We’re getting close to a decade into tech blogging — one of the least filtered, most revenge-seeking forms of journalism ever created. Most of the PR angst in this era has centered around how you handle angry bloggers. Because unlike an earlier era where cooler heads dictated what was published, they’ll just write about everything you do.
If an advertiser asks you to remove a story? A good blogger will just publish the letter.
Someone sues you for an asinine reason? Just publish that too.
A vendor steals from you and then threatens you with its vaguely menacing “Persian Jew backers.” Do a funny video about it and then Tweet about that for about a week or so.
So it’s hard for me to believe any company is as stupid as Samsung appears in the press today. Allegedly the company flew some Indian bloggers to Berlin for a conference and demanded they wear Samsung T-shirts and promote their devices. When the bloggers balked, Samsung threatened to strand them in Berlin.
Who knows what really happened here. It’s unclear how real the threat to strand the bloggers was. At a minimum, it’s clear Samsung doesn’t quite get what journalism is about — even if it was just a mere suggestion that the bloggers wear T-shirts and do little else. Either way Samsung has already issued an apology.
Asking a blogger to shill for your product is clearly stupid, because it’s one of the most insulting things you can do. And — duh — when insulted, they’re going to write about it. You are essentially saying you want to co-opt the opinion of someone who has probably forgone a more high paying job, simply because he or she loves voicing his own opinion so much. It’s sort of like an old, ugly rich guy sleeping with a hot girl and then leaving $100 on the table the next morning.
But stupid as they may be, Samsung doesn’t get the whole blame here. They aren’t the one that crossed an ethical line. They owe nothing to a blog’s readers– they just have the duty to shill products. This is why real journalists don’t allow companies to pay for trips for them. To extend the hooker analogy, it’s like going on a date with an ugly rich guy, because you wanted to have a fancy dinner, and then being aghast when he mistakes you for a prostitute. Unless you have an ugly, rich dude fetish, you were making a transaction.
Samsung isn’t a journalism non-profit. If they are paying for you to go somewhere, they want something out of it. Ditto every other company. There is no such thing as a free lunch or free conference ticket.
This case had sliminess all over it from the beginning, according to what I’ve read. Bloggers were given the option of being “promoters” or “reporters” and even the reporters had to wear T-shirts. News flash: If someone is telling you what to wear, you don’t have journalistic independence. And before getting on the plane, the company was vague about what the “small chores” of promoters would be. If you’re a journalist, this is the point when you don’t get on the fucking plane.
Some people will say the same thing about a blog that has funding from VCs — as we, VentureBeat, Business Insider, GigaOm, and most of the tech blogosphere do, and plenty of tech magazines like The Red Herring and Upside did before us. But there is a big difference. In the case of a funding round, VCs are getting equity in growing businesses in exchange for their cash. That is the exchange. And almost no large media companies have been built without backing — in the history of media. And at least in the case of PandoDaily, no VC has a board seat and we have retained dominant majority control of the company.
In the case of junkets, however, ask yourself what is the company getting in exchange for thousands of dollars? In the slimier cases, there’s an explicit quid pro quo. But the ambiguous cases are almost worse. The company is pretending they don’t want anything in return…so why are they sending you there? They are counting on implicit social pressure to write something and make it favorable. That gives them good press and the plausible deniability that they paid for it.
I got in a lot of debates about this when I was the senior editor of TechCrunch. We did not accept junkets, and I turned a lot of them down, particularly for international travel. As every country wants to be the Silicon Valley of fill-in-the-blank, every country wants to bring US tech bloggers to see their startups.
On one occasion another blogger from a different publication — whom I respected a lot — introduced me to someone who’d paid for his reporting trip down to South America and wanted to fly some TechCrunch bloggers down next. The person offering the trip was a PR rep representing the companies — someone who clearly stood to gain financially from anyone writing about his clients. This was pretty open-and-shut unethical to me, and I politely explained why.
The other blogger — who was still cc’d — absolutely went off on me. To him, it was quite clear: Startups in this country were working hard and deserved to be covered but his blog simply didn’t make enough money to afford to send him there. What was my problem?
It’s simple: In this business all you have is your credibility. That’s it. Once you take that free plane ticket from a company to go write about that company, anything you write about them is compromised forever — whether it was influenced or not by the free ticket.
If it’s necessary for readers, the company should find a way to pay for it. Or — at a minimum — get it sponsored by a non-profit or other third party who you are not writing about.
And don’t tell me there aren’t ethical ways to do that. I personally bootstrapped a 40-week journey reporting through emerging markets all over the world — and as an independent author, I didn’t even have a company to help me with the expenses. I applied for a grant from the Kauffman Foundation since the book was about entrepreneurship, I did endless freelance work, I lived and traveled as cheaply as I could.
Sometimes that meant soul-crushing nine hour layovers in unairconditioned airports. There were times I was stuck in a country waiting for a freelance check to come in so I could pay my hotel bill. It cost me most of my savings, but it was a project I believed in. And I as I sat down to write my book, I had a luxury that no business class ticket or Four Seasons stay could match: The comfort that not a single word I’d write was compromised by taking financial shortcuts to do the reporting.
Even at our fledgling, unprofitable blog, we pay our own way or we don’t do a trip. When I went to Russia earlier this year, PandoDaily paid. When Hamish was reporting from Asia, PandoDaily paid. And we’re sending him to Scandinavia in the fall. Once again, PandoDaily is paying.
Samsung may be the gross dude willing to pay for sex. But the girl who got in the limo has to share some of the blame.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)