A trip to Jamaica turned Mike Albo's world upside down.
In October 2009, Albo had an enviable gig, writing the New York Times' "Critical Shopper" column every other week. He was building a following and getting paid to turn up his nose at snooty stores and unworthy gifts.
Then, Albo took an all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica, courtesy of some swanky corporate sponsors. He wasn't writing a story about anything he saw on the trip, but the Times freaked out, told him he had violated its ethics policy, and fired him.
It might seem like an open-and-shut case—journalists, after all, aren't supposed to accept gifts from potential sources, let alone huge trips to Jamaica—but Albo sees the whole situation as more complicated. The main reason is that he was a freelance writer for the Times. To him, the saga of his firing from the paper is a symbol for the murky world that all freelancers travel in. It's also the subject of his new, autobiographical novella, "The Junket."
From the Times' perspective, the trip was a clear violation of a standard ethics policy that they applied to freelancers. The Times' policy states, "In connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources." But did Albo, who went on the junket independent of any assignment and publication, break the rules? The paper didn't seem to think so at first, only firing him after the story became a Web scandal.
Speaking to The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Albo acknowledged, "It probably wasn’t right of me to go without telling them." But the writer maintained, “I feel like they could’ve slapped me on the wrist.” Albo, who said he was surprised and saddened by the news of his firing, had assumed that “the Times would back me up and work it out with me.”
Nobody backs Albo's character—also named Mike Albo—in "The Junket," either. The lack of a name change is a signal for just how lightly fictionalized the story Albo tells is. In his interview, he said the book was fictionalized to provide "an emotional account of events," but claimed that the book does not depart from real life events, saying, “It unfolded the way the book tells it.”
In real life, the catalyst of his demise was a Daily Finance piece that seized on the trip and accused the New York Times of allowing its writer to accept a free flight, lodging and swag. While Newsweek, which also had a writer on the trip, decided to reimburse Thrillist, a New York Times spokesperson first said that Albo had not violated any policies as a freelancer. Then, other websites picked up the story. The paper reversed its statement, and fired Albo.
His firing became a question of the standards to which publications should hold their freelancers. Albo, who writes about consumer culture, has said that he went on the junket expecting that it would provide material for a satirical monologue or a fictional piece in the future. He sought advice from friends who worked at the Times, who suggested that the trip was fine because it was separate from his work for the newspaper.
But after the affair, the Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt unequivocally stated, “The paper’s rules apply even for work done for others.” The reasoning, he wrote, is to keep the newspaper “free of even the smallest hint of undue influence.”
Albo’s firing was not the first time that the Times let go of a freelancer for violating the ethics policy on other assignments. Hoyt weighed in on the issue in a column last year. While he defended the paper's decision to fire Albo, he also acknowledged that the system of ensuring freelancers' adherence to ethics guidelines -- which consists of a contract, a questionnaire and a booklet -- was not working. He stressed the need for "constant conversation with freelancers over every assignment about the paper’s expectations," rather than relying on written instruments.
On Tuesday, Albo said that a freelancer’s work was inherently contradictory to the Times’ ethics policy if it applied to assignments outside of the newspaper. He called the work of a freelancer a “catch-22,” noting that meeting people and trying to get stories was a part of his job, but posed potential conflicts of interest. He suggested, “If this trip was a conflict of interest, any type of meeting with anyone in retail is a conflict of interest.”
Others took up Albo's case in protest of the way publications treat freelancers. At the time of his firing, Choire Sicha, the founder of the Awl, called Albo a symbol of “the disposable freelancer,” writing, “They wanted his talent but they didn't want to treat him right." He defended the writer and blasted the firing as the result of the Times' “little witch hunt."
Albo added that the unfolding of events became “really confusing” once the controversy hit the web, where he said his predicament became a “gossip item” for blogs critical of the New York Times. Daily Intel was one of several websites to pick up the story.
Still, Albo maintained a light-hearted attitude about the situation, stating that he has no hard feelings for the writer of the original Daily Finance piece and that one of his goals in writing the book is to tell a funny story. He added, “It’s a really interesting time for a writer right now. It is my story but it’s also an interesting one for the state of journalism.”