The recent controversy surrounding Michael Arrington’s decision to start a new venture fund while continuing to run TechCrunch that ultimately ended in his departure from the blog he founded (he appeared at TechCrunch Disrupt wearing a green t-shirt that read “Unpaid Blogger”) and the public berating of Arianna Huffington is just one blip in a history of conflicts of interest in the press.
Steve Myers at Poynter wrote a detailed piece that outlines the conflicts of other outlets such as the New York Times and GigaOm (backed by True Ventures). Disclosure has been the appropriate way to mitigate these conflicts, and I think it’s a fair one.
As we all know, the economics and codes of ethics of the news media have been changing dramatically as we’ve all gone digital. I think this is a natural evolution. We have long accepted the bizarre practice in which newspapers endorse political candidates yet remain dedicated to unbiased coverage of the elections in their news pages. Today we have the sparring polar opposites of CNN and Fox News both purporting to be unbiased when everyone knows their political agendas, and if you don’t, you only have to tune into Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to get a glimpse.
I am not sure what will happen with TechCrunch now that Michael Arrington is no longer there. Along its trajectory, the blog has created many waves before this current tsunami and I’m certain it will continue to do so. For example, TechCrunch’s embargo policy rippled across the blogsphere (and the PR sphere), ultimately creating preference among tech startups for coverage in TechCrunch over other outlets. (See my media roundtable on embargoes for more details). And like all leaders in a given space, this has placed TechCrunch on a seesaw between target and trophy. Unlike one year ago when TechCrunch coverage was an inevitable boon to follow-on coverage in other competitive blogs that wanted to keep pace, today it is an assurance that most other outlets will not coverage a piece of news. The competitors have opted out of the race.
PR people are working to navigate these uneasy waters, and at the same time to understand the conflicts that do exist so that we can work within those parameters. For example, we at InkHouse have long known about the True Ventures conflict for GigaOm and its corresponding editorial policy so we never pitch stories related to those companies because we know GigaOm will not cover them, as they should not.
As 24-hour news cycles, minute-by-minute blogger updates and live Tweeting continue to change the nature of how we find information, it’s more important than ever to understand the point of view behind the news you are reading. We all understand that columnists by their very nature share opinions. Bloggers are very much in the same camp but span a broad gamut, from respected experts to fly-by-night newcomers trying to break through. The rules are less clear and not everyone abides by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that mandates seeking and reporting the truth, minimizing harm, acting independently and being accountable. However, in all of this chaos is also a myriad of perspectives that have the potential to provide checks and balances – just glance over the comments of any blog post on TechCrunch. It’s an embracing of varying points of view and an opportunity to be heard.
Conflicts are always going to exist, and to be credible, news outlets and reporters/bloggers/columnists must disclose those conflicts – transparency is a very important currency in the economy of influence. This makes PR people’s jobs a bit harder, riddled with tough choices. But a good challenge always brings the brightest ideas and approaches to the forefront, so I welcome it.
As we stumble down this road together, my advice in any interaction in which you exchange or consume information: consider the source.