Know what your publication does. Be clear with readers. The rest takes care of itself

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Remember those Frosted Mini-Wheat commercials where the grown up in you likes the wheat but the kid in you loves the frosting, and they battle it out in "comedic" fashion?

This is one of those times where the adult in me says to cover actual news, but the kid in me wants to write a post explaining to morons how journalism works. Maybe it's because the adult in me hasn't had her coffee yet, but the kid is winning this morning.

There is just so much bullshit spinning around today about this whole PRWeb/Google/ICOA debacle. In case you missed it, a fraudulent press release was put out on PRWeb that Google was acquiring a company called ICOA. Several outlets reported it, and when it was found to be inaccurate a feeding frenzy of finger pointing and defensiveness ensued. It wasn't our industry's finest hour on any front.

But there are several things the incident doesn't mean. Some moron in my Tweet stream is writing that the whole thing is proof bloggers can't be journalists. How is that even a logical conclusion? AP Newswire published the fraudulent press release as fact as well. AP Newswire is about as integral to the old media newspaper business as you can get. Meanwhile, many blogs didn't publish the erroneous release at all.

I don't know if you were following the super-inside baseball tech blogger Twitter fights on this yesterday, but they were largely between three bloggers: Me, Kara Swisher of AllThingsD, and TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis. The three of us could not come from more different backgrounds or have more different philosophies of journalism. The three of us work for different types of publications: One owned by AOL, one supported by the Wall Street Journal, and one a startup. There is little that ties us together except the medium in which we write. To lump us in the same category because we all enter text in WordPress versus run our words through a physical printing press is so bizarre, it's a wonder anyone still thinks that way about media in 2012.

Here's the only issue this incident exposed: Media publications -- and their readers -- need to have a clear idea of what they do. Unlike Kara, I don't begrudge TechCrunch or AP Newswire for reprinting the release. We included the news in our PandoTicker as well. All three of these feeds aim for speed and comprehensiveness, not depth. When you operate a feed of comprehensive information, you don't wait to make phone calls or question a press release.

The idea that there's a "circle of trust" to be broken here is laughable. There is no relationship when you are republishing information. There is a piece of news that comes out on a wire or published by a company, and you summarize the news and get it to your audience as soon as possible. If you are a patron of these feeds, you accept that no reporter is getting on the phone with anyone first. You are making that trade off in order to know what is happening as it is happening. And that's why these feeds also allow for rapid correction.

Old media or new media, there has always been a value in this in the news world. Kara derisively calls it process-based journalism. But it's not. Process-based journalism is when you get a tip from a source, do some reporting, have part of the story, and publish it to flesh out other elements of it by putting the debate into the public forum. No one was breaking any news here. Publishing a comprehensive feed of news that is already out there is the opposite of process-based journalism. Paul Carr derisively said of these feeds, it was a business, but "it's just not journalism." I'm not sure that's true either. There's an art towards rapid curation of already-available information and pulling it together in one easy-to-consume place.

But it's only a part of a media diet -- a small part, I'd argue -- and to rely on any site the mandate of which is comprehensiveness and speed above all else means you shouldn't expect anything else. When you do, that's your bad as the reader too.

As the editor-in-chief of this publication, I'll tell you right now: Don't come to the PandoTicker looking for copious original reporting or prose we've worked on for days at a time. Any publisher whose primary business is in republishing information already out there and doesn't own up to that is lying to you. That is the only time the fallout of this incident has crossed a line between a legitimate aspect of reporting that's always been in the world and something nefarious.

Don't take it from me who does what: Look at the site. You're smart. If a site reads like a stream of press releases, if the "news" is news that shows up in your feed from multiple places all at the same time, if there isn't analysis or other sources quoted, if the art is all company logos and screen shots, it's probably a news feed.

As long as publishers are honest, there's value in this. It's just not everything. And that's why we have decided to operate two separate news feeds: The smaller, less-emphasized one is our AP-like feed of the startup world. And we put every bit of our news of record attempts there. That frees the bulk of our story flow for things that we've put substantial reporting, analysis, writing, and editing resources into. Readers can pick or read both and know clearly what they are getting. That's why we have two separate Twitter feeds too. And on our iPhone version you can toggle between everything, or just our analysis. There is a clear difference, but we think both have value to readers.

Our audience wants to be informed quickly as things develop, but also wants to original, in-depth reporting. As long as you are upfront on what you do, there's nothing shady here. It has nothing to do with blogging versus old media. It has nothing to do with the merits of process-based journalism.

The rules in this oh-so-confusing landscape are simple: Know what you do, and be honest with readers about it.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]