A glass house
October 10, 2006
Michael Arrington, founder of the popular technology news blog TechCrunch, traveled to Washington, DC, last weekend to participate in a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Online News Association. He apparently used the occasion to excoriate newspapers and the journalists who work for them, directing his ire most pointedly at the New York Times and its coverage of technology. He cast particular aspersions on an October 2005 Times story on a startup named Inform. As another panelist, the blogger Jeff Jarvis, reported, "Arrington launched attacks on news media, contending that journalists will be losing their jobs and that reporters are fools if they don’t quit and start blogs. He then tried to sucker-punch The New York Times, arguing that the only reason the paper could have written a favorable story about the startup Inform was if the reporter or editor had ties, financial or otherwise, with the firm."
Arrington himself, on his personal blog, wrote about his experience:
I made a few main points when I spoke. I said that Digg was more interesting to me than the New York Times because the crowd determines what’s on the home page, not some editor I neither know nor necessarily trust. I also made some points about journalism in general after a few defensive flurries were sent my way. First, that most mainstream media isn’t interesting to me because they report news so late. By the time something hits the New York Times, it’s usually at least a day old in the blogosphere. Second, I was discouraged by the fact that there is no discussion in mainstream media. Publications never cite their competition, and readers cannot say what they think (as they can with blog comments). And third, I encouraged journalists who were stuck in the big media machine, with their career going nowhere, to consider blogging as an alternative ... I also called out the New York Times in particular - their recent launch of an offline new reader showed that they don’t get what consumers really want, I said. And I also said that many of the fluff pieces in the Times technology section must either be generated from back scratching, or lack of understanding of the product ... Instead of sparking an intelligent debate I was roundly attacked. It’s the first time I addressed “real” journalists head on, and all I saw was fear, loathing and disdain.
When he called into question the ethics of the New York Times reporter, Arrington was upbraided both by his co-panelist and by the audience. Jarvis wrote: "I challenged him immediately, saying that this is a grave charge and that he clearly had no facts to back it up; he said as much. I also made it clear that Inform is, in some ways, a competitor with Daylife and that Arrington is also an investor in Daylife. It didn’t stop him. He repeated this attack, among others, on The Times. It was most uncomfortable, even embarrassing." Staci Kramer of the PaidContent blog, who attended the session, also reported that Arrington "accused an NYT reporter of going in the tank on a story, then apologized when confronted directly by the NYT’s Jim Roberts, who challenged him to provide facts or back down. His reply: 'I apologize. I have no facts to support my statement.'"
As I read of Arrington's disparaging comment about the Times article, I recalled, with some disquiet, an exchange I had with him back in early February. At the time, there was a heated discussion going on about conflicts of interest among bloggers, a discussion spurred by a February 9 Wall Street Journal article by Rebecca Buckman on the lack of clear ethical standards in the blogosphere. Buckman interviewed Arrington for her article, and he stressed that, though he both wrote about Web 2.0 startups and acted as an adviser to some of them, he was always careful to disclose any possible conflict of interest. I had been following Arrington's blog, and as I read his statements in the Journal I was reminded of what I had previously sensed to be a possible conflict related to his long-undisclosed involvement with a startup named Edgeio. After finishing the Journal article, I read back through some of Arrington's writings, and, on the morning of February 10, I drafted the following post, which I intended to publish on this blog:
Rebecca Buckman's controversial Wall Street Journal article about possible conflicts of interest in the blogosphere has provided a good occasion for taking stock (no pun intended). As Buckman wrote, the ethics of blogging "can be a murky issue in today's clubby blogosphere, where many people including venture capitalists, lawyers and journalists write about Web issues and companies - and often, each other - with little editing. The rebound in Silicon Valley's economy, coupled with the popularity of cheap, easy-to-use blogging tools, means there are more aspiring commentators than ever opining about start-ups and tech trends on the Web. And increasingly, it is difficult to discern their allegiances."
