Embargo Watch

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Quid pro quo? American Cetacean Society tells freelancer he can only have a press pass if it’s a “mutually beneficial relationship”

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photo by eschipul via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/

Erik Vance, a freelancer in the Bay Area, is pissed. Witness a tweet he sent earlier today:

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.

Full disclosure: I hired Vance to do a few stories when I was at Scientific American, including one on the farce of a press conference a few Bigfoot hunters held in 2008.

Written by Ivan Oransky

November 10, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

19 Responses

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  1. What a strange situation.

    Personally, I have never come across anything like this (and I’d be shocked if ever confronted with the arguments McCormick has put forward).

    I understand her point about wanting to have press (and not wanting to waste space on freeloaders) but I doubt that if the American Cetacean Society meeting is so amazing, few journalists would come out of the conference empty-handed.

    Besides, if said journalist has official accreditation to the news organization he/she says they represent, I really don’t think there’s a problem. Erik writes for Discover, one would think that would be enough.



    Ian O'Neill

    November 10, 2010 at 4:52 pm

  2. When did journalism become a euphemism for ADVERTISING?! Good on you for making this exchange public.


    November 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm

  3. Stunned and speechless would be my reaction.

    So glad none of the cancer meetings I attend take that lady’s attitude.


    November 10, 2010 at 5:46 pm

  4. I’m quite staggered by McCormick’s thinking here. It’s true that there is obviously no requirement that she offer a pass but if she thinks that she is going to get press coverage by refusing to let journalists cover her meeting, she is a pretty bad press officer.

    Something that stuck out most for me was her quote “I had never, in 20 years of working nonprofit and academia, come across such a proposition…”

    If that is really the case, she must never have actually run a conference press room before, or done a spectacularly bad job to have never had press wanting to come to one of her meetings. Either way, 20 years of work and this experience? What has she been doing for 20 years?

    Frankly, this whole exchange makes the entire ACS look bad. It would definitely make me less likely to attend one of their meetings.


    November 10, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  5. It would be amusing if journalists all found they couldn’t make it to the ACS meeting this weekend.


    November 10, 2010 at 7:03 pm

  6. At the very least, this is a short-sighted approach to media relations and one that I imagine the ACS’s scientific members would object to. Even if Vance has no plans to report breaking news from the meeting, he’ll be networking with scientists and perhaps getting their names in future articles about cetacean science and conservation. On the other hand, ACS is not, strictly speaking, a scientific organization, but a conservation NGO with its own agenda, which may explain why the director is so adamant about getting mentioned.

    Brendan Borrell

    November 10, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  7. Sorry, I think this is a tempest in a teapot. There is no “Cooks Source” here. There are two sides to every story. It sounds like Vance wanted to go to the meeting to obtain background information for a feature he was writing on someone who was to have spoken at the meeting. He apparently was not planning to “cover” the meeting. If I understand correctly, he is a freelancer and is not on the staff of Discover magazine. I interpret this as McCormick asking if he was going to cover the meeting and he said no. Then why should he be entitled to a free pass if he was only going to the meeting to do research for himself? The argument that he would “…be networking with scientists” is disingenuous. I think everyone tweeting about this should read the story posted here and calm down a bit.

    Skeptical Scalpel

    November 10, 2010 at 8:29 pm

  8. Nice Post Ivan. While I don’t think McCormick handled this this the right way, the post somewhat skirts the larger underlying issue of press getting free attendance at meetings. We’ve come to expect that, but it is _not_ a right–although it may be sensible for a meeting/society that wants coverage. I and my colleagues at Science usually try to talk meeting organizers into a free “press” registration but when they decline–usually more adeptly than McCormick here–we often pay the normal registration costs. That is a solution Vance could have taken–although $290 not an insignificant sum for a freelancer it is far from high for many conferences–if he considered the meeting a worthwhile investment for future stories. While I don’t condone the society’s actions here, I do have some sympathies with how small meetings must balance costs and access. I feel fortunate I get to cover so many conferences for free.

    John Travis

    November 11, 2010 at 1:57 am

  9. Wow. Just wow. Quid pro quo is not a good reason to grant (or not grant) press passes.


    November 11, 2010 at 7:58 am

  10. I agree with “Skeptical Scalpel” on this one. There’s no “meat” here, and it doesn’t warrant all this attention or drama. Vance requested a Press Pass to complete his own assignment and declined to cover the event, which would have been a relatively small task for him. McCormick has a right to decline Vance’s if she felt that his attendance had no added value to the event. Vance missed a prime opportunity to cultivate a relationship for the future. In attempting to so desperately to convince his colleagues that “this is not about my ego.”, it is safe to say that this is *exactly* what the issue is about. I’m not sure how experienced Mr. Vance is, but it would serve him well in the future to be cognizant of the fact small requests for press often lead to very big breaks down the line. This, however, isn’t an issue for a blog and barely merits attention.

