Quid pro quo? American Cetacean Society tells freelancer he can only have a press pass if it’s a “mutually beneficial relationship”
Denied press pass by the Cetacean Society ’cause I refused to guarantee them a story. Most disturbing line: “What are you gonna do for me?”
Vance just wanted to cover the American Cetacean Society’s 2010 conference, which begins tomorrow. (Cetaceans, for those of you who may not know, are whales, dolphins, and porpoises.) I asked him for some context for the tweet. Here’s his email to me:
Ivan, I am so angry I could just pop. Not just because of my little ego, but because of what it means.
It began yesterday when I called the American Cetacean Society about a press pass for their upcoming conference in Monterey, CA. The [executive director] ED [Cheryl McCormick] of the organization essentially said to me if I can’t guarantee a positive story in the paper then I’m not getting a pass. I asked her to clarify and then she was more explicit. “What are you going to do for me?” “I am a businesswoman, here” and “This needs to be a mutually beneficial relationship.” I told her that as a journalist I cannot guarantee any story to an event organizer and that if there wasn’t room for another press pass, then that was fine. She said that there was room but that I needed to offer her something in return and that she couldn’t give out “freebees.”
I was going to be there on behalf of Discover magazine for a feature I am currently doing. Generally, an event like this will perhaps garner me an extra story or two, but as any freelancer knows, they can also be total duds. That said, the last time I went to an ocean conference I pitched a profile that got assigned as a cover story. In fact, the Discover story was from me just poking about at AAAS after they gave me a so-called “freebee.” I get that they can’t let everyone into a small conference (though since I sit on the board of the Northern California Science Writers Association and write for a fair number of good outlets, I think I am in the running). What I don’t get is how they think a little organization like that can strong-arm freelancers.
I asked for clarification over email, and she was more careful. But she referred to our conversation and the “mutually beneficial relationship.”
The ED informed me that its always been that way and named a few well known big metros that “agreed” to this quid pro quo. I checked in with Paul Rogers at the Mercury News and he said that there is no way that they agreed and was equally peeved. Now, in this case, I didn’t need to go to the conference, but what if I had?
I had no idea that steam could actually come out of my ears when I get angry.
Here’s an excerpt from McCormick’s email to Vance:
Of course, I understand that journalists may cultivate additional news-related items while they attend the event, but in return for a gratis invitation, event coverage from invited press reps. is reasonable and mutually beneficial.
I asked McCormick for her take. She called me back promptly, and unfortunately I missed the call. She left the following voicemail:
Hi Ivan, this is Cheryl McCormick, of the American Cetacean Society, and I’m happy to talk to you about the reason why I declined Mr. Vance’s self-invite to attend the ACS conference. He called the office and spoke to my business manager…who relayed the message to me, and I called and spoke to Erik yesterday.
[She then left her cell phone number and invited me to give her a call back.]
I’m happy to chat about this. I don’t believe that Erik offered any return on investment for a gratis pass, and from my perspective he made the he made the mistake of using his association with press to get a gratis pass, and everything that’s associated with that. And secondly, in return for that, he offered no coverage of the event, which is from my experience is what press passes are all about.
When I asked if he would do that, he declined. So I don’t think that is a mutually beneficial relationship based on integrity and good faith, and I’m happy to discuss that with you further.
I had never, in 20 years of working nonprofit and academia, come across such a proposition, for him to enjoy two and a half days of a really awesome conference on our tab and offer nothing in return. That’s an egregious advantage, I think, of using an association with press. Quite frankly I get people all the time who call me [saying] “I write a blog” and think they’re entitled to some advantage that the rest of our members — and myself included, we’re paying for staff to attend that conference — [aren't entitled to].
At the very least, my expectation from press passes is that the event gets some coverage. I think that’s reasonable, and mutually beneficial, and respecftul of the host organization, and also does the writer a favor.
That’s my position, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable one.
If Erik disagrees with that, I’m sorry abhout that, but I don’t think he was very reasonable or enlightened about how nonprofit organizations work, or about how events are covered.
