Posts about ethics

Well, just one more

I promised I’d stop writing about Cleveland. But as a dishonorable blogger, I honor no promises….

Jay Rosen summed up what I was trying to say in one eloquent line; he has a habit of doing that: “Advice to newsroom people: if you’re caught up in a situation that appears to pit journalists with ethics against bloggers who ain’t got none, you may actually be facing a conflict between one ethic and another, and it would be good to find out what the ‘other’ is before deciding what to do.”

Danny Glover thinks I was tough on Cleveland — we do disagree — but note that inherent in what he says is the bloggers’ ethic of transparency. He says the blogger erred in not disclosing his donation — though I do believe he hadn’t written about the campaign in question yet. And the paper didn’t ask them to disclose all their ties and donations. But note that if the paper had, then it would set a precedent — welcome from my viewpoint — of requiring such disclosure of all its staff members as well. So Danny is operating from the other set of ethics.

Now go to Adrian Monck in London, who is far away from Cleveland, he’ll be happy to tell you, and is writing nothing about it. He’s writing instead about the BBC and its 12 pillars of behavior and ethics, including this one: “Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary-makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.” Adrian’s response: “Get that? Journalists – fair-minded, evidence-based. Contributors – controversial, passionate and polemical. Helpful, eh?”

This entire tale is not about one tribe having ethics, the other not. That’s what was so grossly insulting, self-centered, and truly self-righteous about the Plain Dealer’s treatment of the bloggers. They thought the other guys didn’t have any. Instead, this should be about one tribe trying to understand — and learn from — the ethics of the other. The Plain Dealer didn’t try. That is its loss.

Enough.

Old-school values

In the comments on the post/book immediately below, my friend Fred Wilson said I was sticking with old-school notions. I left this comment in response and think it’s worth bringing the discussion out here:

In journalism education, I talk a lot about the need to rewrite and break rules, to end old assumptions, to work with new realities. I talk about it far too much for the taste of some (many, actually).

But I also talk about the values that are worth maintaining and preserving. Credibility is the essence of that. Not selling your voice is the key to credibility. It is the foundation of independence. There are other worthy values I talk about, too: fairness, accuracy, completeness. And this week on Newshour, I included in the discussion the ethics I have learned from the blogosphere: the ethic of the correction, of the link, and of transparency.

In the professional arena, I also talk a lot about the need to reexamine the wall between church and state, the need for journalists themselves to take responsibility for the sustainability of journalism.

But that makes is all the more important that we understand how to maintain independence and credibility. That makes these selected “old-school” values all the more critical.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers oneself a journalist, though. Credibility is the same for all of us. Our readers expect us to speak with them directly, as trusted friends. My neighbors aren’t paid to speak to me. No one is (yet) trying to buy their voices. I expect the same here.

I don’t want to tear down all the old schools. I want to update them.

And I clearly believe in the importance of advertiser support for media, including the media of the people. But that, too, is why I think it is important to have these discussions openly and in detail, so that bloggers will build and maintain their credibility. For if they lose their credibility, they lose their value both to their readers and to their advertisers. That much has not changed: Advertisers, including Microsoft, want to be associated with people of who have the respect of their shared public.

Buying their voices

Federated Media stepped in it with their latest campaign, getting some of its bloggers to issue not so bon mots on behalf of a not so bon advertiser, Microsoft.

I tried to warn Federated when I adamantly turned down two prior similar campaigns, telling them that this would reflect poorly on the bloggers who do it, possibly on bloggers as a whole, on the network itself, and in the end on the advertisers. But they kept trying to push the boundaries, because that’s what advertisers and thus sales people do.

So ultimately, this is a cautionary tale for all bloggers who take ads: You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do — whatever those boundaries are — that is the very definition of selling out.

