Oh my God, this is getting out of control.
The last six years of blogging has led to a lot of great things, but it has led to a lot of awful things as well. The worst: The pressure of speed and volume has lead to otherwise smart writers spending their days rewriting press releases. The coverage of the Facebook S1 was dominated by people cutting and pasting parts of a public document into WordPress and then publishing as quickly as the could.
That was bad enough. But hey, at least rewriting involves some typing, right?
Emboldened by their ability to get whatever they wanted on blogs, PR people then started producing and sending demo videos to reporters. Rather than a reporter having to actually use a product and write their own review of how it works, they’d just embed what is essentially a commercial paid for and produced by the company. It’s a lot easier to make it look like you have an intuitive UI when the person who built it is showing you how it works.
As we wrote months ago, companies were even shipping these demo videos about total vaporware Web sites that didn’t actually work. And guess what? There they were embedded in blogs as news.
But, oh, it gets worse. At least the demo video scam was clever.
Today, we got a “pitch” from a company called Feedgen who has managed to get even ballsier. I mean, there’s no inkling here that we might actually pay people to use sites on their own before writing about them, talk to people building companies or their competitors, or even have an independent thought. The email:
“We are looking to release this story next week and wanted to see if you would cover it. We are an Angelpad company that has now pivoted and were recommended to connect with you.
Here is what we got written up. Do you think we can get this or something similar out by next Tuesday?”
In case you are not sufficiently outraged, let me explain what just went down. A company pivoted (read: failed) and decided it wanted some positive press. So it paid someone to write a story. Not a press release or a guest post, an actual fake news story, paid for and produced by the company. And it is now sending it around to tech blogs, asking if people who have forgone easier and more lucrative careers choosing instead to report and write news for a living can just cut and paste it under their own bylines. Or, you know, “something similar.”
Are you fucking kidding me?
If no one reading this vomited in their mouth or clutched their pearls in horror, if this seems like a totally reasonable request, then we have utterly failed as an industry. We should all just close our WordPress accounts and go home. (Or for those of us blogging at home still in pajamas at 3 pm, we should close our accounts and, um, go to the next room.)
What’s more: This is not the only request like this we got this week. It’s actually becoming a mini-trend. Increasingly over the last few months I find myself saying the words, “Let me explain how an independent press works to you…” and “My staff works for me, not you. It’s going to go down like this, or we’re not going to do the story at all…” and “No, you can not read the story and offer feedback before it runs.” I doubt I would have to give this many lectures on the fourth estate, if I made a time machine and traveled back to cover startups in the USSR.
If we were getting pitches like these at any other point in time, I’d chalk it up to a naive entrepreneur who doesn’t understand how the press works. But the fact that this pitch came from a company that launched out of Angelpad — which the manufactured “story” generously calls “one of the world’s most successful startup incubators” — means they likely got this advice from someone who should know better.
Beyond all of that, it’s just an idiotic strategy. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you can get away with. Real entrepreneurs only want press that they’ve earned. They want blogs to question them, because they want blogs to question their competitors just as hard. If everyone can get their release rewritten on a blog, those accolades mean nothing. This is one of one hundred ways you can tell an entrepreneur who actually wants to build something real from a wantrepreneur who thinks he can get somewhere by taking lame shortcuts. I don’t have to even make a single phone call about Feedgen to know which camp it is in.
But here’s the silver lining: This will be a good litmus test for just how bad the blogosphere has become. Look for this story next Tuesday on your favorite tech blog. If you see a story about Feedgen’s pivot that starts “Sales seems to be all the buzz in Silicon Valley lately,” delete that blog from your RSS feed immediately. They’ve been compromised.
(Feedgen’s mental image of what a blogger looks like courtesy of Shutterstock.)