The ethics of speaker’s fees

I spent much of last Thursday on my feet in front of an audience, and I haven’t been paid for it–yet. That may or may not be a problem, depending on your definition of journalistic ethics.

The occasion was a Google-hosted conference called Innovation For The Nation, set up to “discuss and debate how technological forces impact the evolution of work and shape the way government agencies achieve their mission through collaboration and innovation in a 100% Web world.” (Were all that chatter to lead to increased adoption of Google Apps services by the Feds, I’m sure Google could live with that side effect.) I’d been asked to moderate some panels at this occasion by one of the people in Google’s D.C. office about two months ago.

This sort of invitation is easy for most journalists to accept. By serving as a panel moderator, you don’t have to take a side and can instead ask questions that show how smart you are; by doing so in front of a theoretically influential audience, you gain valuable exposure and networking opportunities. It’s such an accepted part of the business that the Washington Post has a Speakers Bureau that books staffers for engagements before “Nonprofit organizations, business, civic or community groups, libraries, schools or community centers.”

So–needing exposure and networking opportunities more than I did four months ago–I accepted Google’s offer and wasn’t too surprised to learn that they also wanted me to introduce some other speakers during the day. Then I had a new choice to consider: Would I accept a speaker’s fee for my time?

At the Post, the answer would have been simple: no. Instead, the Speakers Bureau pays employees a modest sum–$100 for a weekday event or $150 on weekends–that in my case ensured that I was underpaid for appearances at name-brand gatherings but overpaid for talks to local user groups. (Note that a few higher-up Posties have not always played by these rules.)

Now, though, I’m on my own. And that’s caused me to rethink this issue a bit.

These days, making public appearances isn’t just an act of public service for a reporter. It’s one of the things we do as part of this job, and one that’s immune to duplication over the Internet–the business-model term for it is “sell the scarcity.” But if I’d take compensation from, say, a professional group–the Post was fine with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association comping my lodging when I spoke at its annual conference in 2010–do I necessarily show my independence by providing the same service for free to a company that I happen to cover?

If you take the check–assuming it’s replacement-level-player compensation that the company would have paid to somebody to moderate their panels, which is what I believe Google is offering–at least it’s a straight business transaction instead of an act of charity.

Further, by accepting the invitation to moderate a panel at all, you’re already in a business relationship. The company or group involved gets a recognized speaker on stage; if you do your job right at the event, the value of the resulting personal publicity will outstrip any honorarium offered. (In my case, I got to banter about innovation and Internet architecture with the likes of author Steven Johnson and TCP/IP co-author Vint Cerf.)

Meanwhile, the real way companies get on a reporter’s good side is to provide information that leads to stories, preferably before other reporters get it. (From my perspective, Google has been doing a good job of that for some time now.) And in any case, journalism has a three-word mission statement: Tell the truth. You don’t have to know who I’ve done business with to judge whether my work met that standard.

I put my quandary to a private mailing list of journalists, and the replies overwhelmingly favored taking the fee. Summarized one writer: “Do the work, get paid, cash the check.” Even more to my surprise, two editors looking to send me work said they didn’t see an issue with my accepting the payment.

So did I take Google’s money? I haven’t decided yet–I need to hear from one other potential freelance client about its policies. So that gives you all a chance to share your thoughts on this. I can tell you one thing for sure, though: If I do get paid by a company, you’ll see it on the disclosures page I just added to this site.