In each of these cases, the advertiser’s effort is to get more closely associated with us, our content, our reputations, our brands. They’d like get into our pants mouths. They want us to speak their names. Nicely. Or at least be near them, associated with them. This happens at every editorial product I know and it becomes incumbent upon their editors to resist and to protect their integrity from integration — if, indeed, that matters to them (and in many cases, such as entertainment shows — Coke glasses on the American Idol desk — it doesn’t). Advertisers can’t get us to endorse their products directly — unless we’re PayPerPosties or actors — and so they try to find some way that we can say something nice somewhere else. That’s what happened in this case, after much Talmudic wrestling that still strikes me as the congregant asking the rabbi for permission to have an affair… with a shiksa… on a pig farm… on a Saturday… for money.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now: The rules are obvious. Our readers should not be confused about the source of what they read. If it is paid for, that should be labeled as advertising. In editorial environments, our voice and our space cannot be bought — or it is not editorial; it is, by definition, advertising. Not every media property needs to follow these rules; entertainment, for example, is not editorial. But this is the essential rule that allows us to accept advertising to support publications without losing our credibility.

First, I’ll give the background of the current case to those who, having taken a weekend day off, had not seen it on Techmeme. And then (at the three asterisks below) I will give you my history and the emails I sent to Federated on this last year.

The current case: On Friday, Nick Denton at Valleywag gave proper a tongue-lashing to Federated and the prominent bloggers in the ad network — Om Malik, Michael Arrington, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrosky, Matt Marshall (plus Richard MacManus, Mike Davidson, and Federated founder John Battelle) — who agreed to give pappy quotes over their names for a platitudinous campaign about business that is “people-ready,” said quotes appearing on a minisite Federated made for Microsoft and on banner ads. We, the public, are supposed to become so engaged in this fit of interactivity that we vote for our favorite cant (does the winner go on a bumper sticker? a t-shirt? a blimp?) and submit our own people-ready stories. If this felt any more stretched, it’d be taffy. But note how they try to get the bloggers to lend their names and voices even if not on their sites and not about the product but still under the advertiser’s brand. Didn’t fool Denton:

I can’t blame Battelle’s team for latching on to this idea. The campaign is slick; and Microsoft is a deep-pocketed client. But it’s disappointing that so many of his most reputable writers have signed on as spokespeople. One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm.

This is why I love the Brits: understatement.

Om Malik, to his considerable credit, back-pedaled quickly:

So without making any excuses, to my readers, if participation in Microsoft’s advertising campaign has made you doubt my integrity even for a second, then I apologize.

I have requested Federated Media, our sales partners, suspend the campaign on our network of sites, and they have. We are turning off any such campaigns that might be running on our network. Would I participate in a similar campaign again? Nothing is worth gambling the readers’ trust. Conversational marketing is a developing format, and clearly the rules are not fully defined. If the readers feel a line was crossed, I’ll will defer to their better judgement.

The fact of the matter is that the original premise of the campaign was to give my thoughts by what People Ready meant to me – it wasn’t an endorsement of a specific Microsoft product. (You can read it here, and judge for yourself.) Nor did my words run in any portion of our editorial space. Microsoft asked us to join a conversation, and we did. I wasn’t paid to participate in the conversation, but Microsoft ran an ad-campaign that paid us on the basis of CPM.

But today the campaign, which has been running for close to two months, brought up doubt about my editorial integrity for some of you.

In the future I shall focus on what I know best – reporting and writing.

Good on Om. He was clearly seduced by some silver-tongued ad sales guy but has thought better of it. So has Paul Kedrosky: “…I still should have taken more time and said “No” to an ad whose style could so easily be misconstrued.” Fred Wilson has not thought better of it and called Nick so old school for sticking to these rules (Fred, some rules are worth keeping). Ditto Michael Arrington, who tells critics to “pound sand” and argues that it’s clearly an ad. Absolutely right, but it’s still an ad with your words in it. Except then Mike reveals these aren’t necessarily their words: “…generally FM suggests some language and we approve or tweak it to make it less lame. The ads go up, we get paid.”