I’ve never had such a negative association in my career with press…[at this point, McCormick said something about circumstances under which Vance could attend the conference, but the phone broke up the sentence, and I don't want to misquote it. I'll come back to what she said later in the post.]
While I was transcribing McCormick’s voicemail, she sent me this email. I’ve corrected some typos that I am sure were due to her typing on a smartphone of some kind:
While I think the quotes Mr. Vance uses from our phone conversation make for a more interesting story, they are taken out of context, which makes me wonder about his sense of journalistic integrity. I have left a phone message and am happy to discuss this further. I requested coverage of the event in return for a press pass. If Mr. Vance is working on a story unrelated to ACS or the event, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to request a gratis pass for those assignments. Mr. Vance presented his version of events to me very differently.
McCormick and I did connect live on the phone.
When I started talking to Erik on the phone, it became clear from his story that he was featuring a researcher who was originally going to be on our docket, on the ACS agenda, but couldn’t make it. He was doing a feature article on her and wanted to talk to some of her colleagues about her. So from my perspective that’s not an ACS-related activity and I said, ok, well, ‘what other outlets do you write for,’ and I said ‘could you cover the event?’
I did not insist on any positive coverage. If he were to write something and say he didn’t think it was worthwhile, that would be just fine. Asking for a positive spin would be inappropriate.
It was very clear to me where McCormick’s line was: Requiring coverage was just fine, but asking for positive coverage wasn’t. She freely admitted to using the phrase “mutually beneficial relationship,” and said a press pass is a privilege, not a right.
This is a pretty groovy field. So you can imagine, we get all sorts of requests from people who want to hang out and not pay for anything. For a nonprofit, this is how we exist.
Our members pay, our board members pay, I pay. Not everyone who writes a blog that me and my mother read gets a press pass, that’s not a good return on investment.
I’m sorry that Erik felt that ‘I’m dissed and I’m not getting my way on this and therefore I’m going to have a hissy fit.’ I was willing to do my part in the relationship. He covers the event for me, he gets however many stories. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
Passes for the conference, by the way, are up to $290 for non-members. I then asked her what her criteria for press were. Organizations are free, as far as I’m concerned, to set their own standards for that. I may not agree with them, but if they’re transparent, they’re transparent. McCormick responded:
If I get a call from 50 people who say they’re quote unquote press, and none of them guarantee coverage, should I issue 50 releases?
That wasn’t my point, I said, hopefully gently. I wanted to understand her criteria for “press,” and why Vance didn’t fit them.
Erik told me that the type of writing that he does, full-length feature writing, is not really amenable to this event. I said, ‘you’re right, it doesn’t really warrant that type of writing.’ He doesn’t write for a newspaper, or even a field blog, which I feel is more appropriate for this event. It’s misaligned with the type of writing that he does.
I told McCormick I thought I now understood her position, but that lots of people — including me — would see this as a quid pro quo. I then asked what she had said at the end of her voicemail. She said that had Vance’s feature subject been speaking at the conference, he could have come as her guest.
Our conversation ended as follows:
Our members are not deep-pocketed people. They save up all year round to go to this event. A sacrifice for them, for our board. For him to say ‘I’m press,’ to me that’s really that the case.
This doesn’t leave me with a good impression. He needs to do a better job of representing his discipline.
It’s in my best interests to make sure that everybody is happy and best represent my organization. I’m very unhappy about this interaction. If the interaction were different, if he were covering something related to ACS, I’d have no problem with that. It doesn’t serve my organization to keep people out and be exclusive.
There’s an analogy here about barnacles and whales, isn’t there? Or maybe Vance has developed a blow-hole where his ears were.
Either way, this really doesn’t look good for the Society. I probably don’t have to say this, but quid pro quos aren’t part of independent journalism. And scientific societies should know that.
Now for those of you who are asking whether this is an embargo issue, well, strictly speaking, perhaps not. But it’s an access issue, and to me those are quite related. Apologies for the length, but I thought it was important to get everyone’s perspective as best I could. And this episode needed some airing.