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Disclosures, conflicts of interest and the role of the blogger

By on June 2, 2011
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Last week, Kara Swisher of AllThingsD wrote a grumpy oped about Michael Arrington’s conflict of interest.

For those of you who don’t know, Michael Arrington is the opinionated founder of TechCrunch, the leading tech blog that was recently bought by AOL for $30 million.

Arrington’s TechCrunch is so widely read that it is believed to be able to make or break startups. Companies court TechCrunch writers because they believe that to be covered by TechCrunch is synonymous with having hundreds of venture capitalists beating down your door in order to invest.

While this is clearly nonsense, there is no doubt that TechCrunch is very powerful, and can influence the success of technology-based startups.

Which is why Swisher got so upset. Because Arrington has stated that he intends to start investing as an angel investor again. Despite being able to publish stories in his investments in one of the most influential tech blogs in the world.

Old media versus new media

All Things Digital is part of Dow Jones (now part of News Corp). Swisher clearly sees herself as a journalist, bound by a journalist’s code of ethics. She should not invest in things she writes about, and should declare all conflicts of interest.

Arrington started TechCrunch as a blog. Now he is part of AOL which, following its acquisition of Huffington Post, is claiming an aspiration for high journalistic standards. And Swisher thinks that Arrington’s investments in companies that he covers for TechCrunch is blurring the lines.

(At least, I think that’s what Swisher thinks. Go and read the full article yourself to get a clearer view).

The problem is that the distinction between journalist and non-journalist is no longer so clear. Swisher is a journalist. Fred Wilson of AVC.com or Mark Suster of Both Sides of the Table are both clearly VCs first and bloggers second.

What about me? I make most of my money from consultancy, but reach many more people through GAMESbrief than I do through masterclasses and client work. I handle the conflict by full disclosure of clients when I’m writing about them. Plus I don’t break news – I write analysis, which means that the quickest of getting me to keep a secret is to ask me too.

But am I conflicted. Are you in the Arrington camp or the Swisher camp?

Let me know,

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • It’s a thorny area, but people tend to focus on whether journalists/bloggers disclose their interests when writing about a company – there’s a whole issue around when they DON’T write about a company.

    Or to use Arrington as an example, we know when TechCrunch writes about a company he’s invested in, but if they were to spike (i.e. not publish) a negative story about one of these firms, who’d know? What’s more, should there be disclosure on stories about rivals to someone he’s invested in, especially when they’re negative?

    That’s not to say he or his writers are killing bad stories about firms he has a stake in or deliberately running down rivals – it’s just these are the concerns when you end up in this journalist+investor situation. It all comes down to trust I guess. If a site did start running/killing stories according to its boss’ investments, I think it would quickly come out, and readers would lose trust.