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Sept. 7, 2011, 2 p.m.

Information’s triumph? Three ways TechCrunch challenges ideas of journalism

The tech-industry news site forces journalists to think about concepts of objectivity, transparency, audience, and why they do what they do.

The future of their business looks a lot more like TechCrunch than The New York Times. Love it or hate it, that’s the truth. It’s inevitable.

In the spirit of doing what one does best and linking to the rest, I’ll dispense with a lengthy overview of the controversy that erupted when AOL CEO Tim Armstrong and Silicon Valley power-broker and TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington announced the launch of what they called “the CrunchFund” — a venture fund that will “invest in start-ups, including some that [Arrington] and his staff write about” on TechCrunch, their incredibly popular and powerful tech industry news site.

Instead, some summary links:

  • Paul Carr had the best overview of the story as it stood on September 2, complete with an insider’s perspective.
  • AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher takes a hard line on the ethical compromises — journalistic and otherwise — implicit in such an arrangement.
  • New York Times media columnist David Carr was the one who really fanned the flames, with a Labor Day column calling Arrington “a tech blogger who leaps over the line.”
  • Finally, a response to Carr penned by TechCrunch writer MG Siegler is probably the most journalistically interesting post to come out of the entire imbroglio. In it, Siegler argued that “a lot of these posts [criticizing TechCrunch] are based around a fundamental misunderstanding of how TechCrunch actually works,” and then went on to explain how it “actually worked,” from his insider’s perspective.

I spent most of the late 1990s dot-com bubble as an underpaid community organizer, working in Houston to eliminate the predatory lending practices that had just begin to plague homebuyers. The one time I went to Silicon Valley, I couldn’t get the words to the Radiohead b-side “Palo Alto” out of my head. I thus have absolutely no idea of how TechCrunch works.

Consequently, I feel well positioned to speculate wildly on some of the hard questions the TechCrunch controversy poses for 21st-century journalism. After all, as Siegler writes:

Even if it’s just on a subconscious level, each of these authors must know that the future of their business looks a lot more like TechCrunch than The New York Times. Love it or hate it, that’s the truth. It’s inevitable.

What does it mean if Siegler is right — even if he’s only partially right?

I think TechCrunch poses at least three challenges to journalism.

  1. It elevates the idea of “transparency” to the pinnacle of the journalistic cannon.
  2. It functions as an industry trade journal, but one with public implications.
  3. Finally, it fetishizes the notion of information.

Transparency is the new objectivity

In the past twenty years, no ideal has gotten as bad a rap as the notion of journalistic “objectivity.” Journalists’ traditional last line of defense — that objectivity is an impossible goal but one worth striving for anyway — rings increasingly hollow to many outside observers. And one of the reasons for this is that a counter-ideal, the ideal of transparency, has now been offered up as a worthy substitute.

For transparency advocates, the formula is simple. True objectivity is impossible. All communicators enter a larger communicative space with particular biases and conflicts of interest. Therefore, rather than claiming objectivity, it is better for journalists to be transparent about what these biases are. And thus, it is fine for Michael Arrington to invest in startups that his website covers, as long as he is transparent about this fact. TechCrunch only fails when it fails to be transparent.

Do journalists provide something more than information?

Of all the challenges that TechCrunch and similar sites pose for traditional journalism, this is the one to which I am the most sympathetic. But even here, it is important to keep in mind that transparency — even perfect transparency — is far from a panacea for the problems of trust faced by the journalism industry. Indeed, some fascinating behavioral economics research has argued just the opposite. According to researchers Daylian M. Cain, George Loewenstein, and Don A. Moore, “conflicts of interest can lead experts to give biased and corrupt advice. Although disclosure is often proposed as a potential solution to these problems, we show that it can have perverse effects. Disclosure may fail to solve the problems created by conflicts of interest and it may sometimes even make matters worse.”

Cain, Loewenstein, and Moore found that people don’t do a good job of taking even disclosed conflicts into account when evaluating a truth statement, and that “disclosure can increase the bias in advice because it leads advisors to feel morally licensed and strategically encouraged to exaggerate their advice even further.”

Is transparency good? Yes. Does it solve all of journalism’s problems? Of course not. Indeed, for a website like TechCrunch — which provides cues to guide investment behavior as well as providing readers news and information — the problems of transparency might be even more pernicious than they’d be for a more traditional news site. Is transparency, like objectivity, simply a goal to shoot for? What do we do when transparency fails?

