Over the weekend a veritable firestorm erupted when it was announced that Michael Arrington, founder and editor ofTechCrunch was forming a venture fund, backed by none other than the owners of TechCrunch, AOL. The firestorm centered mainly on the questions around conflicts of interest related to Arrington’s editorship of TechCrunch and the perceived bias that may introduce into TechCrunch stories.
I don’t want to talk about individuals here, I’ll not comment on Arrington’s integrity one way of the other, but some resulting stories have got me thinking about some issues related to this.
The one thing I’ll say is that Arrington seems to kind of be reveling in this entire debacle – it occurs to me that he’s quite happy to be choreographing a super-high profile exit for himself.
Conflicts of Interest
As a blogger/analyst who consults to vendors, I’m constantly having to think about disclosure – in fact I have a public (and lengthy) disclosure statement and have the policy of disclosing any time I write about a vendor I’m currently working with. That gets a little sideways during the thrust and parry of live blogging events, I’m guilty myself of sometimes forgetting to disclose that vendors have reimbursed my travel and expenses when covering events.
Arrington has long been an investor in a number of startups – but conflating this involvement to creating some kind of editorial control over the body of Techcrunch writers is, at the very least, an affront to the TC team. As we’ll get to later, the process that TechCrunch writers work by, the same process that allows them to break news more often than their competitors, makes editorial interference in stories unlikely.
It’s also interesting to look at this storm in light of what happens in enterprise IT. Just last week I was talking to a PR staffer for a vendor. She was telling me of one vendor who pays a particular commentator for “consulting services” but admitted that the only reason for paying this money was to keep said commentator happy. The fact that the payments weren’t disclosed on the numerous posts this individual wrote about the vendor in question is incredibly shaky ground. The fact that these posts appeared on a “mainstream blog” further question the ethics around enterprise software.
The bottom line of this issue is summarized by a reply I had on twitter to some thought I’d articulated about the firestorm;
doing the right thing always wins in the end for editorial integrity
Note well –”doing the right thing” not “following a complex process”. I’ve seen too many people hide behind what is, at least at face value, a robust and thorough editorial process to act in ways that show abysmal journalistic integrity. I’ve also seen people unconstrained by lengthy processes do the right thing – not because they;re force to by any external process, but because their ethics dictate that it’s the right thing to do. More of that sort of approach wouldn’t go amiss in our industry.
I’ve written for a lot of different publications – print (both periodical and daily) and a variety of blogs – it’s been interesting on that journey to reflect on the different approaches to editorial process that exist. I’ve seen just how much of a drag it is to have a lengthy editorial process that sends copy from one desk to another just to have some frilly additions added to it. There’s nothing worse than having a great story in ones hands only to have it slowed by an overly complicated editorial process.
And it works because instead of a reliance on top-down management and editing, the emphasis is on hiring the right people. TechCrunch works because we’re a bunch of driven reporters with great instincts that excel at working independently. Sometimes junior writers hone those instincts by watching senior writers and asking questions. And there is plenty of good, healthy collaboration. But for the most part, it’s very a much a trial by fire — only the strong survive.
Yes there is arguably still a place for traditional editorial approaches – but for a property that is all about giving people access to the news – – and when it happens – agility trumps every time. Maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that I can function perfectly well without oversight and in fact prefer to work this way, but having worked at both ends of the extreme I’m a big fan of the agile approach.
The Clouderati recently had a lengthy discussion on the validity of embargoes in technology reporting. The line taken by some was that embargoes are entirely artificial constructs that do nothing for the customers – merely hyping up an announcement for a vendor and creating a divide where only those who are prepared to play by the vendors rules get advance warning of news.
TechCrunch has long had a policy of not respecting embargoes – they break news when they get it – no exceptions. Again perhaps I’m biased living as I do in a time zone that makes it a little difficult to follow West Coast newsas it happens – but I have a particular perspective on embargoes. To me it’s about respect – if a company has given me information on the request that I withhold talking about it until a future point in time, I’m then honor bound to keep to that embargo – if I break early I’m disrespectful of the faith put in me by that vendor.
Here too TechCrunch has covered themselves – Arrington has stated very clearly that he’ll not respect embargoes. Any vendor then that choses to reveal news to TechCrunch does so with the understanding that there is little chance that it’ll be covered at the timing requested by the vendor. It’s a case of a caveat on the company sending through the news. Yes I’ve been pissed in the past that an article I’d spent time writing was pipped by TechCrunch breaking an embargo, and yes, my personal ethics dictate that I respect embargoes, but since Arrington has said in no uncertain terms that, for him anyway, embargoes are dead – I guess it’s up to individual vendors to make decisions on what they do, and don’t tell TechCrunch.
So… overall it’s a storm in a tea cup – already we’ve moved on to other news (some woman who swears a lot being fired from Yahoo or something). But some of the issues raised by the TechCrunch situation beg some questions about the future of journalism and blogging… it’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out.