One example of the murkiness that surrounds bloggers' allegiances can be found in Michael Arrington's much-read and much-quoted TechCrunch blog. Arrington does a great job of covering new "Web 2.0" companies and services. His reviews are smart and succinct, and they get a lot of attention. Arrington and his blog are mentioned in Buckman's article:
"One popular blog that often writes positively about young tech companies, TechCrunch, is run by a lawyer and entrepreneur, Michael Arrington, who occasionally serves as an adviser to companies he has written about. He sometimes receives stock in those small companies, he says. But Mr. Arrington says he generally doesn't write about start-ups he's advising after he becomes affiliated with them -and 'if I did, I would put a disclaimer up' on the blog, he says."
Arrington's to be applauded for his commitment to disclosure, but the issue may be more complicated then it at first seems. What happens, for instance, when Arrington reviews new sites or services that compete with ones he's affiliated with? Does he - should he? - also disclose his interests in those cases? How does one balance one's role as an unbiased reviewer with one's role as a paid adviser?
As Buckman notes, Arrington is an entrepreneur as well as a blogger and an adviser. In particular, he's a cofounder of a soon-to-be-launched company named Edgeio. Edgeio began to unveil itself earlier this week when Arrington's partner, Keith Teare, talked about the service in a presentation. Business Week's Rob Hof attended the presentation and summed up Edgeio's business model: "essentially, Edgeio is doing just what its tagline says: gathering 'listings from the edge' - classified-ad listings in blogs, and even online product content in newspapers and Web stores, and creating a new metasite that organizes those items for potential buyers." As an aggregator of personal ads, Edgeio will compete with such powerhouses as eBay and Craigslist. It will also compete with Google Base, another new service that provides an alternative way to aggregate classified advertising.
Back on October 25, 2005, as rumors about Google Base first began to swirl around the blogosphere, Arrington wrote this about Base on his blog: "Google Base appears to be a service to publish content directly to google and have them host it in a centralized way. If so, this would be going completely against the accelerating trend of decentralized publishing. My prediction: when the dust settles, this will either be largely ignored or universally hated. Centralized content is boring … so much is going on at the edge of the web, why would anyone try to put it all back in the center?" Arrington didn't mention his connection with Edgeio in the post, though, in retrospect, his comment that "so much is going on at the edge of the web, why would anyone try to put it all back in the center?" describes one of the key assumptions underlying Edgeio's service - and one of its key points of differentiation from Base.
Clearly, Edgeio must have been much on Arrington's mind at the time. Four days before the Base post, on October 21, TechCrunch had hosted its third "Meet-up" event, one of whose sponsors was Edgeio. Two days after his Base post, on October 27, he announced his connection with Edgeio in a post, noting that he and his cofounders had been working on the service "for most of this year." He provided a teaser about what Edgeio would do, without going into any details: "Edgeio will give you the ability to do new and (we think) really exciting things with your blog. If you have a weblog and you’d like to be part of early testing, there is a field for giving us your blog address as well."
On November 11, 2005, Google officially launched its Base service, Arrington immediately trashed it in a review titled "Google Base Launched. Yuck." His "bottom line" assessment of Google Base went as follows: "This is not a very interesting application in its current form. Keith Teare says it’s like a 1985 dBASE file with less functionality. It’s ugly. It’s centralized content with less functionality than ebay or craigslist. The content is not integrated directly into Google search results, but 'relevance' can bump it up into main and local search (and froogle)."
Again, no mention of his involvement with a company that would compete with Google Base.
Arrington's reviews of Base are entirely reasonable. Some people praised Base when it appeared, but plenty of other people were highly critical of it, in the same ways that Arrington was. There's no reason to think that his reactions to Base were anything but sincere. At the same time, it's hard to believe that they weren't colored by his involvement with Edgeio. The story underscores one of the tricky questions that Buckman's article has brought to the surface: How many hats can a blogger wear?
I hesitated before publishing the post. I thought it only fair to ask Arrington for his perspective. So, on the morning of February 10, I sent him the following email:
Dear Mr. Arrington,
I write the Rough Type blog (roughtype.com) and am a dedicated reader of your TechCrunch blog. In the wake of the WSJ blogging story, I've been thinking about the complex issue of disclosure in the blogosphere. It fits with a broader subject that interests me deeply: the reliability of information provided on the web and, particularly, provided through the Web 2.0 model. I noted your statement on the subject of disclosure in the WSJ piece and wanted to follow up with you for a followup post I'm writing on this subject.
