Taking a Step Back from the Cesspool

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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.

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Frederic Lardinois founded SiliconFilter in 2011. Before starting this site, he wrote about 1,500 articles for ReadWriteWeb. His areas of interest are consumer web and mobile apps, as well as Internet-connected devices like cars, smart sensors and toasters. You can reach him at frederic@siliconfi[email protected]

3 COMMENTS

  1. I have to say, I do like PandoDaily’s take on embargoes – if everyone is going to post the same half-assed bullshit post, regurgitating a press release then you may as well post the damned press released and be done with it. It’s the TechCrunch method. Leena Rao, you are a master copy-and-paster of press releases, I must say.

    And yes, I couldn’t agree more on the points MG made about the crap that bloggers have to churn out in the all mighty ploy for pageviews. I still believe that worthwhile content could win out over crap, but most blogs won’t ever give that a try. In all the posts I ever wrote, however, I feel that the ones that had the most views and staying power involved in-depth reporting, original content and anything other than regurgitated PR crap. :)

    I believe that tech journalism (which fortunately and unfortunately includes tech blogging) is leading the way for much of the rest of journalism and I really hope it finds its way soon.

    • @rwwmike all good points.

      The thing I don’t like about Pando’s policy on embargoes is that they insist on exclusives, which doesn’t help the startups, I think. You know how it works – somebody posts a story first and if it’s “just” a startup, the others will just ignore it. Maybe we can just do away with embargoes as a whole, I’m all for that, but playing the exclusive card just strikes me as a bad move.

      • @FredericL I think that if the companies and reporters were both doing their work, they wouldn’t need embargoes for many of the craptastic stories that get embargoed. They focus on getting the most bland, broad coverage instead of the right coverage.

        When something is interesting or has an impact, people write about it, regardless. They find an angle. An exclusive doesn’t have to mean first in reporting the basic facts and repeating PR quotes, it can mean presenting that new angle.

        If everyone just played the exclusive card, we could finally stop reading the same regurgitated crap from one “news” blog to another. :)

        Wait, that brings us back to pageviews, right? That’s why we all go along with it. Damn!

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