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June 14, 2021, 11:30 a.m.

Bad blood? The Wall Street Journal apparently wants its reporters to pay to use their own reporting in books

And to get permission before even talking to a book agent.

For reporters, side gigs have long been a minefield.

I don’t even mean the very real ethical issues that can come with $75,000 speeches, billionaire donations to your wife’s museum, or blogging for Facebook while also being paid to have opinions about Facebook and Facebook is funding your pet project.

No, I just mean the standard workplace minefield of how you get along with your bosses. Good journalism is both the result of an individual’s labor and the infrastructure — from editing and visuals to HR and facilities — set up by that individual’s employer. When it comes to day-to-day stories, the deal is implicit: The reporter produces the work, and the company tries to monetize it. But what about when the work expands into a Hollywood option, or a Netflix documentary, or a podcast, or a CNN contributor deal, or a Substack — or, most commonly, a book?

In most cases, if you’re a journalist employed by a news organization, the copyright of your work belongs to the company, not you. But in general, news publishers have been willing to let staffers expand their work into hardcover form — betting that whatever cut of the action they might be able to snag wouldn’t be worth pissing off some of your top staffers, especially when they’ve got another offer on the table.

Into that debate walks The Wall Street Journal and its Dow Jones corporate siblings, which are trying to grab more of the value its newsrooms produce. Here’s how the Dow Jones newsroom union, IAPE Local 1096, puts it:

Dow Jones announced a new policy Friday for WSJ news personnel in which the company claimed new and potentially expansive rights over employees’ efforts to write books or pursue other external projects. We have several concerns about the policy, which appears to depart from industry standards, and believe the company cannot lawfully impose it on its own.

We will have more to say later, but for now, know this: We intend to fight this attempt to unilaterally change the terms of our employment. IAPE sent a letter to DJ representatives this afternoon seeking more information and requesting negotiations.

IAPE was first notified in late March that DJ intended to seek revisions and expansions of its policies on external projects. In April, the union raised a series of questions about a draft document presented by the company, and met with company officials on April 22. In May, DJ presented IAPE with a further revised proposed policy that did not address questions previously raised by the union. The revisions also appeared to be an attempt to further expand rights provided to management.

IAPE expected to have further discussions with management over the policy. Instead, the company announced it Friday, without notifying the union first. Past policies of this nature were subject to bargaining, and we believe this one is, too.

Dow Jones also has been working on additional policies related to newsroom employees’ involvement with podcasts and newsletters. IAPE believes it has the right to negotiate over those policies as well.

What exactly is in the new policy?

IAPE’s Tim Martell told The Hill that current Journal policy requires reporters to tell editors about any planned book “at early stages” and to get approval to send a proposal to publishers. The new policy extends that approval requirement even earlier, to before a reporter even discusses a book idea with an agent or publisher. That, along with requiring journalists “to execute an appropriate licensing agreement with Dow Jones for the use of their own reporting,” is “an overreach,” Martell says.

Journal reporters are, as you might expect, not excited. Here’s national religion reporter Ian Lovett:

Debates over book rights are eternal; back in the 1980s, The New York Times controversially demanded that its in-house imprint, Times Books, get first right of refusal over any book projects produced by Times writers, a stance that has ebbed and flowed over the years.

More recently, those old issues have popped up in new forms; earlier this year, the Times said an internal committee would judge if a Times reporter’s podcast or newsletter was okay by the company, at least if it had “the potential to be competitive with our journalism and business, could conflict with or distract from your work or The Times, involve payment or could be covered in any other way by the policies defined by the Ethical Journalism Handbook.”

An unspoken element here, of course, is that The Wall Street Journal’s News Corp sibling is book publisher HarperCollins, which could gain a substantial competitive advantage off any Journal restrictions. (“Want to write a book for Penguin Random House? Well, okay, but we’ll need 30% of your advance as a ‘licensing fee.’ Sign with our good friends at HarperCollins, though, and I’m sure we can work something out!“)

All that said, versions of these sorts of restrictions have indeed ebbed and flowed. Or, perhaps more honest to the realpolitik at play, they’ve just been enforced selectively, depending on the relative position of the reporter in a newsroom’s hierarchy and the relative monetary stake at issue. And just because a policy like this is proposed doesn’t mean it’ll be enacted.

It’s hard not to imagine John Carreyrou’s bestseller Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup looming in the background of all this. Carreyrou, a Journal reporter for two decades, wrote the blockbuster newspaper stories that took down Theranos. But when it came time to expand them into a book, Bad Blood was published by Knopf, not HarperCollins. Carreyrou left the Journal in 2019 after it told him he couldn’t give paid speeches while a Journal employee.

Meanwhile, look for Jennifer Lawrence in the Bad Blood movie some year soon, coming to a theatre near you.

Photo by kellywritershouse used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 14, 2021, 11:30 a.m.
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