Conflicts of Interest and Blogging

Is blogging facing a serious conflict of interest problem? Drama 2.0 last week wrote that “the blogosphere has to a certain extent created a new breed of conflict of interest, one that in many ways taints everything certain bloggers write and do” and that “in the blogosphere, disclosure is effectively meaningless.” They go on to say “bloggers need to decide who they are: journalists or [insert other profession here]. There’s no middle ground when it comes to credibility.” I’d argue that it’s not that clear cut, and that while the space isn’t perfect, and there are issues and challenges, for the whole it’s not quite so bad.

For a few

Michael Arrington’s conflicts of interest have been long discussed, and the latest round of navel gazing comes from news that Om Malik (of GigaOm) has taken a senior position at a VC firm while still running one of the biggest sites covering the space. In both cases, Drama 2.0 is right, disclosure doesn’t cut it, because even if they excuse themselves from certain posts, both have a writing team that may still cover the sites/ companies/ startups where a conflict exists. I’d be lying if I denied that others don’t have similar conflicts in blogging, and yet we still need some context: the vast majority of the blogosphere are not investing in startups nor do they hold positions in VC firms. Simply while there may be a problem, a few don’t represent the whole.

The professional class

The root of the problem can be found in the pathways to blogging vs journalism. Journalists are mostly professional journalists, coming to their positions after studying journalism and climbing the greasy pole. Bloggers however don’t come to blogging after studying blogging, they come to blogging instead from different backgrounds, as diverse as the millions of niches that exist in the blogosphere today. That doesn’t necessarily make them lesser writers: you don’t need a degree in journalism to be a writer, but it does mean that the professional class rules and standards that have evolved around journalism over hundreds of years are often foreign to bloggers.

The lack of a professional class of bloggers, at least formally defined (there are professional bloggers) creates a church and state problem. Journalists are journalists first and foremost, but bloggers are often bloggers after entering blogging from another space, and is often the case, while never leaving their original jobs. Very few bloggers are just bloggers, and even those who are successful bloggers can be tempted to invest money or time in the fields they write on. There isn’t popular acceptance of blogging as a career in itself, nor do many bloggers who achieve that status see blogging is their only call in life.

Logic vs Greed

One very strong trait in blogging is one of specialization. Few journalists are taught to specialize in a particular area, and although they may end up covering particular niche areas, if they’ve always been a journalist it has been learned along the way. Bloggers often specialize is a space having come from it, and their specialization has been deepened through blogging. Often, bloggers know little else than the area they specialize in, at least when it comes to making investments.

In Arrington’s case, the conflict of interest issues aside, I’ve previously defended his right to invest in startups because he knows little else, well aside from domaining and being a lawyer, so where else is he going to park his money (and I’d note, even then, that his track record at startup investments is poor). That someone like Arrington, with a day to day understanding of startups would seek to park his money in startups makes financial sense. The same holds some what true for Om Malik as well: when you live and breathe startups, your side investments or activities will logically fall, from a financial perspective, in that space.

And yet, how much money is enough? Arrington has a multi-million dollar business, so its not as if he needs to invest in startups to make money. I don’t know Om’s situation as well, but I’d presume given the success of his blog network that the situation would be the same. Are both a case of simple greed, a desire for more and more money even when both already have it? Why isn’t blogging, and their related businesses enough? Is it in part the lack of respect given to the idea of blogging as a profession?

Perspective

Some in the mainstream media will use what I’ve written so far in this post as yet another reason to bash the blogosphere, but lets put this is perspective. The blogosphere isn’t perfect, but neither is journalism. My favorite line at new media events is that the difference between a blogger and a journalist is that a blogger knows they’re biased, a journalist pretends that they aren’t, and it’s very true. That some journalists have the temerity to stand before an audience and say that blogging is the great unwashed and that professional journalism is the last port of call for the truth makes me laugh even writing the line. Bias and potential conflicts of interest are thick on the ground in journalism. It could be Rupert Murdoch deciding who he’s going to back for President or Prime Minister this round, and his papers towing the line. It could be the magazine writer fired for writing a negative review of a sponsors product. It could be the political commentator who is paid to talk at political events because they are a favorite on one side or the other due to the bias in their political coverage, or the journalist who attends an event for free, and gets plowed with food and drink for positive coverage. Conflict of interest issues, and bias as both a directly related cause, or a sub-set leading back is just as prevalent in journalism than it is in blogging, and maybe even more so. That a few bloggers at the top are so blatant in crossing the lines may be a little unique, but that doesn’t mean that the blogosphere is somehow collectively a million times worse than traditional journalism because of it.

The challenges in this post face journalists in the same way they face bloggers, and as heritage media declines, and bloggers offer a level of competition never seen before in the space, those conflicts and issues in journalism are only going to get worse.

Solutions

The first blog appeared in 1996, and blogging really only came of age in the United States in 2004. When I launched The Blog Herald in 2003, I never once thought I’d make any money from it. There was little to no money in blogging, Adsense didn’t exist, and no sane person would have predicted what blogging has become today. The reality is, to some extent, that blogging is the wild west of journalism. Professional journalism has taken hundreds of years to get to where it is today, hundreds of years to construct rules and accepted norms. And yet along the way, and even today, it still faces challenges. Yellow journalism wasn’t an issue created by blogs, and conflicts of interest and bias in reporting are still alive and well despite the rules and expectations within the profession. Blogging doesn’t have those rules, but it has come a remarkably long way in a short time. That we are simply having this conversation is proof positive that blogging is evolving and that we can discuss these issues, and consider the challenges presented, and possibly consider some of the solutions.

The top of the blogosphere today looks more and more like professional journalism. The lines are blurring as top blogs become media companies, and newspapers embrace blogging. The us and them mentality for many is breaking down, and as it does, both cross pollinate. We’re seeing the solution here already. Blogging is young enough and smart enough to be open to taking on external ideas to improve its lot, and that may well include the conflict of interest standards that act in theory within professional journalism. Not perfectly applied by any stretch, but more and more so as the top blogs get bigger. The thing that some new media haters in heritage media won’t like is that before our eyes, the notion of bloggers is slowly being lost, as new media is embraced by all, and for those blogging for a living, or for top blogs, we all become journalists.

Conclusion

There’s some truth in what Drama 2.0 says, that ultimately professional bloggers will need to decide between being journalists or something else. We are seeing a sea change, one where we have created jobs that didn’t exist only 5 years ago, and one where in the coming years the idea of being a full time blogger will be something to aspire to, and a far more common job than it is today. The time will come where blogging is the be all for those working full time in the space, but we still aren’t quite there. We may also never get there, as the lines between traditional journalism and blogging merge.

Conflict of interest is not a crisis in blogging, even if we recognize that it is an issue. Collectively we should discuss the issue, and maybe our discussions can help define standards and best case rules that others can follow, but ultimately the final decision will come down to the market. Those that put themselves into such positions take a risk, and where they are not able to properly balance their conflicts and their blogging suffers, so to will readers leave, because you can only get away with these sorts of activities for so long in the blogosphere. Like it or not, accountability for your actions is far stronger in blogging than it has ever been in heritage media.

(image credit: Wired, Amazon)