Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dear FTC: I take freebies

I submitted the following op-ed to my former employer, The San Francisco Chronicle. They refused to run it.

By W. Blake Gray

I'm a blogger, and I take freebies.

The Federal Trade Commission considers that practice so wicked that it created a new rule. Soon, I will have to publicly pronounce that I take free samples; it's as if my blog contains trans fat. Well, you can't get much more public than this.

But are they planning to tell newspapers and magazines the same thing? If not, why not?

I spent much of my life working at newspapers, and while all have ethics policies, I've never heard of one that takes absolutely no freebies.

Example: Did you know The Chronicle has a wine cellar full of free samples? (Actually the cellar is being remodeled, so the free wines are sitting in boxes in the main newsroom building.) When I worked here, The Chronicle never sent back a sample of wine or liquor. We donated some excess bottles to charities, but we trusted ourselves to make ethical use of most of the hundreds of bottles of free wine and liquor that arrive every month. And while the wine industry knew we took samples -- because we sent them emails requesting freebies, sometimes with specific instructions and deadlines -- we rarely if ever announced it to the general public.

Now that I'm a blogger, I'm supposed to report every time somebody sends me a single bottle?

Don't get me wrong -- I strongly supported The Chronicle's sample policy for the three years that I worked here as a wine writer, and still do. I tasted more than 1000 bottles a year here without paying for them. There's no way, on journalists' salaries, that we could afford to compare 75 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, or convince a struggling newspaper company to pay for those wines. I believe we provided a service to readers by blind tasting and reporting our favorites.

That said, how much harder is it for me, now, without a journalist's salary, to compare even 10 Napa Valley Cabs unless they're freebies? Samples make bloggers more professional, not less.

It's not just wine. How do you think movie reviews appear on the day the film is released? The critic either saw a free screening or was sent a DVD. How is that different from a blogger taking a free DVD?

Is The Chronicle going to be asked to print "The writer saw the game for free" on every sports story? Aren't 49ers tickets a significant freebie?

Moreover, the FTC is missing a more important point: it's not how you got the goods, but what you do with them.

The New York Times presumably isn't scalping its seats in the press box for Yankees playoff games. But the Times did recently run a profile of Gary Vaynerchuk, who has a popular online wine video blog, calling him a "critic." Vaynerchuk's family owns a wine shop, which means he can directly profit from wines that he praises. He's not alone: other retail websites run "reviews" by their employees, or the products' distributors. But the FTC is apparently unconcerned about this.

Mainly, it's a fairness issue. The Chronicle doesn't have to announce that it takes freebies, but I do. Or do I?

Currently I sell freelance articles about wine to newspapers and magazines. I blog. I tweet. I write a regular column for Wine Review Online. I wrote a book about wine in Japanese and might soon write another.

Much of that writing, from 140-character tweets to my book, is based on free samples. So tell me, FTC, do I have to divulge that I received freebies if I blog, but not if I manage to sell an article here, to my former employer? (Not so likely after this op-ed, I admit.)

Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne writes a blog and a column in the Sunday paper -- both of which can be read online. Does he have to tell about free samples in one, but not the other?

I'm not sure what the FTC is trying to protect consumers from. Let's say Hershey's sends a bunch of bloggers free chocolate bars. Some of them tweet: "OMG Hershey's chocolate is awesome!!!" Does the FTC believe US consumers are so stupid that Valrhona chocolate lovers will immediately switch? Give us some credit, Washington. We grew up with media and we're used to filtering it.

Wine Spectator (which gets far more expensive freebies than The Chronicle), the New York Times, The Chronicle and other print publications earned their influence because many people respect their opinions, not because they were favored by government regulations. I don't believe the FTC should be in the business of deciding which critics are legitimate. You either trust us all -- 49ers pass-taking Chronicle columnists and over-enthusiastic Hershey's twitterers -- or you don't trust any of us.

The rule is scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. I call for all newspapers and magazines that accept samples of any kind -- CDs for review, sports playoff tickets, et al -- to join with the blogging and tweeting community in solidarity. We are all writers, regardless of our medium. Let's protest this unfair intrusion of the Federal Trade Commission into the marketplace of ideas.

A Chronicle wine writer from 2004 to 2007, W. Blake Gray now writes The Gray Market Report wine blog. And he takes freebies.

To my fellow bloggers: I also submitted a version of this to the New York Times. They also refused to run it, but they did run this editorial haughtily supporting the new rule for us and not them. The editorial concludes thus:

But disclosure is a reasonable demand to make in any medium. It protects consumers and bolsters the bonds of trust between writers and their audience.

Yet the Times doesn't think "disclosure" should apply to its writers; only to print advertorials. I guess the Times buys all those books they review, right?


Michele Humes said...