Clearly, Federated has not thought better of it. Their new VP of author relations, Neil Chase, a topnotch editor who just left the New York Times for this gig, responded to Denton trying to justify this self-delusion by taking lipstick and writing the label “conversational marketing” on the pig:

ValleyWag today suggests that one of FM’s conversational marketing campaigns is hurting the editorial integrity of our authors. It says that Microsoft paid them to write, which is simply not true. They were invited to join a conversation with readers about Microsoft’s new theme, and they did so, but they didn’t write about it on their blogs. The only money they get from Microsoft is from ads running on their sites, for which they’re paid by the page view.

Well, but they were paid. Mike Arrington’s laudably candid on that point. They were paid for the media rather than the creative, as we say. In publishing, we call this “value added.” Some media companies insist that they won’t negotiate their rates but then they throw in extra stuff — parties, goodies, extra ads elsewhere — to essentially lower the price. The value-added in this case was the bloggers’ words. Neil continues in his comment to Nick:

Welcome to the birth of conversational marketing.

It’s making people like you and me, who came from the world of traditional newspapers, have to learn about three-way conversations. We have already witnessed the evolution of the two-way conversation among authors and readers that is replacing old-fashioned one-way journalism. Even our old employers (yours at the Financial Times, mine at The New York Times) are now actively bringing their readers into two-way conversations.

So the next step, naturally, is for marketers to want to join the conversation. It can be done in ethical, responsible ways, and FM’s authors are among the first to figure out how to do it.

Uh, Neil, I think you’re jumping to a conclusion there and if you listen to the conversation about this “conversation,” you might think otherwise. Hear Charles Cooper at CNet: “Why would ostensibly independent voices come across as Microsoft shills?” Here‘s Ashkan Karbasfrooshan joining the discussion: “Frankly, it makes me distance from MSFT, dislike Battelle’s tactic (note singular John) and distrust what the bloggers have to say.” Neil continues:

We’re carefully expanding conversational marketing based on all kinds of new ideas that are coming from authors, marketers and our sales reps. We’re drafting a set of principles for conversational marketing that will help everyone, inside FM and across the industry, frame the discussion about how we do this the right way. And we’re taking care at every step of the process to make sure we don’t compromise the editorial integrity of our authors.

I’d say it should have been drafted long ago.

* * *

I pulled out email from September 11, 2006, from a Federated rep trying to get me into a similar program, this one with Cisco trying to get such bromides from bloggers for its effort to associate itself with the phrase “human network.” Worse, in this case, they wanted to write a Wikipedia article about the network to get their brand in there. I call that knowledge spam. I was told that if I chose to participate, my definition of “human network” — which I would deliver after they gave me a “seed definition” — would appear in an ad on Buzzmachine. The net to me for this opportunity would have been $559. I said no. And I gave them some free advice:

This will get them KILLED in the net. It is wikipedia spam. It is not transparent. It is wrong for them and wrong for me and I would say for FM.

I was told in email that the client decided to change how the Wikipedia entry was made, but they still made it. The original is here; the latest here. [*See note below.] I pressed on in a subsequent email:

I’m afraid they are still on the dark side. You just can’t put something with commercial motive into Wikipedia. Admitting it is hardly better; it is still a crime. The Wikipedians and bloggers will attack hard and they will deserve what they get.

And I cannot stand behind an advertiser getting me to write something for pay. In most quarters — in quality, reliable, editorial, credible blogs — that is equally a crime. You cannot buy my editorial voice or space; that is the very essence of church/state in any journalistic context; that is what I have told everyone who has ever worked for me whether on a newspaper, on a magazine, or online. . . .

I want to stay as far away from this as possible. And I will still counsel that FM should also. If you’re going to sell your soul, I suggest doing it for a fuck of a lot more than $559! Not that someone cannot choose PR and press-release writing as a career, but I would hope that is not what FM stands for.

This tactic came up again in a campaign for a gadget (I don’t know whether the campaign ever ran, so I’ll keep the brand confidential). This time, we were expected to write directly about the product with positive sentiment. I’d say that’s the definition of a product endorsement. I turned it down and responded: “This is pay-for-post and I will not do it and condemned it today on my blog.” They came back and said, well, it’s not an endorsement but a personal anecdote of a time when I appreciated the kind of ability this device afforded — if I owned that brand of device. I came back and said: “I fear that this could blow up in Federated’s face.” I laid out the same rules I repeated above and added: “It’s one matter for an advertiser to pick up something we say as a blurb; happens to movie critics all the time. It’s another to assign and pay for a blogger to write something about the product. You can say that’s not endorsement but I’d say it sure smells like it.”