You note in the Journal that you avoid writing about companies you're affiliated with. But what about writing about companies that compete with companies you're affiliated with? I'm thinking, in particular, of two critical reviews you posted about Google Base last fall (Oct. 25 and Nov. 11). You didn't mention in either of those posts that you were a cofounder of a company, Edgeio, that would compete with Base for listings. In retrospect, do you think you should have disclosed the Edgeio affiliation? And if not, why not? More broadly, how do you think about striking the right balance between being an impartial reviewer and also pursuing business interests?
I don't mean to put you on the spot. I just want to make sure I know your perspective on the subject.
Some hours later, Arrington responded with this email:
check out my posts on oodle, a direct competitor, and other classifieds companies like Microsoft Expo.
Today is a bad day to make accusastions like this. http://www.crunchnotes.com/?p=144
Before you post an attack piece, please make sure you research the facts.
I was disappointed that he didn't bother to answer or even acknowledge my questions, but I did find and read his reviews of Oodle and Microsoft Expo. And they were positive reviews. About Oodle he wrote: "Oodle is all about decentralized content, a theme I constantly talk about, and I’m in their corner." About Expo he wrote: "I have been testing the service, and there are features that are top notch. This is going to be an impressive product." In neither case, though, did he disclose that he was engaged in launching a competing classifieds site.
Nevertheless, it seemed to me that, even though I believed he should have disclosed what I viewed as a conflict of interest, he was not being duplicitous. Also, I felt genuinely sorry that he had been called a racist that day (as the link in his email revealed). So I decided to give him a break and not run the post I'd written. I informed him of my decision in the following email:
Thanks for the response and for pointing me to the Oodle and Expo reviews. I'm not pursuing this.
Sorry about the grotesque racism charge.
The next day, he wrote back:
I apologize for my email yesterday. I was a total jerk. It was a very bad day, but that is no reason to take it out on you.
You raise a good point and it is something that I have to deal with in an honest way.
That same day, Arrington wrote a brief post about Edgeio, which began, "Edgeio is a startup that I co-founded with Keith Teare last year. Because of the clear conflict of interest I won’t be writing about edgeio that much on TechCrunch." He made no mention of his earlier critiques of other classifieds sites.
I'm not sure if I did the right thing in withholding the post I'd written. I think it raised valid issues - issues that bloggers should be struggling with, rather than ignoring - and though I believed Arrington was giving an honest review of Google Base, I also believed that the review was influenced by his involvement with a competing company pursuing a different strategy - a strategy that was implicitly promoted in his criticism of Base's strategy (and in his praise of Oodle's strategy). Arrington, I still think, made a mistake in failing to disclose his financial interest in a classifieds site when he reviewed other classifieds sites. I have no doubt that if he had written such reviews for the Times, or pretty much any other newspaper, without disclosing his conflict of interest, he would have lost his job - and rightly so. It seems strange, in this light, that he would choose to question in a public forum the integrity of a newspaper and one of its reporters.
But maybe it's not so strange. Blogging is a new and immature medium, with few rules and few traditions, and bloggers have a tendency to think of themselves as being liberated from the constraints of traditional media. That's only natural. But it's also, in large measure, an illusion. Many of the constraints that reporters operate under evolved over the years in order to temper the freedoms that could lead, and sometimes did lead, to the abuse of the public trust. Traditional journalism has its weaknesses, as any journalist will tell you, but it has many strengths as well, strengths that are hard-earned and worthy of respect. Many bloggers assume that blogging represents a step forward when, in important ways, it actually represents a step backward.
When it comes to conflicts of interest, or other questions of journalistic ethics, the proper attitude that we bloggers should take toward our counterparts in the traditional press is not arrogance but humility. In this area, as in others, blogs have far more to learn from newspapers than newspapers have to learn from blogs.
I take your point, but I'm not sure I follow you to your conclusions. I don't think the mainstream media is unbiased, I think for the most part their good people doing as good a job as they can to present a neutral point of view, but everyone has biases.
You only have to look at two or three news sources, preferably from different countries, and their coverage of major news stories with real international importance to see those biases.
I'd argue that it doesn't really matter, that you have to assume bias in reporting and sample a large enough number of sources so that you can come to your own conclusions.
