It's been a fun week if future-of-news melodrama is your cup of tea. While it may turn out that Michael Arrington is gone (subhead: "For Real, This Time"), it's worth returning to the question of conflict of interest and journalistic ethics that the incident raised. Earlier this week, MG Siegler lionized TechCrunch's methods, suggesting that TechCrunch's fast and loose posting style which shifts accountability from editors down to individual journalists is the future of news.
Alexis correctly points out that there a lot of prior art for this style of journalism, it's called the trade press. TechCrunch isn't mainstream journalism, it's a specialist press outlet that covers an industry to which millions of people think they belong.
I want to pause for a moment and consider the first instance of specialist press that I ever encountered: video gaming magazines.
The conflicts inherent in gaming journalism are well documented. Historically, the main advertisers in gaming mags and on gaming sites have been game publishers. The output of the gaming press consists of a pretty even mix of reviews of currently available titles and exclusive first looks at upcoming titles. The gaming press relies on good relations with publishers and developers for access to preview material. Rumours of bought review scores abound, but you'll find no starker evidence of the subtle corrupting influence of this situation than in the fact that gaming has a different Metacritic scale from all other media.
In 1999, the Dallas Observer wrote a fantastic exposé of the goings on at Ion Storm. The 7500 word piece depicted a company in the process of total collapse. The story swept through the gaming world because 1) it was a fascinating glimpse into the slow death of the high profile developer of a hotly anticipated game and 2) it was (and still is) inconceivable that anything like it would ever originate in the specialist press.
Because, it's not really the specialist press. It's the enthusiast press.
How can you tell if something's the enthusiast press? Here's a starting point: Regardless of the internals, the question of whether or not there is a clear separation of church and state between editorial and advertising is academic, because a good chunk of editorial consists of breathless previews of upcoming products, services, or events.
PC Gamer, Gamespot, and IGN are enthusiast gaming press. US and People are enthusiast celebrity culture press. Better Homes and Gardens is enthusiast home and garden press. As an outsider looking in, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of non-enthusiast tech press.
Gizmodo's biggest scoop was announcing some of the specs of an Apple product a little sooner than Apple's marketing machine wanted. TechCrunch's latest big scoop was announcing information about the new Amazon tablet when the marketing machine wanted them to. Altering a marketing timetable is not a big triumph of journalism. As Alexis points out, these are fundamentally benign scoops.
I enthusiastically welcome counter-examples. The iPhone point aside, Gizmodo's investigative coverage has notched up and publications like Ars Technica can do brilliant enterprise reporting. But across the board, including here at The Atlantic Tech, the hard-hitting pieces are few and far-between.
The question of Arrington & TechCrunch's corruption (or cutting-edge future-of-journalism total-lack-of-corruption) misses the forest for the trees. It's soap opera sideshow that's obviously engaging, but it isn't of much consequence (like a soap opera, we've seen the same basic storyline - starring the same people - before).
There is a higher order of critique to be made. That critique is of a whole segment of journalism that alternates between being hype-man and watchdog for an industry. The structure of constant posting inhibits - if not outright prevents - the watchdog part from going beyond product reviews. Hype, on the other hand, is in plenty of supply and keeps the pageviews flowing. The way these outlets are set up, there isn't much possibility of a big triumph of journalism.
Think about the presumption on display when Jobs dressed down the MobileMe team. "Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us." I've seen the story posted dozens of times in tales of the legendary Steve Jobs. I've never seen it give anyone pause.
This is not to say that these outlets aren't tremendously well-written or entertaining. I enjoy Daring Fireball a great deal and I check MacRumors daily, because I am an Apple enthusiast. I'll also pick up a copy of PC Gamer every now and again. I have no illusions about whether or not any of these things are infotainment.
In his ongoing attempts to reform the American political system, Lawrence Lessig talks about something he calls "good souls corruption":
I am not accusing anyone of any crime. I'm not even accusing anyone of anything unethical. My charge is that by (a) introducing legislation that has no good public policy justification behind it and which (b) does not benefit your own constituents while (c) being disproportionately supported in financial contributions by the single industry that would benefit from the legislation, you invite the charge (as 88% of citizens in my district believe) that "money buys results in Congress." WHETHER OR NOT "money bought" this result, you have committed this wrong. The wrong is the relationship, and the suggestion the relationship begs. It is not -- and again, NOT -- that the person accused is "being paid off" by anyone.
This is a powerful conceptual tool and with a little bit of retrofitting, it can be applied to the specialist press. Arrington & TechCrunch were plainly in a state of good souls corruption. No matter the truth of their internal workings, there is no way to spin the situation so that it doesn't seem dangerously conflicted. My charge is that the specialist tech press as a whole is in this condition.
Like the gaming press, the tech press requires access to early builds of devices and products to maintain their exclusive edge. PR reps rely on the tech press to help get the word out about their clients' ventures. This is an obviously conflicted situation. Whether or not any individual post or article or review can be traced to a specific conflict of interest, the very environment is corrosive.
I am not accusing anyone of any crime. I'm not even accusing anyone of anything unethical (we'll leave that to the pros). My charge is that by (a) relying on exclusive previews, reviews or information which (b) come from relationships within the industry you cover that (c) often involve money (i.e. advertising, complimentary flights, industry parties), you invite the charge that you have been domesticated by the subjects of your work. WHETHER OR NOT these conflicts alter your coverage, you have committed this wrong. The wrong is the relationship, and the suggestion the relationship begs. It is not - and again, NOT - that the person accused is "being paid off" by anyone.
If all the tech press strives to be is infotainment, there's no problem. But if it aspires to more, if it aims to afflict the powerful and comfort the powerless, then something much more substantial than one guy's position on the masthead needs to change.