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May 13, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and me: New conflicts, and new opportunities, for the tech press

Changing technology is changing journalism in more ways than we can probably even understand. One of those changes concerns the definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” themselves, the question of who’s permitted to make or contest those definitions, and the other question of whether those lines are fair to draw in the first place.

This is one story about an instance of this argument that’s unusual for at least four reasons:

  • It involves some of the biggest bloggers in tech and in journalism;
  • It happened on Mother’s Day;
  • It happened on Twitter;
  • I started it. And it was an accident.

Arrington and his investments

The focus of this particular argument was Michael Arrington. Arrington was an angel investor in technology startups before he founded TechCrunch, one of the biggest and most influential technology and tech business news sites on the web. For a few years, he was an investor and a publisher too.

In March 2009, in a post titled “The Rules Apply To Everyone,” he announced that he was going to discontinue investments to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Then on April 27 of this year — some time after TechCrunch and then the Huffington Post had been acquired by AOL — he wrote “An Update to My Investment Policy,” announcing that he was investing in companies again, including companies and industries covered by TechCrunch.

Arrington acknowledged that from time to time, this would create conflicts of interest in his coverage, but promised he would disclose those whenever possible. He also wrote: “Other tech press will make hay out of this because they don’t like the fact that we are, simply, a lot better than them.”

The next day, AllThingsD‘s Kara Swisher wrote “Godspeed on That Investing Thing, Yertle–But I Still Have Some Questions for Your Boss, Arianna.”

Swisher wasn’t exactly polite to Arrington — the Yertle the Turtle comparison, and all — and said his post and policy were “vaguely icky.” But the thrust was directed not at Arrington or TechCrunch, but at Arianna Huffington, who is newly ranked above Arrington on AOL’s organizational chart:

Would it surprise you to know that BoomTown doesn’t really care anymore if TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington sidelines as a blogger while he makes investments in tech companies his tech news site covers? ….

[W]hile I kind of understand where Arrington is coming from, what I don’t understand is how this kind of convenient and on-the-fly rule-making can govern a much larger company whose strongly and repeatedly stated goal by Huffington herself is to create quality journalism….

Simply put, does AOL, which is touting itself as a 21st-century media company, need to have 21st-century rules of the road? Or perhaps not so much?

Who’s a journalist? What’s journalism?

These questions are contentious and much-contended. They also often obscure what might be a more meaningful inquiry into what makes for best journalism practices in this new world. How much do writers need to tell readers about themselves? Is a tweet a story? Now that journalists have more means to address each other and each other’s work directly, what’s the most appropriate way to do it?

When professional journalism organizations had a near-monopoly on publishing and broadcasting tools, they were largely able to dictate the codes of the trade among themselves. It’s easy to overstate how homogeneous those were, especially at different points in history. But it’s definitely true that as new publishing tools and new media companies are disrupting established businesses, they’re disrupting those codes, too.

The technology press is arguably at the head of this disruption. Tech blogs and media companies were (and are) among the first and most successful competitors to print and broadcast journalism. Because tech outlets also usually cover media-producing and media-consuming technology, they’re among the most reflective on their own tools.

They have also been the most entrepreneurial, partly mirroring the industries they cover. That’s how TechCrunch works, and also how AllThingsD works. Those outlets both put together big technology conferences. They both work very hard for the bottom line. They’re both 21st-century media companies.

“Screw Them All”

On May 7, Arrington responded to Swisher and other writers who’d questioned his new policy, in a blistering (even for Arrington) post titled “The Tech Press: Screw Them All.” In particular, he called out Swisher, her parent company AllThingsD, and her employee Liz Gannes, accusing them of being equally conflicted and much more evasive about their conflicts:

AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher, the chief whiner about our policy, is married to a Google executive. This is disclosed by her, but I certainly don’t see it as any less of a conflict than when I invest in a startup. And yet she whines. One of her writers, Liz Gannes, is married to a Facebook consultant. She covers the company and its competitors regularly. She discloses it as well, but it isn’t clear whether or not her husband has stock in Facebook. That’s something as a reader I’d like to know. And regardless, it’s a huge conflict of interest. I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company. Certain adjectives, for example, might be softened in the hopes of marital harmony….

Why do the people who complain the most about TechCrunch have these vague conflicts of interest themselves? Why aren’t they more forthcoming in their disclosures? How do they justify their hypocrisy, even to themselves? Seriously, how?

Aaaannnd this is where we jump to Twitter.

[Update: I’ve collected the bulk of the ethics, disclosure, and technology argument as it unraveled on Twitter streams Saturday on Sunday — the core of this post –in a long thread on Storify. We had it embedded here, but it didn’t work equally well on everyone’s browser, depending on their setting. Please click the link below, or this story won’t make any sense.]

[View the story “Kara Swisher, Michael Arrington, and Me” on Storify]

Meanwhile, Columbia’s Emily Bell hit on one of the few really good ideas to come out of this whole mess:

[View the story “A new beat: accountability in tech press” on Storify]

Dave Winer — who would go on to discuss the idea in more detail with Jay Rosen — may have put the best coda on the whole affair with his post, “Journalist or not? Wrong question“:

[F]ights over who’s a journalist or not are pointless.

However, there is a line that is not pointless: Are you an insider or a user?

Insiders get access to execs for interviews and background info. Leaks and gossip. Vendor sports. Early versions of products. Embargoed news. Extra oomph on social networks. Favors that will be curtailed or withdrawn if you get too close to telling truths they don’t want told.

All the people participating in the “journalist or not” debate are insiders. They are all compromised. Whether or not they disclose some of these conflicts, none of them disclose the ones that are central to what they will and will not say.

That’s where we’re left — at least, that’s a different version of what everyone seem to be arguing. Are you in, with the compromised? Or are you out, with the truthtellers and true believers?

Image by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

This post was edited on Sunday, May 15, to reflect changes in formatting and to clarify wording.

POSTED     May 13, 2011, 12:30 p.m.
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