Posted by: Alasdair Allan at October 10, 2006 10:37 AM
Massive conflicts of interest are a time-honored tradition in journalism. You should read Mark Twain's "Roughing It," where he describes his days as a newspaperman in Nevada, writing glowing reviews of newly discovered silver mines in exchange for shares of the claim.
Posted by: Charles at October 10, 2006 10:58 AM
I will not start on Mike. Except that I found that the quality of reviews has decraesed over the last few months.
But Nicholas (as often) you make goods points.
Difficult to make a perfect disclosure.
My proposition will be a deep disclosure page (fully filled even with friends) and a button in posts that says when to look @ it.
Blogger have to find new ways. Being a one person paper should make it easier to make disclosure.
PS: I don't really know how I am gonna add this to my identity puzzle !
Posted by: Raphaël Labbé at October 10, 2006 11:17 AM
The url slip away in the preview process.
I am not a huge fan of Typekey (No links at all with any anti-spam company)
Posted by: Raphaël Labbé at October 10, 2006 11:18 AM
Nick, did you get Mike's permission to post those private emails?
Posted by: Paul Montgomery at October 10, 2006 11:33 AM
There is an important empirical question about the effects of disclosure of potential conflict of interests. Do they actually work, or would a straight ban on engaging in conflicts be better?
There is an interesting paper discussing the perverse effects of disclosure, here:
in which the authors argue "shows disclosing conflicts of interests can actually make the situation even worse. First, the individuals who get the disclosure tend not to discount their advisor's information enough - even thought they "know" that their advisor has a different agenda. Second, the advisor's who disclose their conflict of interest tend to give even more biased information, incorrectly believing that their advice might be severely discounted. The authors conclude that instead of disclosing the conflict of interest, the advisors should simply not be allowed to act in way which engages the conflict."
I wrote about this in a different context, which may be of some interest to you, here:
Posted by: michael webster at October 10, 2006 11:37 AM
Nick, while I think you're quite right that the issue is very important, "disclosure" strikes me as a problematic way of looking at it. Disclosure is good for the appearance of impropriety. It's not a good framework for the intense conflicts of interest which are possible.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 10, 2006 11:53 AM
I've been thinking about this as I've blogged more recently, and I've come to some conclusions. I am often a bit uncomfortable with potential biases that I may hold regarding topics that I write about, but there is a clearly infinite amount of disclosure necessary if you really want your readers to know where you're coming from. The fact is, I don't think most people care all that much. Your opinions, which you're writing about, are often quite a good representation of your biases.
The way I see it, part-time journalism is the problem here. While conflicts of interest of course exist in traditional, professional journalism, I think blogging has taken it to a new level. Bloggers do things other than write articles with their lives. Most reviews, or analysis, you find in a blog are the result of essentially incidental experiences that occur in the process of doing something else. That something else, whatever it may be, means that the experience was itself undeniably biased. That is, the experience took place in a particular context that is not necessarily going to be included in the article. And even if the context is related in the article, it is often far more specific, and significant to the author, than the context that an observer whose only goal is to observe will be operating from.
Posted by: Anthony Cowley at October 10, 2006 06:14 PM
Many bloggers assume that blogging represents a step forward when, in important ways, it actually represents a step backward.
I think it's supposed to be a step forward because it's a step backward - we're starting all over again and doing things totally differently, the visionary rousseauian techno-primitives that we are. (I blame the hippies.)
I also wanted to comment on Michael's point, which rings very true. Disclosure can function as a shield against both criticism and self-criticism (writer: "I've been open about X, now I can say what I think"; reader: "he's been open about X, I can trust what he says"). The only safe option is just not to engage.
Posted by: Phil at October 11, 2006 05:52 AM
I agree it's not only about disclosure. Right now many news organisations have already reduced their commitment to news - newspapers are reducing budgets, editors are under too much presure and can't make decisions based on an intelligent overview of what's happening around them. Freelance journalists are suffering fee reductions and are having to source images as well as provide online links so they are doing more for less - and having their copyright abused by many newspapers - only in the USA has this been resolved. Add to that the fact that the news world has always left much of what's new and of importance, untouched, and has accepted many compromsies along the way. In this imperfect world blogs too are imperfect.