I'm very surprised that the SF Chronicle's freelancer contract doesn't expressly address--and forbid--freebies. I thought that was a pretty standard clause in those sorts of agreements. Maybe the problem here isn't with the FTC but with the Chronicle! (I'm not basing that assertion on anything other than what you say in this post.)

I agree that calling a merchant such as Vaynerchuk a critic is a little murky, ethically. I'm just not sure it's a reason to further muddy the waters. Why is it difficult to note in a piece of writing that you tasted Vintage X courtesy of Importer Y?

Jack Everitt said...

I, too, am very bugged by this. It is totally ridiculous.

Personally, I think this is just the first of many unfair advantages our government is going to do to give the failing newspaper industry in their effort to slow the downfall.

Alice said...

Are you on some sort of Vendetta against the SFC? You might consider having someone else read through your work because you're coming off as on the warpath for perhaps personal reasons.

Anonymous said...

Will I'm not sure what to make of this other than it's just business as usual. Corp get scared of the competition so they ask friends in govt to make rules against the small players in the game. US history shows this really got off the ground after ww1. I don't care were your free samples come from I'm just looking for a little info on wine.

Unknown said...

You make a very compelling argument about the basic questions of fairness involved. The government is interfering with some media but not others, and it’s no surprise that the ones with the long-established ties and deep pockets are getting favorable treatment. The rule should be applied evenly or – better yet – not at all.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi guys, thanks for all the comments.

Michele: I've never seen a freelancer contract that forbids freebies. You must write for different publications than me.
I did not mean to pick on The Chronicle -- it's just that I worked there and know their policies intimately. Other papers are similar; that is my point. To your conclusion: If I have to make that note, why doesn't a magazine or newspaper writer?

Alice: I'm sorry you read it that way, but I'd like to ask you to read it again. I have no vendetta against the Chronicle and am on very friendly terms with a number of my former colleagues. As I said above, I simply know their policies intimately. I believe the Chronicle is no less ethical than the majority of American newspapers; in fact I think Michael Bauer sets a much higher standard of ethics for the Chronicle Food section than most papers employ. This rant is not meant as a criticism of the Chronicle's ethics, but of the FTC policy's unfairness.

That said, I do think the Chronicle could have run the op-ed. It would have given the paper an opportunity to take a stand, one way or the other, on the FTC policy. In my dreams I imagined the Chronicle editorial board agreeing with me on the issue. I didn't get feedback, so I don't know.

But if anyone there is reading this, you don't have to run the op-ed, but please consider editorializing about the fairness of this issue.

Jo: I'll do my best.

Jack and Michael: You said it.

Michele Humes said...

This is the NYT's publicly accessible ethics code, which clearly outlines their policies on samples and tickets and so on, for freelancers as much as staffers:

Warren Farrell said...


Tom Merle said...

Michelle wrote: "...[the NY Times ethics policy] clearly outlines their policies on samples and tickets and so on, for freelancers as much as staffers..." I read the entire document and fail to see anything on accepting samples or tickets. The closest I could come to a comment on this topic was this: "...staff members may accept press passes or free tickets when explicitly assigned to review artistic performances or cover athletic and similar events (for example, auto shows, agricultural fairs or flower shows)." [The prohibition on freebies when doing travel articles is unique to this field.]

1WineDude said...

Bravo - one of the most lucid takes on this issue that I've read so far.

The basic truth here is that the FTC regulation is overly-complex and the thinking behind it is too simplistic - your tax dollars at work!

Miz J said...

Blake.. you were always one of my favorites when you were writng for the chron! so good to catch you back in print..and thanks for this one.

Alice said...

Blake, Do you know how difficult it is to have an op ed published? You're sounding very green. Just because you have worked there in the past doesn't mean they owe you.

The piece, I hope you forgive me, was just not a good enough piece of writing or had a strong enough (or original arc) to make it through the slush pile. Perhaps you should have tried a letter to the editor.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks.

Alice: One thing I learned in my years in the newspaper industry, including a stint at one paper in charge of deciding what op-eds and letters to the editor were published, is that the facts matter more than the byline.

I appreciate your criticism, and would like to ask you to write your own piece on this issue. I'm sure you can write something stronger than me. I will be happy to link to it if you send me a URL. It's not about me; it's about the FTC.

W. Blake Gray said...

If anyone's still reading this -- the New York Times had space for this story today:

The paper is in favor of its employees suing airlines when they don't arrive on time to catch a flight. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I feel like the FTC needs to go after the REAL predators and stop lumping all into one boiling pot of witches brew.

There are real live fraudsters and predators out there and the regulators should be able to sort through them, and base their opinions on real complaints, and damages to determine what rules are necessary. If more time was spent weeding out the bad guys, we'd all be better off.

See: Dear FTC: Please go after the real predators!

Denise Richardson