My real advice to them, relevant today:

I suggest that Federated have a policy on the relationship of its bloggers with advertisers. I would argue that in the church-v-state of this media and journalism world, you need to be the state and create a wall that allows us to be the church. You have the contact with the advertisers; we don’t. And I would further suggest that the editorial voice and space of Federated bloggers is not for sale. Whether you want that policy is up to you and the FM bloggers; but that will remain my policy. I think there is an opportunity to pull up above others and work on a higher plain. I also think that having such a policy makes it easier with advertisers: You have something to point to. I’d be happy to help with brainstorming such a policy. . . . My two cents. Just trying to be helpful. . .

Never had that brainstorming.

So now I’m disagreeing with myself. In that last email, I put the onus on Federated to come up with that policy. And though I still think that would be principled and wise, I shift at the top of this too-long post when I say that I now believe it’s the bloggers who must make these calls. That’s because advertisers will be advertisers; they will try to push for more integration with us (and we should beware taking that as flattery). And sales people will be sales people; they will try hard to get the sale. So we bloggers are left, inevitably, with the need to say no. I also generally oppose efforts to create omnibus codes. I can wish others would operate in a certain way and I can judge them accordingly. But I’ll just speak for myself with my advertising policy in greater detail:

1. My voice is not for sale. No one can pay me to say what they want me to say.
2. My editorial space is not for sale. I accept advertising and it must be clearly labeled.
3. When I am paid to write (as in a freelance article) or to speak, I will still determine what I say and I will disclose that relationship.
4. I will attempt to disclose relevant financial relationships so you are free to judge me and my words accordingly.
5. In some cases, such a relationship will prevent me from speaking on a subject (as in talking in detail about an employer). However, I will not be compelled to speak because of such a relationship.
6. If I say something openly and freely here, it may be quoted by a commercial entity (the blurb) but I will not be compensated for that.
7. My acceptance of advertising here does not constitute an endorsement of the advertiser. However, I will at times turn down advertising I find unacceptable.
8. I recognize that many blog, vlogs, etc. do not pretend to live by editorial standards and that is their right and freedom. But when they say some things, I will need to take when they say with appropriate salt.
9. I have financial relationships with others who do not follow these rules and in many cases I do not believe these rules apply to them (e.g., entertainment). I enjoy and respect many sites and products that do not follow these rules, but I expect to be able to find out what rules they operate by. I believe one’s rules and relationships should be disclosed.
10. I do not believe I have a price at which I would sell out. But if I did, I can say I certainly haven’t seen it yet.

* * *

Some more blog comment on this. From Sam Harrelson:

And here’s the lesson to be learned from all of this, whether you’re in the Technorati 100 or Technorati 100,000…

Pay Per Post, Review Me, or accepting money in exchange for some sort of content production (whether a full post or a small block of text) comes across as slimy to your readers, hurts your credibility and does more long term brand damage to your blog and your brand than short term (monetary) good.

The only reason to engage in these sorts of schemes is to make a few quick bucks… but it’s not worth your blog’s soul. . . .

In our post-modern world, ideas such as “trust,” “objectivity,” “disclosure,” and “reliability” have been turned over and rendered subjective. That doesn’t mean that these terms are meaningless, it means that things like trust are now subjective in the eyes of the beholders. Authorial (or editorial), on the other hand, is meaningless. How I perceive you means everything.

He said it better — and briefer — than I did.

Kent Newsome:

t’s about whether or not you want to be the blogosphere equivalent of Suzanne Somers hawking a ThighMaster. It’s about the crossroads between cash and credibility.

All we have as bloggers is our reputation and our track record. No ad campaign is worth risking that, regardless of whether it crosses any ethical line. This is more about common sense than ethics.

Dave Winer says:

… But to imply that everyone knows they’re doing it is wrong. I didn’t. I’m sure others didn’t as well.

