Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ethics

I was slogging through the Business Journal GM’s column over the weekend (God! If her stuff were any duller, I’d have to have a caffeine drip) when I fell over the word “ethics” and wondered what she might know about it. She asked—rhetorically, I suppose—“at what point can we expect ethics to return to this society’s vocabulary as a meaningful, actively understood word?”

Now, wait a minute here. Ethics. That would imply being fair, being open and accommodating, being generous of spirit and forever moral. How does that square with telling freelance writers they can’t write for certain competing publications if they are to be given assignments by the Business Journal or The Roanoke Times (which owns the BJ)? Seems to me this has happened several times in recent weeks, both publications telling writers who write for us (or who wanted to) or another publication (Star Sentinel) that they had to choose.

As far as I know, the RT and the BJ are the only publications in this region making those demands. Most of the people who write for us have told them to stick their ultimatums up their collective butts. One writer, who would only occasionally write for us because she lives in Lynchburg, said that if she must make the choice, she will join the “take your ultimatum and stick it up your ass” crowd. Frankly, I know of only one who was intimidated and that was a case of truly needing the money. Kids in college help make tough choices easier--though not necessarily more digestible.

I’m not sure whether the demand is legal—and our company’s lawyer says he’s not sure, either—but I know it is less than generous of spirit and I don’t like what it says about the obsessive need to control people who don’t want to be controlled. Which is why they are freelancers.

We give our writers—who can write for any publication they want to—specific, researched, well-planned assignments as part of a magazine that has a plan and a direction. Some written assignments (which include contacts and their phone numbers and e-mail addresses) are longer than the stories we get back. Other publications don’t do that. They ask the freelancers to submit ideas, then assign those stories—to the submitting writer, one would hope.

Some ask for those ideas, assign them, accept the stories, then decide not to use them, based on something other than quality. That happened to me recently when Bella, a woman's magazine in Roanoke, assigned me three stories (I was slumming between gigs and wanted to be busy). Six weeks later, I got an e-mail (not even a phone call) telling me the stories wouldn’t be used because the special section, Eco Bella, had become Eco Fashion Bella. And, no, Bella doesn’t pay for stories it doesn’t use, I was told, even if it assigns them. Bet it pays the plumber who fixes the toilet, even if the toilet is replaced two weeks later.

Anyhow, “ethics” is more than just a word to toss around in a puffed up column by an ad-ops middle manager masquerading as a journalist. Ethics is a lifestyle, first needing some development, then constant attention to detail, lest it become rusty and unsuitable for use.

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