Keller Memo on Book Projects: Don’t “Limit [Your] Future Options”

To: [XXXX]
From: Bill Keller
Subject: Books and Book Leaves: For the Record

To the Staff:

In the past few years we’ve had a tidal surge in the yearning of Times staffers to put their wisdom between hard covers. One result has been a lot of very good, even award-winning books that showcase the talents of the paper. Another has been a certain amount of stress on a hard-working staff, as important players disappear temporarily from the field. And a third has been a degree of confusion about what Times policies apply to book-writing. This is an attempt to set the record straight.

First, if you are contemplating a book, we need to know — before you circulate a proposal or open negotiations with a publisher. Our current policy, spelled out in the ethical journalism handbook, says that anyone contemplating a book project that derives from his or her assignment or beat must notify the paper in advance. What I want to add is that whatever kind of book project you have in mind, you should contact me, Jill, John or Bill Schmidt (as well as your immediate superior) and arrange a meeting in which we can discuss whether your book-writing is compatible with your responsibilities to the paper. We should have this conversation even if you intend to write a book on your own time.

Second, there is no one-size-fits-all policy regarding book leaves. Often we ask staffers to take a pass on — or postpone — a book opportunity because we cannot afford to release them from the daily competition at that time. Sometimes we grant leaves, of various lengths and configurations. Sometimes we ask book-writers to temporarily leave the staff — with written assurance they will be landed again when they finish their project — because we cannot afford to freeze their slot. (Particularly, in the case of a long or indeterminate leave, having a book-writer go off staff gives us more flexibility to hire a replacement.) We do our best to balance the needs of the paper with the interests of staffers, but each case is unique.

Third, whether a Times staffer writes a book for our own publishing arm or for an outside publisher, he or she continues to be a representative of The New York Times. That imposes certain ethical requirements designed to protect the paper from questions about our impartiality and from perceived conflicts of interest. If reporters put material in books that calls into question their ability to be impartial journalists, they may limit their future options at the paper. This just underscores the importance of keeping us in the loop as you contemplate, plan, pitch and write a book. We can advise you on how to stay within the boundaries of our ethics policies.

None of this is new, but given the rising interest in book-writing, it probably bears repeating.