Is it marketing or journalism?
Thursday, June 6, 2002 by Dave Winer.
A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a friend, Robert Scoble. He worked for me for a few months, now he works somewhere else. We were friends before, and we're friends again. I like having Robert as a friend more than I liked having him work for me.
The conversation swung around to a professional journalist we both know. Let's call him Mr X, who is a columnist, not a reporter. He has strong opinions about companies in the industry he covers. He bashes with the best of them. He pulls no punches. Or does he?
X works for a big publishing conglomerate with lots of newspapers, call it Amalgamated Publications Inc, or API. Recently API did something, totally visible to everyone who cares, that clearly was in the area of interest of Mr X and his readers. Was it a bad thing? That's subject to debate. What does Mr X think? In his column, he has been silent on the issue. Privately, he hints that he's appalled, but doesn't come out and say it.
I spoke with X and pressed him on this. "Why haven't you said anything?" I asked. He said it wasn't his place. He works for API. The boss of API, Mr. K, could speak about it if he wanted to, said X, but it wasn't appropriate for him to. I wasn't sure if this was right, so I tried to fit this logic to my own experience. I considered situations where people who worked for me had taken stands that are contrary to the interest of my business.
I had a good example -- Scoble, when he worked for me, would chase and cajole adversaries and partners of my company on his weblog. At first I didn't know what to say or do about this. Would these people understand that he was speaking only for himself, or consider his writing to be representative of UserLand, the company he worked for? I couldn't imagine that they would separate us from him because he was our Director of Marketing. With that title he had an obligation to carry the company's message. But he was expressing opinions contrary to the interest of the company, as defined by me, its CEO.
At UserLand, Scoble was our marketing guy. X presents himself as a journalist. There's the difference. X is paid to take on adversaries. Scoble was paid to represent our interests. A journalist who cringes at creating controversy is not doing journalism. A marketing person has no conflict of interest, as long as its disclosed that he's a marketing person. Few people would question that X is a journalist. I'm sure that X would consider it an affront to challenge him as a journalist. So what's the difference between a marketing person and a journalist?
We know that X won't challenge his employer. This has not been disclaimed in print or on the Web. Who else will he not challenge? If a company buys advertising in an API publication, is X allowed to challenge them? To criticize their products, service, company policy? Since there has been no disclaimer, there is no way to know.
I conclude that Mr X is not a journalist.
If I blew the whistle and said who X is, and raised a challenge to API, and asked for a response from Mr K, people would say I wasn't being nice. But is that the point of having journalists? Emphatically, no. If everyone says a journalist is really nice, I take that as a clear warning that this supposed journalist is actually playing footsy and selling out his readers. As readers, we have gotten very complacent about this.
There are lots of stories that aren't getting much coverage in the press. I wonder if the same thing is going on. For example, consider the efforts of the entertainment industry to shut down music sharing on the Internet. Are we getting balanced coverage of this? Is it just about piracy, as most of the stories say, or are there real uses for the technology that are not piracy? Do we have a good idea how far their ambitions go? Surely there must be sources inside the industry who would speak off the record or not for attribution. Where is the great reporting? Who's investigating? Who's taking chances on ruffling their feathers? The reporters we want to trust work for the people who require investigation. Think about that for a minute. How many of them, like X, won't challenge their employers, or even have the guts to put up a clear disclaimer on their site? These are not idle questions.
As our conversation continued, Scoble and I concluded that there may not be any journalism today. It's all about compromise and under-the-table deals between the reporters and their employers. No disclosures or disclaimers. Total disrespect for the intelligence of the readers. Lots of nice people playing footsy with the people they're supposed to be watching and when they try to grab stuff that doesn't belong to them, they don't blow the whistle.
Perhaps X is well-intentioned. But nothing seems to happen when he tries to rally his readers to action. Perhaps there's the price for appeasing the publisher who would employ someone as a journalist but not welcome criticism from the journalist. There is no better way to establish credibility than to go after the person who signs your paycheck, when they deserve it. I can't think of a professional journal, with the exception of the Register (see below) that I trust at this level. Sad situation.
This is the difference between a director of marketing and a professional journalist. The former accomodates the employer, and the latter must not. For some reason professional journalists only accept critiques from other pros. That doesn't mean we have to stay silent on this way of doing business.
Over the years I've had many talks with professional journalists and publishers on this subject. It's no secret that there's lots of footsy gooing on, that you can't keep a professional job and write stories that your publisher doesn't want you to write. Somehow this story, so commonly understood, never gets written.
Recently I heard the story of The Register, a publication I admire, for its courage, thoughtfulness, irreverence and good humor. The publication is dying because they've lost almost all of their advertising. (See follow-up for retraction and apology.) Now they probably would be going through tough times now, no matter what, because the Internet advertising business is very troubled. But they're being hit harder. The theory is that advertisers, once they get pricked by an article they don't like, withdraw their advertising.
I told the story to Scoble, and he asks if it ever was different. I say for sure it was. In the 80s, I knew reporters at most of the industry publications. Some of them wrote articles that were critical of the major players, without regard to the business interests of their employers. I saw them do it, and get away with it. I also saw editors come to meetings with sales people. The editor goes to the bathroom. The sales guy levels with me. "If you buy an ad, he'll run the story." In my brief stint as a columnist at Wired, I was asked, indirectly, to write about advertisers. Wired was okay, because I was able to walk out of the conversation saying something rude to the advertiser about his product, and I kept my job.
Anyway, the Register is a breath of fresh air. If we want to keep the pressure on other journalists to report honestly, directly and courageously, it's in our interest to see that they survive. I have no other interest in The Register, I've never even met any of their reporters. I don't own any stock in their business, I've never written for them. But I have an interest in seeing them stay around because they are good for the environment. They challenge the industry elements that require watching. I've never seen them blink, and I don't think of them as "nice," and I like my journalism that way.
PS: Mr X is Dan Gillmor. API is Knight-Ridder. Mr K is Tony Ridder. The event is documented on Scripting News. Doc Searls said "What they did to Barry, and to Dan, was blast tens of thousands of links into a fine mist of 404s."