Are Bloggers Journalists When They’re Paid to Write Reviews and for Affiliate Links?

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

"Michael Arrington"

Michael Arrington

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.

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Comments

  1. Interesting questions you raise Jeannette. Regarding Michael Arrington I don’t know enough about it to comment.

    My thoughts are the lines are blurring which may not necessarily be a good thing. The reason I say this is often you read blogs and there are no facts to back them up. I know this occurs in the tabloid press as well but there is is often a lack of facts and objectivity which can be misleading.

    I agree with you about blogs that do not disclose relationships or exchange of money but I thought a law had been passed that said they had to disclose.

  2. Good point, Susan, about the lack of facts backing up insertions in blogs. Partly, I guess, that’s because blogs originally started as sort of personal diaries and have “grown up” to become key parts of a company’s marketing mix. Yes, you’re required to disclose affiliate relationships but it doesn’t always happen.

  3. Good points Jeannette and Susan. The lines definitely are blurred and far too many conflicts of interests.

    But apart from that there is another crucial aspect which is that the vast majority of bloggers don’t write journalism, in fact they cannot even write. To be a journalist is a profession and for any 15 year old that has a blog to believe they are journalists is simply wrong. But they definitely think they are. Just ponder upon what percentage of blogs are written according to journalistic standards? Or worse how many blogs are written by people who cannot write? We simply don’t know how bad those figures would be since the majority of blogs we have never even looked at.

    • You’re right — another example of blurring the lines. AOL is in the news business and it appears it is now moving into investing.

  4. Jeannette,
    You’ve raised some interesting questions. Personally, I don’t view bloggers as being journalists with the exception of a few true journalists like Catarina. As for your observation that editorializing is creeping into mainstream media, I personally think that ship has sailed. All we have to do is look at our last presidential election to see the influence that news media now has in the U.S.

    • Thanks, Sherryl. It’s interesting that many news writers are blogging online for their publications where they can take more liberties with their own opinions. I’m not necessarily talking about writers on the op-ed page, where they are paid to have opinions. I just went into the New York Times, which has dozens of reporters blogging, and randomly chose this first paragraph from a blog in the Business section today, “Bank of America shook up its executive ranks in what the firm euphemistically calls “de-layering.” This meaningless bit of corporate jargon – de-layering – is wonderfully ridiculous and has been woefully underused in press releases. So I’m coining a better, newer, just as meaningless but more easily grasped term in the headline: executive-level exfoliation.” I think this reinforces your point.

  5. Hi Jeannette,
    I agree that the lines between journalists and bloggers is blurring. I also believe though that in most cases the two will be remain distinct categories. Thanks for presenting this interesting debate.

    • Thanks, Sharon. They may remain distinct categories but if more opinion creeps into the copy of journalists can they really be called journalists?