The Junket tells an all-too-familiar tale | Bleader

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Junket tells an all-too-familiar tale

Posted By on 08.19.11 at 09:50 AM

When New York freelancer and performance artist Mike Albo—perhaps best known for his hilarious The Underminer book and videos—contributed to the "Critical Shopper" column of the New York Times' Style section, it gave those pages some real-person credibility they are often sorely lacking. Albo was—is—a broke-artist type whose thrift-store wardrobe had more to do with necessity than downtown hipness, and his awareness of the peculiarity of his presence in boutiques where expensive merchandise is carefully curated and artfully displayed, combined with his genuine appreciation of the goods, gave his work an enjoyable tension. Especially if, like him, your ability to actually buy something at one of those stores was about as frequent as the appearance of a comet.

So when Albo went on a press junket to Jamaica and the Times fired him for it in 2009, citing its ethics policy, it was disappointing, but perhaps understandable. Most freelancers who write for the Times, and even many who haven't, are aware of the paper's strict views on the matter of freebies. It seemed like a clear-cut case.

Except that Albo makes a pretty good argument that it wasn't, or at least that the Times was perhaps being a mite hypocritical and unrealistic about the realities that freelance journalists face today. His new e-book—excuse me, Kindle Single—The Junket, is a barely fictionalized telling of what happened. More than that, it's a tale of a struggling writer caught in the middle of the massive upheaval in journalism, a you-are-there view of the transition from a time when freelancers could reasonably expect to make a decent if not luxurious living writing for newspapers and magazines, with perhaps a book contract or two to plump up the bank account, to a new reality of shiny shopping and lifestyle sites that pay execrably and endless scrabbling for a rapidly shrinking pool of well-paying gigs. There's a section in the book in which Albo describes his fellow junket invitees, a group of young bloggers and others who write for seemingly important web-based concerns, and it's queasily familiar to any journalist of a certain age who has suddenly looked up and realized that the rules have changed, and they're not going to change back anytime soon.

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