Saturday, May 30, 2009

Where Professionalism, Frustration and Serenity Intersect

This week, freelancer LJ Williamson admitted to both fabricating outrageous stories for her client,, and to feeling self-righteous about it.

She emailed FishbowlLA:
[A]ll they care about is how many hits your page gets, and they don't care about the writing. Fine — I decided to try to do things their way.

Unexpectedly, one post I wrote about the vaccine/autism debate really brought the crazies out of the woodwork, and brought my page views to a new record high. So I went with it, decided to start baiting the vaccine deniers more and more, with exaggerations and half-truths.

I also wrote a series of preposterous articles on topics like why peanuts should be banned, why panic was a totally appropriate response to the swine flu outbreak, and why schoolchildren were likely to die if they were allowed to play dangerous games such as tag.

And no one at Examiner noticed or cared what I said or did for quite some time. is an online content aggregator. I almost wrote "aggravator," and that would have been approriate, too. Sites like, and more hire freelancers, but only pay them according to the number of clicks their articles receive. I've written before about the danger these sites hold for freelancers, both in terms of their bottom lines and in terms of the quality of their work. And I'm not alone. Recently, freelancer Michelle Rafter, author of the WordCount blog, explained I don't work for aggregators, but I am a Web writer.

But Williamson's example shows another danger of these sites: If you let your clients, some will encourage you to discard your ethics.

Well, let me back up: I get what Williamson is doing. She's calling content aggregators' bluffs. They say they give writers free reign to explore and that their business model rewards the best and most interesting writing. But as she showed, they don't. They reward--duh--sensationalism and bombast. She exposed such sites' lack of quality control, which is just as important as profitability if the client is really a site for journalism and not just a cynical ploy to exploit would-be writers and make a buck.

And I suppose someone had to do it. I fully expect her to come out with a first-person article crowing about how she pulled one over on Big Business.

But I care less about teaching clients lessons than professionalism. It mortifies me that anyone would flout her responsibility as a journalist just to make a point. That's gotcha journalism at its worst, and it's just as cynical as's business model.

Still, this is an important lesson for writers. When I was still at newspapers, a rising-star reporter was fired after a big expose revealed some reporting holes. But all of us reporters knew what was going on: The editor had been seething to get this story in the paper for years, encouraging most reporters to pursue it. We all passed because we knew it was a boondoggle--impossible to prove and seemingly a vindetta. But he found in this writer, who was young and ambitious, the one person willing to pursue it his way. When you're getting that kind of validation and encouragement from an editor who ought to know better, it can be hard to remember your ethics.

When the truth came out and the crap hit the fan, the editor predictably abandoned her. Then he fired her. The lesson here is that you can't rely on your editors to check your ethics. If you love your job and you value journalism, you have to learn to adhere to your values no matter what. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard than perhaps even your editors do. Or, and perhaps more pointedly, you have to seek out editor relationships where your editor cares as much about good work as you do. As I've said before, the editors who care about good work are also more likely to pay you well for it. Not always, but it's a not-so-surprising correlation.

And while Williamson seems to have many great publications under her belt, I'd think twice if I were an editor about hiring a reporter willing to burn her clients and make stuff up for some snarky, well, vindetta.

So was the point worth making? I'm sure it depends on who you ask. I wouldn't make that point, but I already don't like aggregators or pay-per-click arrangements, and I advice coaching clients to avoid them. Perhaps it will serve as a lesson to new or aspiring freelancers and writers--both to avoid such aggregators and to avoid such irresponsible behavior.

Photo by vsqz.

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