The last few days allowed us to witness the rather sad spectacle of various tech writers/bloggers/journalists calling each other names and publicly airing some dirty laundry. What’s even sadder about this is that in the flurry of ad hominem attacks, the fact that all sides actually made some valid points about the current state of tech blogging got lost.
The Story So Far
Before we get started, here is a quick summary for those who don’t follow the meta discussions in the tech blogging world that closely (you can skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the story): What started this whole affair was the recent revelation that Path uploaded its users phone contact lists to its servers to make it easier to find friends who joined the service. Path apologized. The NYTimes’s Nick Bilton used this as an opportunity to highlight what he thinks is a wider issue of startups playing fast and loose with our private data. Crunchfund’s (and former TechCrunch writers) MG Siegler and Michael Arrington quickly came to Path’s defense. CrunchFund, of course, is an investor in Path.
Siegler, however, took his argument a bit further and used his post to attack the state of tech blogging as a whole and basically argues that most writers don’t know what they are talking about and have to write too many stories per day to even try. Dan Lyons then used the Crunchfund’s writers’ defense of Path to highlight the degree to which Silicon Valley – in his view – has become a “cesspool” where journalists and bloggers are often too close to VCs and angels to properly do their job, personally attacking Siegler, Arrington, PandoDaily, Techmeme (“That’s right kids. Techmeme is rigged”) and others in the process.
In between all the name calling (“nasty little ankle-biter”) and swearing, everybody actually managed to make some worthwhile points.
Problem #1: Feeding the Pageview Beast
Siegler is absolutely right, for example, when he says that the “pageview machine” that makes writers post 4 or 5 (and sometimes more) stories per day is fundamentally flawed. That kind of process doesn’t leave writers time to research stories beyond a quick Google search, gets people to write stories about statistics that are clearly wrong (stat stories are the easiest to write) and generally drives even the best writers insane after they’ve posted their 3rd slideshow of the day or just rewrote yet another press release just to make their quota. Not every blog operates this way, but far too many do.
Some, like The Next Web, have mastered high-frequency posting to the point where it’s close to impossible to compete with them on speed. Others, like Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD take a more deliberate approach and are rewarded with frequent (and real) scoops. A lot of sites fall into the middle, but most have post quotas for their writers and even those that tell their writers they don’t care about pageviews obviously do.
Pageviews, though, are more or less the only way to effectively monetize a blog/news site these days, so there will always be some pressure to post some of these frivolous stories. Nobody has found a workable solution around this yet, but I like to think that just posting good stories can be profitable, too. And if it takes a few slideshows to pay for somebody to write a good, in-depth story (and then split that story up between multiple pages to increase pageviews), then maybe that’s the price we have to pay for doing business.
Poblem #2: Befriending the VCs
Dan Lyons, however, is also right when he says that PandoDaily taking money from VCs isn’t helping the site’s credibility (and the same goes for Siegler and Arrington when they talk about Path). The standard argument here is that everything is alight, as long as you just disclose your investments, but in my view, that’s just not realistic. The Crunchfund crew, however, doesn’t pretend to be journalists at this point and their readers know their perspective. I can live with that.
PandoDaily, on the other hand, I have issues with. It’s amassing a great group of writers, but it’s obvious that those who invested in it did so to buy a mouthpiece for themselves and not because they expect huge returns. In my view, that’s a shame, because the people there could do great things, but they will always be sullied by questions about their objectivity and motives.
Just Take Deep Breath and Be Better Than This
When you take a step back, it’s clear that these are real issues the tech blogging/journalism world has to take seriously. Rewritten press releases for the sake of fulfilling pageview quotas, slideshows and fake/wrong scoops aren’t helping the tech blogging ecosystem at all. Still, I like to think this system is mostly self-correcting. Bad information gets corrected (though sometimes the damage is already done), bad “scoops” are quickly outed as such, just as we don’t let writers with an obvious bias off the hook easily.
Michael Arrington says we are better than this but that our industry is unable to change. Tech blogging today, however, is in a transition period. If there was ever a time for things to change it's now. Writers, after all, are already moving around from one site to another frequently as new success stories (The Next Web, for example) make some of the old guard uneasy.
A lot of sites are doing very good work right now (maybe even “journalism”) – let’s not get too distracted by the infighting between a few of them but focus on those that are staying above the fray.