoops as he or she has great lunches, it gets incredibly difficult to pan them when the time comes. As a journalist, you are a human being, and while you should NEVER be anyone's friend, it is hard to turn it on and turn it off because we are all robots. As you cover your beats for a long time, be it in the arts or politics, you fill find this. You will see as the age-old adage goes, things are always easier said than done. Talk to the same contacts for four years and it isn't long before the kids and family also creep into your conversations and you begin to exchange recipe ideas and give each other rundowns of a recent vacation. I promise you, it will not help but crawl into your consciousness when a doozey of a story threatens to shake the shit our of someone's reputation. the pangs of guilt will come.

Not to say that reporters cannot crawl above it - because we can and we do every single day, but comps can prove to be a difficult dance to learn. Much harder than the routines on Dancing With the Stars. And whether a story is fluff, and whether it is barbwire, nothing should be taken for granted. Every story at every level needs to be treated with the same respect and courtesy.

And please, never justify a comp with - Well, I make shit pay - so they owe me that goddamn wine junket. No. You knew this going into it and your ethics shouldn't ever be bought. No one owes you anything and if you think that, get your butts out of this field!

Tiffany Martini said...

Forgot to add this! I should've said from the start that the treatments I received for the spa story totaled close to $2,000. Yes, that is no exaggeration. I had one spa give me four hours worth of treatments that totaled up to $700. I didn't realize the extensive treatments I was receiving till I got there. Another place gave me a $300 massage - and so on and so forth. This is what makes it so damn dirty and difficult. I couldn't help but think I "owed" somebody something when we were dealing with that volume of comps.

For the chocolate story - we weren't talking little slices of truffle on a plate - most owners sent me home with boxes upon boxes of treats and continued to mail me some more thereafter. My husband and I had so much chocolate I began giving it away.

Some of the galas I've been comped for have had an asking ticket price value of $1,500 a head - though for some reason, galas never really pose any problem for me - yet afterwards, you can't help but feel you owe the organization some kind of story down the line. Anyway - wanted to throw in some dollar amounts.