Second, and this is the really important one. It’s one thing to let Microsoft buy space on your site (it’s called advertising) and quite another to accept Microsoft money for words coming out of your mouth. Next month when we read something positive on these sites about Microsoft, how are we supposed to know if it’s an opinion, or just another example of being paid to say something supportive of Microsoft.

The only one of the people involved who showed any interest in what others think is Om Malik, and even his interest was conditional. In public writing, what people think of your writing is very important. They may not agree with you, they may not like what you say, they may not like you, but you want to be sure they know where you’re coming from. Any doubt about that removes value from your work. Do it often enough and it removes all value.

Mike says that this discussion cost him money that he needs to make payroll. I encourage him to look at a bigger picture. Any cloud over his integrity with readers will have a much bigger impact, imho.

: * LATER: John Battelle left this comment, which he also sent in email:

Jeff –
In fact, on the Cisco campaign, in now way did Cisco spam Wikipedia. They wanted to post a wiki version of their definition, and naturally their first thought was Wikipedia. Thanks to input like yours and many others, they did it on Wikia, the commercial cousin to Wikipedia. In fact, they sought out Jimmy Wales’ advice on the matter. The entry was later put up on Wikipedia by one it its editors, independently. Why? Because Cisco sponsored an honest conversation. Is it somehow illegal for companies to be part of a conversation? I really find that presumption offensive. Why can’t companies, which as the Cluetrain reminds us are just made up of people, be part of a conversation, and invite leader into that conversation? I’ll be posting more on this later, but I wanted to clear that up.

I never said “illegal.” I’m also taken aback by Battelle’s effort to be the offended party. I don’t know who posted the “article” and how it got there, yet it got there and the end result is the same. But there is Battelle’s stand.

: See also Fred Wilson’s response in the comments and my two responses, in turn.

: And here is Battelle’s post defending what he sees as “conversational marketing.” He says it’s new. I think it’s very old: It’s advertorial. I, for one, won’t contribute to advertorials. He also says that advertisers have a right to be part of the conversation. Of course; I don’t hear anyone arguing with that. The question is how they get there.

: THE NEXT DAY: Jackie Danicki asks why I didn’t write about this at the time. I did here. As I explain in the comments on Jackie’s post, I didn’t reveal the parties involved because this was business; they were just pitches at the time; I didn’t think the campaigns had actually gone through (my bad assumption); and I think discussing the issues is what matters here. This isn’t an expose. It’s a necessary discussion for bloggers. See also my response to Scoble on that point in the comments below.

Pray per post

Last night, I moderated a panel on buzz and marketing at the Always On conference in New York and I started it off by slamming Pay Per Post, the infamous service that pays bloggers to write positive posts about products, and a presentation by the company’s president, Ted Murphy.

Murphy showed a video a mom created for Pay Per Post, showing her little kids smashing a camera with a hammer because it wasn’t an HP. I was appalled (so was David Weinberger). So they have created something that entices mothers to exploit their own children as cheap shills. For shame.

The discussion went on with the panelists — including an advertising and a PR exec — agreeing that you can’t buy buzz.

At the end, who should stick up his hand but Murphy. He said that Pay Per Post is transparent about its posts being bought; I said that this was damned recent and only after much pressure. He also said that he saw no difference in Amanda Congdon making commercials on her old or new vlog and a Pay Per Post person making a commercial on her blog. Fair point. But one of the panelists said that Rocketboom is clearly a show and a commercial makes sense in that context; the relationship is clearer. David Weinberger said that marketers and the public have been at war for a century and the internet and blogs were to be his refuge from that: a place to have conversations with friends. I asked whether Weinberger, who takes no ads, hates me for doing so. He said, no, because the relationship is, again, clear: It’s about someone buying space on my page, not about buying my endorsement. He called Pay Per Post “corrosive” to the conversation. Pressed again on the demarcation, I brought up the rules I was taught as a journalist (emphasizing strongly that I was not trying to call all blog talk journalism or to hold it all to the same structure and rules): Simply put, the rule is that no one can buy my voice and with it my credibility.

