Harvard Business School Professor's NYT Column Violates Ethics Policy

HBS prof. freelancing for the Times dismissed after accepting travel from source

Harvard Business School professor Mary Tripsas will no longer be writing for The New York Times after violating a policy prohibiting writers from accepting anything of value from sources.

Tripsas—a business innovation expert who wrote for The Times' monthly column "Prototype" since August—was accused of accepting travel and lodging from a source. The day after her Dec. 26 column lauding 3M Company's customer innovation center was published, anonymous Times watchdog blog NYTPicker reported that 3M had paid for Tripsas' trip to a day-long briefing at the center on Nov. 12.

Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor, announced Tripsas' dismissal in his column Saturday.

In her column, "Seeing Customers as Partners in Invention," Tripsas wrote that 3M was "at the forefront of a movement" in which companies better tailored products to clients by engaging with them in person and soliciting customer input during product development. 3M paid $820 in airfare and accommodation expenses for Tripsas' visit to the company's St. Paul headquarters.

An editor's note was appended to the column on Sunday, stating that the article "would not have been published in that form" if editors had known of the payment.

"Although I didn't realize it at the time, I did clearly violate The Times' policy, so it was perfectly fair for them to end our affiliation," Tripsas wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson.

"If I had carefully read the freelancer contract, the 54-page ethics booklet, and the conflict of interest questionnaire, the specific rule I violated would have been clear," she wrote, adding that editors had never discussed the rules with her. "I should have read them carefully, and I take full responsibility for what was clearly my mistake."

She maintained that she would not have written her column any differently had the expenses been charged to her faculty research account at Harvard Business School instead.

Holt's Jan. 2 ombudsman column noted that Tripsas' trip was arranged before she started writing for The Times in August.

He added that Tripsas should not have been allowed to write about business from the start, as she teaches Harvard executive education classes customized for and paid by companies—a violation of the Times' policy banning commissions and assignments from news sources.

"Since the company pays Harvard and Harvard pays me, I would not have considered this a violation," Tripsas wrote, "but as one of the editors said to me in an e-mail, 'It was also news to me that executives were paying Harvard to have you train them. That—had it been disclosed to us in the beginning—would have precluded you doing the type of column for us that you are doing.'"

Todd A. Gitlin '63, a journalism and sociology professor at Columbia University, agreed it was unethical for Tripsas to write the column after being paid by its principal subject. He added that The Times should take more preventative measures by requiring its writers to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

"The scrutiny is too often on the relatively trivial and obvious conflict and less on the matter of disclosure," he said. "The Times should have some way of being able to certify to its readers that [writers] have no other obligation."

Tripsas' violation follows a string of ethics violations involving freelance writers. According to Hoyt's Jan. 2 column, Joshua Robinson is no longer working for the organization after allegedly presenting himself as a Times reporter to obtain free plane tickets. Mike Albo was also let go after accepting a free trip to Jamaica. Hoyt's Dec. 12 column indicated that freelancer Suzy Buckley's Nov. 22 review of Miami destinations included a restaurant co-owned by a former boyfriend.

Times guidelines state that freelancers are held to the same ethical standards as staff reporters.

"Just because money is tight in the industry doesn't mean that these kinds of arrangements should be more lax than they ever were," said Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Watchdog, a Web site associated with the Harvard-affiliated Nieman Foundation that monitors the press.

"If I were a reporter and I did these things, I'd be fired," Sussman added.

—Staff writer Naveen N. Srivatsa can be reached at srivatsa@fas.harvard.edu.

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