New York Times freelancers are forbidden to accept freebies of any kind from potential news sources. Travel writer Mike Albo recently lost his freelance shopping column over a junket he wrote about for another site. Now, Harvard business school prof and freelance Times columnist Mary Tripsas is accused of writing a puff piece about the 3M "innovation center" in Minnesota after visiting the facility on 3M's dime.
In an interview with the nytpicker blog, Tripsas said she thought it was okay because 3M invited her to speak as a Harvard professor and was unaware of her NYT affiliation. Tripsas doesn't explain why she's so sure 3M didn't know. It's an odd assumption to make, given that she writes a regular column under her real name. She admits that she didn't tell her NYT editor that she had a financial connection 3M. That's a clear violation of the Times' policy.
It's perfectly reasonable for a professor to give a talk at 3M, and it's standard in academia for the institution that invites the prof to pay her way. I wouldn't even have a problem with Tripsas writing about that trip as long as she made it clear that she found out about the center through her day job, at 3M's expense.
In general, freelancers should get more leeway than staff writers as far as accepting travel subsidies, review copies, and other freebies to offset their reporting costs. If you have the resources of the newspaper of record at your disposal, you have no excuse for taking free stuff from the people you cover. If you're paying your expenses upfront out of a freelance fee that might materialize in two months' time, it's easier to justify taking a subsidy. The New York Times could afford to send Tripsas to Minnesota. That's what should have happened if she wanted to write about the innovation center for the Times.
Note that this level of independence is a luxury that is contingent on institutional support. As more of the journalistic workforce goes freelance, news institutions are losing control over how their reporters cover the news. That's a hidden cost of downsizing and outsourcing. If you want independence, you have to pay for it.
This is equally true for less obvious free resources like press releases and official spokespeople. Staff reporters who get paid to cover their beats intensively can develop their own leads. Those with less support, be they staffers or freelancers, are apt to be more dependent on canned material distributed by interested parties. A junket and a press release are basically the same media strategy. They're both designed to make it easy to cover some event that the sponsor wants to draw attention to. If a reporter had to assemble the material contained in the average press release from scratch, it would take hours. Time is money.
Institutional prestige doesn't automatically equal credibility. However, there are certain aspects of crediblity that big institutional news outlets can use to distinguish themselves from their smaller, scrappier competitors. Independence is a big one. Steve Coll had a great article in the New Yorker a couple months ago about working for a big international newsroom during the last days of the golden age of print. He notes that his paper could afford not only to fly him to distant outposts, but also to back him in court if his coverage sparked a lawsuit. Sadly, those days are long gone at most papers.
It's reasonable for newspapers to expect their full-time staff writers to abide by conflict of interest policies on their side projects as well as their work for the paper. It's ridiculous to expect freelancers like Mike Albo to follow NYT rules when they're off the NYT clock. Albo got canned for accepting a free trip and writing about it for the Thrillist. Freelance journalists usually cobble together a living from various sources, including day jobs that may or may not bring their own conflicts of interest. If the paper isn't supporting them, you can't expect to micromanage the rest of their lives.
The NYT conflict of interest policies represent an ideal. That ideal doesn't come cheap. If the NYT wants the added measure of credibility that comes with independence, it has to be willing to pay for it.