The conference was a bit disorganized and our panel, the last of the day, got on late after confusion on the schedule about the session. They tried to cut us off on time but the room and I revolted and we kept going; the discussion was rousing and fun.

After it was all over, I saw a camera guy — with good HDTV rig and steadicam, even — who had been shooting the session. I thought he was Always On’s guy. But at the elevator bank, the camera was still following Murphy. ‘What, you have a reality show?’ I joked. No joke. They do. They call it Rock Startup and try to make themselves into rock stars (Murphy is “The Murphman“) and even say they’re trying to sell it to a network — though, of course, it’s really just a commercial. Here’s an episode about their brashly painted, branded monster truck and how they’re going to promote by taking a couple of “smokin’ ” promo “girls” to bars. The hubris of this organization is astounding.

I asked Murphy whether he had seen Startup, the movie about the hubristic and failed startup GovWorks. No, he’d never heard of it. I suggested that he get the DVD. When I met with GovWorks in the bubble, I refused to allow them to tape it. Well, now perhaps I’ll end up in the sequel.

Little big man

Michael Arrington loses it in the comments on his own blog, attacking his friend Dave Winer, Rafat Ali, and me. This all seems to spring from his odd, fetishistic hate of The New York Times.

The Times introduced a simple little feature allowing/encouraging readers to recommend stories on Digg, Facebook, and Newsvine. It’s not terribly new; Gothamist has a similar feature letting people add links to Del.icio.us or Yahoo. I claim no credit for the feature but I do like it and I did suggest it a few months ago; I’m sure I was not alone. (Disclosures: I’ve been consulting for About.com at the Times Company and The Times Company invested in Daylife, where I am a partner, and where Arrington and Winer also invested.)

A writer on Arrington’s TechCrunch reported the addition of the Times feature under a headline with curiously uncalled-for snarkiness: “New York Times Surrenders To Social News.” In the comments, many TechCrunch readers respectfully called them on the attitude. Winer did likewise. That awoke Arrington from his bear’s hibernation and he growled:

Dave, I’m wondering out loud if your support for the NYT stems primarily from their support for RSS and their occasional links to you. As an occasional (but always unlinked-to) source of breaking news to the NYT, our respect for them doesn’t go quite so far. They are in the middle of a war for their life, and they are doing just about everything wrong.

And then:

Sure. RSS is important. But the NYT is an ethically bankrupt institution. I have first hand evidence, being trashed by them at a conference (which was subsequently mischaracterized), but there are other examples, too: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/11/24/nytimes_two_point_nought/

You, Jarvis and Rafat Ali are sucking up to them to further your own agendas. I don’t think that’s a good idea in the long run. In the case of Jarvis and Ali, this loyalty has resulted in outright fabrications.

Fabrications? Them’s fighting words, big fella. But I have the DVD and plenty of reliable witnesses to Arrington’s meltown and effort to bully The New York Times, which ended with The Times demanding and getting a sheepish apology from him. As I said here, bullies always back down.

At Arrington’s site, Winer tried to get the discussion back to a civilized track:

Hmmm.

I don’t think this deserves a response other than I doubt it’s true about Jarvis and Rafat, and I know it’s not true about me.

Back off dude, you’re in over your head.

But Dave failed. Arrington continued: “Wow. You are completely lost Dave.”

I would have said all this over at Arrington’s site, but he then cut off the comments, even though they hadn’t turned nasty — except from Arrington himself. Bullies can be wusses, too.

: See also Matthew Ingram’s post and Valleywag’s coverage of the latest Arrington meltown here and here. I’m glad Denton et al drew my attention to Arrington’s snitfit. I wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise. I stopped reading TechCrunch long ago. My loss, missing scoops like “Talkster Launches Presence-Based Service For The Enterprise” and “Jott to Convert Cell Phone Calls to Text” and “Add Text Bubbles To Videos” and “Wordie Is Like Flickr Without The Photos” and “Web App Provides Virtual Fitness Support.” Web 2.0 is so, well, 1.0.