The brouhaha continued with the announcement that Michael Arrington, founder and editor of the influential TechCrunch blog, was stepping down to run to his newly formed venture capital company, according to an article in the New York Times, A Tech Blogger Who Leaps Over the Line. He will still be an unpaid blogger for the online publisher.
Initially, Mr. Arrington was going to play a dual role as editor and investor. Adding to the drama AOL, which bought TechCrunch for $30 million, has invested $20 million in the TechCrunch Fund. AOL also owns the Huffington Post, which calls itself “The Internet Newspaper.”
Conflict of Interest
Most journalists writing about Mr. Arrington and his dual rule say it’s a conflict of interest when the influential TechCrunch “could make or break a start-up” with its coverage, according to the Times article. Will it write only favorable stories about the companies it invests in?
This brings up the continuing debate: are bloggers really journalists? In 2005, the AP filed a story Blogger Joins White House Press Corps, about possibly the first blogger to cover daily press briefings. Wikipedia states the journalists are “expected to report in the most objective and unbiased way to serve the public good.” The AP and Wikipedia are two respected sources, so you could conclude that bloggers are journalists.
Writing for Money
But if bloggers are journalists should they be running affiliate ads on their sites? When someone visiting the blog clicks on the ad, the blogger gets paid directly. Of course, print and broadcast media survive on paid advertising. But the income doesn’t go directly to the writers. Reputable publications and broadcast outlets proudly trumpet the “Chinese Wall” separating editorial from advertising.
Another troubling practice is the bloggers who write reviews of products and don’t reveal they’ve received free product samples or even a payment. Some bloggers write about products for which they serve as affiliates without disclosing the relationship. This is deceitful.
The Lines Are Blurring
Perhaps it’s inevitable. Editorializing – inserting opinion – is creeping into mainstream media. The competition is fierce and juicing up an article to lure in more readers is a continuing temptation. I’m not knocking Fox News, but they’ve sort of set the standard for the new rules of journalism.
TechCrunch, in my view, is playing with fire if it allows Mr. Arrington any role at all in the blog that he founded. TechCrunch is widely viewed as the most influential blog covering technology. It could begin to lose influence, and readers, if it “leaps over the line” between legitimate news and hawking its own investments.
Postmortem: After this blog was written, The Wall Street Journal weighed in on this controversy in a story entitled A Business Model Based on Conflict of Interest.