Balancing First and Fair

Mark Rizzn Hopkins posted a story to Mashable today covering the resignation of the blogging staff at Profy.com. All three paid writers, Cyndy Aleo-Carriera, Leslie Poston and Triston McIntyre have resigned from Profy following from what I can gather, a decrease in pay and increased writing expectations.

A standard news piece perhaps, but what followed was more interesting. On FriendFeed and on her personal blog, Cyndy Aleo-Carriera accused Mashable of resorting to Valleywag style posts, and noted that she had not even been asked to comment prior to the publication of the post. The short story is Cyndy is upset, and angry that Mashable covered the news both without asking her for comment, and prior to her publicly having made a statement about it.

Opinion on whether Mark, and by extension Mashable did the right thing is divided, but it does raise an interesting point: how do you balance being first and being fair.

Being First

Top blogs thrive on breaking stories, and indeed rely on breaking stories to maintain their dominance over other blogs. Although it may cause quality concerns, it’s understandable as a marketing tactic: do you want your readers to come to you first for big stories or other blogs.

Being Fair

Most stories have a human element that is often forgotten in the cut and thrust of blogging. For every bad review or negative story there is always a person behind that story who will feel they have been done wrong by, even if the negatives aren’t always personal. By no means does being fair mean not being negative, but where possible, particularly when talking about people as opposed to product, it’s not an unreasonable expectation that the person or people involved be contacted for comment. It’s a standard practice in mainstream journalism, but one that isn’t followed nearly enough in blogging.

On Profy

First let me say that I’m not seeking to judge Mark on this post, I don’t know all the factors that caused him to print the news, and I also understand that working for a major blog means breaking news, and sometimes that means cutting corners. I also do a podcast with Cyndy, so I have a minor conflict of interest. I also knew over a day before Mark published the news that Cyndy had indeed left Profy, and that at least one other person had left as well. I didn’t have all the details, but I gathered that pay was a major factor.

This is how I would have approached it differently.

Firstly: was three writers leaving a non top-tier blog really a major story for a blog the size of Mashable, or really any blog for that matter. Even though I knew it had occurred, I never once even thought about writing about it. If I was writing for Mashable, I wouldn’t have written the post, because I don’t believe that in the bigger scheme of things that the news was important enough for the attention of a leading blog.

I’d note though that if I was still writing for The Blog Herald, I would have covered the story without giving it a second thought, because the story is a perfect fit for the site in terms of content. I’m not though, so that’s academic.

Second: without fail, I would have asked Cyndy for comment, and Svetlana Gladkova as well. Given this isn’t a we must print this now because others will soon type post, there was ample opportunity in asking for comment. Even if that meant only waiting an hour or two for a reply then printing it anyway. It’s not as if Cyndy isn’t approachable; she is well known in blogging circles and is a regular on services such as FriendFeed. I’d bet money that Mark and Cyndy will have commented on each others content before, and wouldn’t be surprised if they’d even corresponded directly. “We don’t have the exact details at the moment on the nature of the disagreement” when they were never asked for is an interesting way of describing a self inflicted knowledge vacuum. Besides, there’s nothing more juicier as a writer as writing the words “refused to comment.” You’re always better baiting the hook if you want to go negative.

The right to know

In considering the post at Mashable, its important to look at the other side, as Cyndy made one error leading up to this post: she didn’t lead with the news herself.

Ultimately the only way you can try to control the message is to lead with it first, and publicly. By the time the news hit Mashable it was 1-2 days old, and I know that others knew of the news as I did prior to the post. I didn’t run around telling people that Cyndy had left Profy, but bloggers are natural gossipers and I have no doubt that Mark had heard the story, Chinese whispers style, from multiple sources. The absence of key writers from any publication with more than a handful of readers is going to be noticed. The longer Cyndy and the others said nothing, the more the likelihood that somebody would publish the news, even if it was based only on speculation.

Conclusion

The lines between first and fairness are sometimes unclear. Balancing them is harder still. The best way as bloggers we can try to find the right balance is to remember that for every news story, there are people involved. We can’t always seek comment, nor should we necessarily offer balance in the story, but in an age where asking a question is an email or Tweet away, if possible we should always strive to get comment, even if that comment isn’t returned in time for publication. If we seek comment, and we have reported inaccurately, the marvels of blogs allows us to post corrections or add to the story. It won’t stop people getting upset with what you have written, but at least an effort was made to be fair.

Update: since writing this post I’ve been led to believe conclusively that a party involved briefed Mark on the story. That he knew puts a somewhat different spin on some of my conclusions. Mark has publicly defended his right to defend sources, and I respect that, however you don’t need to let people believe that you are working on conjecture alone to defend your sources. I also still believe that it would have been good form to at least attempt to ask Cyndy for comment, despite Mark’s obvious pre-knowledge of the matter. I still believe that balancing first and fair is never easy, and the lessons in this post still stand true, even if some of the facts leading to those conclusions have changed somewhat.

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