    Angelo Corcione

    November 11, 2010 at 10:26 am

    • I disagree. Suppose the “journalist” promises a glowing review — that would be entirely unethical. And do you think it was appropriate for the host of that dog and pony show to make the press pass conditional? Presumably, the paying customers are paying for entertainment (or some other personal gain). One hopes that the journalist is seeking information (and planning to share that information). Call me a radical but I believe that access to information should be free (you don’t have to tell me that it isn’t). To say that this issue ‘barely merits attention’ is to deny that the integrity of the journalist would be compromised (not to mention some very *basic* ethical standards) — think of what it means for private corporations to make huge ‘donations’ to political candidates. Do you really want journalism to ‘go there?’


      November 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm

      • to deny that the integrity of the journalist would be compromised.


        November 11, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  11. I went into this thinking a 22-year-old entry-level PR temp in her first job maybe went overboard in her exuberance. OK, that I could understand. But an organizer who has been doing this for 20 years and an experienced journalist can’t meet in the middle? McCormick should offer a “day pass” or Vance should ask for a “day pass.”


    November 11, 2010 at 10:30 am

  12. I’ve run into this sort of thing myself. I agree with others that organizers of a meeting don’t have any right to demand coverage–IF reporters pay their own way.

    But if we’re asking to attend without paying the fee, we are, in effect, taking money from the organization. We do it all the time, and I don’t think it’s a problem. But, frankly, we don’t have any right that I’m aware of to demand free attendance.

    I ran into this at the Biological Psychiatry meeting a few years ago. I made all the usual arguments about the research being largely publicly funded, and researchers having an obligation to report back to the public, etc., etc. The response was: Fine. Pay up, and report whatever you like.

    I didn’t have an argument for why I should get in free. Does anyone else?

    Paul Raeburn

    November 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    • The only real argument is that it’s traditional for reporters to be granted free access to meetings. But we have to recognize that as science journalists we’re in a distinct minority in expecting this. White House reporters pay for travel on Air Force One. Restaurant reviewers pay for their meals. (On the other hand, sports reporters don’t have to buy tickets.)

      Bob Finn

      November 12, 2010 at 2:16 pm

      • And how many independent/investigative journalists are aboard Air Force One? MSM coverage of President Obama could probably write their stories before the event even happens! Is anyone else troubled by the fact that journalists must pass through layers of gatekeepers in order to cover the President but big campaign contributers get the Lincoln bedroom?

        Travel writers get free trips and first class treatment at resorts.

        What really scares me is that there are some powerful people working very hard to regulate Internet access.


        November 12, 2010 at 3:34 pm

  13. There’s another issue here that isn’t really addressed by McCormick, but should be considered: “journalism” ain’t what it used to be. Anyone with a blog or a twitter feed can claim to be a journalist now. Does that mean that small, cash-strapped societies have to provide free access for every attendee who claims to be a journalist?


    November 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm

  14. Too bad all around . . . suggest the society documents and publishes a policy explicitly spelling out how to gain meeting access for news media, and what constitutes media, including how freelancers are addressed (such as requiring a letter from their publication, as AAAS once did with me) . . . so neither side ends up feeling caught in some negotiation like this on the fly, in the future. Even if she didn’t express it well, maybe she wanted to draw a line. It’s understood that things fall through, speakers cancel, stories are yanked, so guaranteeing coverage would be a little strong, but if she has a short-sighted focus on economizing, requiring an intent to cover the event could be explicitly stated in advance in a written policy. Sure, complimentary attendance is frequently extended at conferences as a courtesy to cultivate journalists. It seems like vagueness made things worse. I agree networking at meetings IS convenient and serendipitous. This was also a lost opportunity on her part to build a relationship with an established writer. With Erik’s credentials, I would be irritated at the comparisons she made to flighty nonprofessional bloggers . . .


    November 14, 2010 at 6:31 pm

  15. Wow. I cannot believe the American Cetacean Society employs such rookies. As a PIO myself, I can only shake my head in disbelief.

    Daniel Stolte

    February 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm

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