Posted by: haydn at October 11, 2006 06:03 AM
Arrington excoriating Jarvis...isn't that kind of like Jimmy Olsen taking Perry White to task for allowing Clark and Lois to work together??
But seriously, I always have to wonder how, and why, Arrington's now on so many panels from journalism cons to Bloggercon to Office 2.0, and speaking with such authority on so much, when he's really just a lawyer who wrote up a good business plan for a blog and has a very nice and congenial writing style...
Okay, now let me get serious: yes, this is definitely about disclosure, and the need to disclose--I also see conversation, and the personnas we bring to blogging vs. the personnas left out of print.
As a conversation medium, blogging doesn't necessarily demand that we disclose everything, even about business deals. Blogging can be like a fan-dance--it reveals as much as it conceals. That is, unless we plan to use our blogging as an entree into journalism--and desire to be as credible as the profession is assumed to be. If that is the case, then it is upon us as bloggers to gain credibility by following some of the basic ethical rules of journalism--disclose sources (something the Edelman Wal-mart bloggers didn't do) *and* disclose possible conflicts of interest.
In speaking about the imprisonment of videoblogger Josh Wolfe in OJR, Christine Tatum, President of SPJ, said she supported him, but was troubled by his statments of being an "advocate" while wanting to claim free speech protection as a journalist. "I think that it's very important for online journalists to begin to understand.. that it's very, very important that you do maintain some sort of objectivity and distance" she said.
So, bloggers who decide to turn what they are doing into online journalism (slightly different than citizen journalism) walk a balance between the conventions of conversation (some, which are particular to the blogosphere) and conventions of the profession of journalism. As we do this, we also wrestle with personna. If we are too journalistic, will those who read us assume we can't converse directly with them? If we too "bloggy" will journalists think we're somehow less than?
Bloggers who aspire to online journalism can indeed learn a lot from journalists--but journalists can learn some things from bloggers too--like how we convey information *and* carry on conversation without getting bugged by it (and retaliating a'la Hiltzik and Siegle.) But I'm not sure Arrington's the right blogger to be quaterbacking all the time.
(btw, I wrote on journalists and conversation for OJR--now used as reading in some journo ethics classes. thought I'd disclose...)
Posted by: Tish Grier at October 11, 2006 04:49 PM
The Crowds-Model is interesting. But we should not only rely on it. Maybe sometimes individuals are smarter than the crowds.
See my small cartoon.
Posted by: Oliver Widder at October 11, 2006 05:34 PM
"and though I believed Arrington was giving an honest review of Google Base, I also believed that the review was influenced by his involvement with a competing company pursuing a different strategy - a strategy that was implicitly promoted in his criticism of Base's strategy"
I do not agree with the causality here...
Michael Arrington is convinced of the concept of distributed data... where producers keep control of their own data and (several competing) aggregators deliver services based upon open data.
That conviction (which I sometimes share, sometimes not) makes him dislike Google Base, and like Oodle and Echo. That conviction brought him his engagement in EdgeIO, not the other way around - it wasn't like he invested in EdgeIO and only afterwards realized why he had done so...
Should he have disclosed it earlier? Maybe if indeed he had been critical about competitors with the same model, like Oodle or Echo - but you can't accuse Michael Arrington of NOT being open about his preference for the decentralised model - he's been blogging about it constantly!
(Oh BTW: I think it might be productive to be more precise about the nature of blogs when we compare to "classic" journalism. A tech _review_ blogger like Techcrunch is more alike the daily column of the art, music or theatre critic in a newspaper, whereas a financial or business _news_ blog would be comparable to the economics or financial news section... And we can't blame art critics for being opionionated, can we?)
Posted by: Pascal Van Hecke at October 11, 2006 05:46 PM
I read the New York Times because I want to know what's going on in the world, not the blogosphere.
Posted by: Ciaran at October 11, 2006 10:53 PM
I would argue NYT's coverage of tech (and I suspect political areas) has improved in the last year because of blogs. I find they publish stories a day or two after blogs have picked it up. Since they charge for their stuff, and bloggers don't I would say they have the last laugh.
Posted by: Anonymous at October 14, 2006 11:26 PM
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