FIRE helped Rowan Moore Gerety's Esquire investigation
Latest FIRE-supported investigation
Rowan Moore Gerety is a seasoned journalist and freelance features writer, but he didn’t have a great deal of investigative experience before he took on the subject of Lexipol, a private company that sells policy handbooks to police departments nationwide.
Moore Gerety had come upon the story when he read an article showing that this private company, not the robust public process as he had assumed, was setting police standards—and almost exclusively from the perspective of reducing liability risks for the police departments.
“I was interested in trying to understand who are the people behind this,” Moore Gerety said. “What’s the world view animating this whole thing?”
Eighteen months months and 60-plus interviews later, Esquire published Who Writes the Rules for Cops? in its March 2022 issue. The article involved the most strenuous pre-publication legal review Moore Gerety had ever participated in, largely because the story itself revolved around such extensive litigation records.
But Moore Gerety expected as much going into contract negotiations. He knew the magazine would not only help develop the story but also comb through the final version for legal review. So it seemed natural to him that the publisher would protect him from legal liability in case the subjects of the article were to sue. He asked for such protections in his contract.
He did not initially receive them.
Aware of FIRE’s pro bono Legal Consultancy and broader efforts to encourage outlets to protect commissioned freelancers, Moore Gerety applied for and was awarded a FIRE Consultancy. It came with reporting assistance that included valuable guidance from FIRE Investigative Editor Ted Bridis. But it also came with robust expertise for his contract negotiations—not only on legal liabilities, but also on intellectual property rights, which can add crucial additional revenue to enable freelancers to keep serving the public.
Moore Gerety credited FIRE’s consulting attorney, Charles Glasser, former Global Media Counsel for Bloomberg News, with suggesting a viable way for Esquire to shield Moore Gerety from legal liability by use of a little-known facet of contract law.
“As a non-lawyer, it sounded like a bit of a fairy tale,” Moore Gerety said. “What I didn’t know is that it was actually meaningful.”
Because it would satisfy Esquire, Moore Gerety had exactly the kind of intelligence that most freelance reporters don’t have the time to research on their own—or the resources to glean directly from a professional.
“Freelancers are expected to be their own business manager, their own legal counsel” even without necessary expertise, Moore Gerety said. “In the economy of freelancing, it’s good to be able to call on a lawyer,” he said. “But I’m not going to spend 15 percent of my payment before I even sign the contract, especially when magazines can take six months to pay on a big feature.”
In addition to specific wording, Glasser's pro bono assistance provided the legal reasoning and precedent involved—along with real-world assurances about the publisher’s record protecting its freelancers, based on professional knowledge of the magazine and its personnel. All this gave Moore Gerety an extra layer of confidence on a potentially litigious story.
“To me, a small intervention is still a meaningful one. The peace of mind is super important," he said. "I hate the idea of working on something for months and feeling like it could all blow up in your face.”
FIRE also provided pro bono access to another media lawyer, Henry Kaufman, to advise on the viability of an intellectual-property modification that the reporter had previously requested himself.
With this expertise and Esquire’s support, Moore Gerety successfully negotiated both provisions, signed the contract, and delivered the story.
The article was released February 2, 2022.
Despite the individual benefit for himself and the magazine in this case, Moore Gerety is adamant that freelance reporting will never become a more sustainable pursuit without industry-wide standards for working with freelancers—to the benefit not only of the amenable Esquires of the field, but also of the freelancers who must navigate such a "precarious way to make a living.”
While outlets like Esquire can do the right thing, Moore Gerety is convinced that meaningful change—viable legal protections, generous intellectual property provisions, prompt payments—will never come about by individual freelancers negotiating contracts on an article-by-article basis.
“FIRE plays a role in advocating for freelance investigative reporters, by bringing together funders and publishers and institutions, and trying to get them to think critically about the contributions of freelancers and demands on freelancers—especially when the work is in the public interest and might invite litigation,” Moore Gerety said, citing FIRE’s free Contract Template and Contract Principles. “I am so glad FIRE is a part of the landscape.”