Newsletter writers need a new ethics

In the past five years, independent newsletters have exploded, as journalists and other writers look for new ways to monetize their work in the face of layoffs and shrinking outlets for reporting and critical or personal essays. Some of these newsletters are 100 percent reader supported, while others monetize through ads and sponsorships, and still others recoup revenue through consulting or speaking work. But outside the framework of established institutions and expectations for how writers interact with the people funding their work, these writers are usually left on their own to sort out any ethical conundrums that might arise.

What do you do when the newsletter platform you use also supports people whose positions you fundamentally disagree with? What if the person you fundamentally disagree with now owns that newsletter platform? How do you handle the perception — and arguably, the reality — that these platforms in general are power plays less interested in fostering journalistic, critical, and creative work than advancing their own financial and ideological agendas and circumscribing the public sphere? It’s all the issues we’ve faced with social media, crowdfunding platforms, and big publishers and their corporate owners, but somehow (like the new journalism models it fosters), more concentrated and more direct.

What do you do when your readers — now your direct patrons — are also part of a community that you have to moderate? What do you do when they demand a particular style of writing or a particular slant to your coverage (usually more positive, more critical, or maybe more relevant to their own interests)? Now, suppose that patron is an advertiser or sponsor — one whose products or services might be covered in your newsletter or who competes with those who are. What lines do you draw and how do you stick with them? Suppose an independent newsletter owner employs another journalist to act as an editor, fact-checker, community moderator, podcast producer, etc. How do they relate to that employee (typically also an independent contractor) without exploiting them as much or more than a larger organization would?

This doesn’t even touch on some of the murkiest ethical issues affecting independent journalists. Here’s a lightly redacted anecdote. For four years, I’ve written a newsletter about Amazon and the media, tech, and commerce industries. I consider myself a fair critic of Amazon, but definitely more of a critic and user than a booster or a take-no-sides reporter.

Last year, I was approached by a firm representing an unnamed client who was offering a large sum of money to support my newsletter, under the understanding that I continue to write stories critical of Amazon. Nothing proposed was anything other than factual, and not significantly different from the writing I was doing, but they had specific requests for areas I could focus on. They’d found an ideologically aligned writer with a reputation as an independent voice, and wanted to underwrite that work. But I could not disclose the sponsorship or even be told the identity of who the ultimate client was. I did not take this assignment, but I had to wonder who else was being made an offer like this, and who would ultimately accept.

This is not a scenario that a reporter in a traditional newsroom is permitted to consider, at least without violating many standards of professional ethics. But for a single newsletter writer, this can be an offer too good to refuse. I would also say it bleeds uncomfortably into the already accepted domains of patronage and disclosed sponsorship that already fund many independent newsletters. I would say in fact that independent newsletters are ripe ground for this kind of astroturfed activism, and there are many actors in many industries who know it.

For these reasons and more, I think a discussion about ethical guidelines for independent newsletters is far overdue. We have to talk about standards of who we work for, who we work with, and how we get our work done. It is not nearly so simple as saying that a direct financial relationship with your readers solves all your problems. It just poses new ones. In 2023 and beyond, we have to do better at recognizing and grappling with these problems before we’re overrun by them.

Tim Carmody writes about media, technology, art, and culture.

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