An industry newsletter and something bigger

In many ways, TechCrunch fits into the traditional model of an industry newsletter — focused on the particular ins and outs of one field, unafraid of being too inside baseball. But why don’t we always talk about it in those terms? I think the fact that we think and write about TechCrunch differently than we do about publications like Beef So Simple or The New York Lawyer goes to show the kind of impact Silicon Valley has had on the media business. And it goes to show the degree to which the world view of the Valley occasionally serves as a substitute for the world view of the public at large.

Then again, how should we distinguish an industry newsletter from any other journalistic publication, anyway?

In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey argued that a public “consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions, to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.” Rather than the presence or absence of objectivity or transparency, it might be helpful to think about journalism as being defined by a certain attitude towards the public — for the professional journalist, the public is her client. For the writers of an industry newsletter, on the other hand, clients consist of the members of a particular trade group or association or field who need information which they can use to make particular strategic decisions.

The problem, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that no news organization truly represents or addresses “the public” in its meaningful sense. Apart from revolutions or elections, its hard to say anything ever represents the public, ever. So when journalists argue that they serve “the public,” what they really mean is that they serve some inevitably compromised, demographically nichified public. The New York Times serves the public, sure, but it also serves fairly wealthy residents of the Upper West Side and Certain Parts of Brooklyn. Much of the endless criticism of the Times can be seen as the backlash generated by its sweeping public claims versus the reality of what it actually cares about, where it puts its resources.

TechCrunch primarily serves a certain subset of plugged in Silicon Valley obsessives and investors, which in 2011 may now be a larger group than Upper West Side liberals. But it also covers events and issues that have, as Dewey might put it, public consequences. So when Arrington denies that he is a journalist, these claims tend to irritate. He certainly acts like a journalist when it suits him — but even more than that, his journalism occasionally intersects with issues of real public concern. Indeed, all trade journals deal with public issues on occasion. (See Politico for an example of a newsletter that treats Washington, D.C. as a company town and covers politics in “trade journal”-type fashion).

So. Add the public nature of the issues TechCrunch deals with (sometimes) to the complicated nature of what it means to say journalism has a “public” trust, and multiply by media’s obsession with “journalism and the Internet,” and you get an industry newsletter which gets treated in all sorts of contradictory ways. Both by itself and by the people threatened by it.

Fetishizing the notion of information

In his ringing defense of TechCrunch, MG Siegler concludes this way:

But ultimately there is only one thing that matters: information. People don’t care how they get it, just that they get it. If they don’t think they can trust it from one source, they’ll find another way to get it. It really is that simple. The market will decide. All this back-and-forth is meaningless.

Information is all that matters. All the rest is bullshit.

This is a remarkable thing to say. Its partly remarkable because I don’t think I’ve read anything that sums up quite so well the dominant ideology that has shaped journalism over the past decade and a half. This statement posits something that seems easy to understand and define — information — as the ne plus ultra of all journalistic activity, while simultaneously exploding the definition of “journalist” (which is hard to define) into a million pieces. Basically, journalists are seen as those who provide information, and the success of that information provision is determined by the outcome of the workings of the free market.

Under this definition of journalism, PR firms, databases, newspapers, TechCrunch, and government entities all have equal claim to the title of “journalist” because each of them distributes information. Who is the best at the provision of this information is measured in pageviews and CPMs. We can see this understanding of information everywhere from the Knight Report on the Information Needs of Communities to much of the work done by hacker journalists.

Should journalists see themselves as primarily providers of information whose success or failure in that provision is ultimately determined by the market? Do they do, or should they do, anything else? Personally, I’m still thinking about the relationship of journalism to information. But as a counterpoint to Siegler’s comment — information is all that matters, all the rest is bullshit — I’d simply posit this piece of wisdom bequeathed to us by one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century:

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth.  Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST.

Putting music aside for the moment (but only, perhaps, for the moment) its useful to ask if journalists do any of those other things — those “knowledge truth wisdom beauty love” things. Some of the ones I’ve talked to occasionally think they do. But perhaps Silicon Valley will eventually cure them of these self-important notions. Perhaps information really is all there is.

And so: Is transparency the new objectivity? What do we do when transparency fails? Are the clients of journalism a particular group of interested parties, or do they serve the public? What does it even mean to serve the public? And what is information? Does simply seeing journalism as the provision of information expand the meaning of what journalism is? Or does it expand it too far? These are some of the questions that Michael Arrington has, in his own way, forced us to think about.

POSTED     Sept. 7, 2011, 2 p.m.
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