Monday, January 25, 2010

What the FTC Guidelines on Freebies Means to Freelance Writers

I read a brief item in the Writing World newsletter about a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling in relation to blogging. It reported that the FTC guidelines state that "any blogger in the States, who receives a freebie, including books to review in their blogs must now disclose them or face a fine of $11,000. " The item went on to say that the FTC guidelines suggest that bloggers who receive products for review are in effect receiving "payment in kind" and "can be seen as giving endorsements in return for the freebie." Payment? What is that? (More on this later).

I had been talking to a couple of writers with beauty blogs about this very issue the night before. They objected to this scrutiny by citing the print publication editors and writers who receive product samples and whose professionalism and acceptance of these items has not come into question. The FTC believes that consumers would be aware that traditional media receive review products for free but that they might not be aware that blogs or at least less-established blogs, might be receiving free product samples. In reading the actual FTC document, however, the rules apply to advertisers and marketers that use blogs and social media for product endorsements, and to sponsored blogs and bloggers who are paid for endorsements or are given free products in exchange for endorsements. It does not seem to apply to media professionals such as well-established blogs from online and print publications, but how these rules apply to freelance writers with blogs is confusing. And how the FTC will determine which blogs are legitimate media outlets and which are amateur blogs or sponsored blogs, is another matter of concern.

The FTC rules were met with quite a few irate posts, but I understand why the Commission, whose job is to protect consumers from fraud, would be concerned. I have visited numerous blogs by people who couldn't write a grocery list, passing themselves off as writers. Face it. Some bloggers really are writing product reviews simply to get free stuff. But for journalists, these items are neither payment nor gifts. For years film critics have been invited to free movie screenings, and are sometimes even flown to film junkets held in states other than their own. Book reviewers have been sent review copies and galley proofs. Music critics have received complimentary concert tickets and music. Need I mention restaurant critics and the network foodies who are presented with samples of cuisine that I’ve watched news anchors taste on air? This is a job. Do business employees pay for the supplies they receive in order to do their jobs?

It is far easier for someone-- anyone--to put up a blog than to write for print publications where one must pass the scrutiny of editors, most of whom will check to make sure the writer has credentials and, well, gee whiz--can actually write. Professional writers and journalists have studied those minor details of composition--grammar, spelling, how to construct a sentence, etc., and have developed fact-checking and proofreading skills. Oh, and some have actually studied or at least have a sense of ethics, concerning issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement, for example.

I think most consumers are smarter than the FTC (and apparently some magazine and newspaper bigwigs) think. I also think they know a legitimate journalist from a hack. And if they knew what most journalists and freelance writers make, I don't think they would mind them testing, and then keeping, that free tube of toothpaste they received in the mail--and really, do you think it would be wise for them to return it?

I have been writing professionally for 32 years now. I have been a book reviewer, record reviewer, beauty columnist, new products columnist, and travel writer and my judgement has never come into question. I truly resent the fact that anyone can question my honesty or believe that my reviews and articles can be tainted because of a freebie. If a book, album or product, was, in my opinion, horrible, it didn't receive any ink at all. If it had flaws, those flaws were mentioned, and if it was great, naturally I'd let you know that too.

Since I don’t let freebies influence my reviews (and believe me, I’ve been kicked off a few PR lists in the past because of this) I don’t mind adding a disclosure. However, if this fine applies to journalists, it is just another insult professional writers have had to endure since the dawn of the Internet. Where else can experts find a site where they can purchase books that they can pass off as their own to unsuspecting consumers? These are not books that are ghost written using these experts' knowledge and ideas. No, this is the publishing equivalent of a hair weave. The only thing that is real is your name and the fact that you bought the service.

And where else can thieves take content (what we used to call articles) and simply change the by-line? A few years ago I did online research for a relationship article and came across twenty copies of the exact same article with twenty different by-lines! The culprits stole a list of five relationship tips from the advertisement page of the real author's website. The relationship tips had been offered free of charge to potential readers to entice them to purchase the book from which these tips were excerpted. Surely he did not intend for others to steal his work. I could go on and on and on with examples like this much like the search engine pages I had to surf through, but I won't. Well, actually I will mention two of the by-line boosters: one was a journalist from a Nigerian newspaper, the other as it turned out, was a psychic. Imagine the snickers I would have received if I had credited Madam I-Can-See-A-Man-In-Your-Future as an expert in my article. Several writers now Google their own names on a regular basis and find their hijacked articles on countless websites.

If this $11,000 fine did apply to journalists who write legitimate reviews, it would be a travesty. Most freelance writers don't even make $11,000, though perhaps they would if they didn't constantly get stiffed by publishers. Publishers rip us off on a regular basis and the so-called online magazines are even worse. Why not go after these shysters? Here's my suggestion for people who deserve a $11,000 fine:

  • Online publications that want four or more, well-researched, fully documented 1,000 word articles for the paltry fee of $25 (demanding All Rights, no less). So what does that amount to? About a half cent an hour, maybe? Get real.

  • Upstart or simply cheap online and print publishers who think they are doing us a favor by allowing us to write for free in order to get a coveted by-line. Darling, I've been writing for years. I have more by-lines than I can count (many with more incorrect spellings of my name than you can imagine). I don't need a by-line. I need to pay the rent.

  • Haughty publications that pay crap, yet enforce their archaic rules upon freelancers that extend even to work that doesn't have a damned thing to do with the publication.

  • Websites and online publications that reprint articles without the writer's permission. No, reprinting an article simply by naming the publication in which it appears and crediting the author does not constitute permission. You have to contact the writer and set up an agreement for usage and/or payment.

  • Content thieves that boldly steal articles and replace the true author’s by-line or tag line with their name.

  • Plagiarists who make minor changes to articles and pass them off as their own.

  • Any publication, online or print, that refuses to compensate writers for their work, whether it is by verbal or written agreement. This especially applies to publishers who not only refuse to pay for articles that have been used, but reuse the articles in additional publications and on their websites.

That's it for my bitching and moaning. I'm going to take a Prilosec for the acid that is churning in my stomach over this. By the way, it is a prescription. The company didn't send it to me for free. 'Kay?

For further information on the FTC guidelines:

FTC news release. You will also find links to information about the endorsement guidelines, as well as the text of the Revised Endorsement and Testimonial Guides at this site.

Also read this TechCrunch article by Brian Solis, FTC Values Sponsored Conversations At $11,000 Apiece

I'd like to hear your thoughts on these issues. Please leave a comment.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! We writers can't go out and buy all the books that we review, the products that we test out and in most cases, we can't afford paying for the destinations that we write about.

    Professional writers have spent years... in some cases, decades... honing out craft and our writing is worth something. We're not getting "paid" when we get an occasional jar of gourmet honey, an expensive book or a press trip to a destination that we're writing about.

    For those of you out there who aren't writers, don't think that writers just laze around on a press trip. Yes, it's fun, but we're also taking copious notes and generally seeing too many places at once so that our readers can reap the benefits of knowing what a place is like before they spend their hard-earned money on traveling there.

    Ranting Writer Linda