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TechCrunch, trust and conflicts of interest | Dan Gillmor

TechCrunch’s mingling of business and reporting led to corporate crisis at AOL. But readers must always judge for themselves

Journalism is a conflict of interest. All journalists and news organisations have worldviews, business dealings and biases. Sometimes, the entanglements, financial and otherwise, are so plain that they cause rational members of our audience(s) to wonder if we could possibly be doing a fair job.

That natural reaction is why many outsiders have been so intrigued by the insider antics at AOL in the past several weeks. As you’ve heard, if you follow the media scene, some of AOL’s business dealings were connecting with its journalism in a spectacularly blatant way until the company backed off, at least officially, from what looked like a flagrant conflict of interest.

In the process, the best-known people at the American online media company – CEO Tim Armstrong, news boss Arianna Huffington and, not least, Michael Arrington, founder of AOL’s TechCrunch blog and conference business, purchased a year ago – created more than a mess for themselves. They’ve given the rest of the media an opportunity to recognise what we sometimes call a “teachable moment” in journalism history.

It boiled down to Arrington’s belief in disclosure. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but his stance – initially backed by Armstrong – was that as long as he told us that he, or his new venture fund (with AOL as a partner), had invested in a company that TechCrunch was covering, any conflict of interest was the reader’s problem, not his, TechCrunch’s or AOL’s.

(Speaking of disclosures, I have a few of my own for this piece. They’re at the bottom of this column, so as not to head off on a tangent; but you may want to read them now, and then return here.)

For whatever reason – she has said it was a matter of principle – Huffington rebelled at AOL’s arrangement with Arrington. The battle seems to have been furious. What transpired over the next several weeks was a corporate soap opera that was alternately amusing, puzzling and, in the end, just bizarre. Ultimately, Arrington appears to have departed from TechCrunch, but not the CrunchFund; he will now be an “unpaid blogger” (as if this was a distinction that mattered in this context) for AOL.

The new arrangement didn’t start out auspiciously from a journalistic standpoint. A glowing TechCrunch report on a CrunchFunded company that appeared prominently at a TechCrunch conference this week in San Francisco buried the funding disclosure deep in the overly credulous article; the reporter told the Atlantic magazine that she didn’t even know the company’s funding sources until just before the article was published.

This undermined, at least somewhat, the loud exclamations of journalistic purity from several prominent TechCrunch writers during the “is-Arrington-in-or-out” saga. To be perfectly fair, though, the site does have some talented, hardworking reporters who, by and large, do break news and offer interesting analysis on occasion. Not for nothing did TechCrunch become a must-read in tech circles.

Arrington’s proposed arrangement with AOL did, however, appear to set undesirable new precedents for brazen mingling of business interests and reporting – even if some of the outrage from the journalistic tribe was hypocritical. Tech journalism, in particular, has been notorious for conflicts of interest over the years, including the propensity of tech media organisations also to organise profitable conferences.

Arrington has not called himself a journalist – and his case mostly points up the shifting nature of what we call news and journalism in a world where anyone can publish and many will. It goes to the heart of the question of who decides what editorial content is too conflict-ridden to stand. The answer: we decide, out here in the audience.

I put TechCrunch stories in the “interesting if true” category – emphasis on if. That is not how I regard, say, the Guardian or the Telegraph or the New York Times; my default assumption with those organisations is that they’ve worked hard to get it right, and while they occasionally get things quite wrong, I trust them much more than not. By contrast, I don’t trust TechCrunch very much, in part because of Arrington’s decisions.

But I’d further put Arrington’s writing (and by extension, a lot of what TechCrunch has been doing) in the “almost-journalism” category, the work product of people and organisations aiming to tell others what they know (or some of it, anyway) for profit or to support other parts of their work. Importantly, they disclose their worldviews or financial interests, and they do serious reporting (as in the gathering of information). Some of the best reporting on human rights, for example, comes from Human Rights Watch, a global NGO that is entirely clear about its view of the issues.

So what if they’re not producing the kind of journalism I was taught to produce when I started out as a reporter. They are adding to the sum of information on things many of us want to learn about. It is our job – the audience’s job – to make our own decisions about what we’ll trust, more or less, and what we will dismiss.

Disclosures: I have met Armstrong, Huffington and Arrington, though I doubt whether any of them would recognise me on a random street corner. But one of my brothers, whose day job is with online software company, has been writing for TechCrunch for some time. We disagree on lots of things, including Arrington’s approach to journalism.

Arrington came in for criticism earlier in TechCrunch’s existence because he was investing in companies the site covered. (Arrington’s new venture-investing fund, which includes AOL as a backer, was a reversal of a reversal. He’d sworn off investing in companies his site covered, partly as a result of that earlier criticism.) One such company early on was Seesmic, a San Francisco company that started out in web video and now focuses mostly on corporate software and social media. I am also an early-stage investor in Seesmic, whose founder and CEO, Loic Le Meur, effusively praised Arrington in a blog post this week.

TechCrunch covered a startup I was involved with (as a co-founder) several years ago – for the most part, fairly. But Arrington wrote a story saying the company had been sold (it hadn’t, at that point) at a price he’d “heard” from unnamed sources who had no idea what they were talking about. After that, I resolved to treat anything I saw on TechCrunch as entertaining gossip and not much more.

What else? Well, like so many others who write about technology, I’ve attended at least one of TechCrunch’s conferences on a press pass, which gave me access to interesting speakers and a free lunch.

With regard to Arianna Huffington, I’ve had a longstanding admiration – which I’ve stated elsewhere online – for her entrepreneurial talents. As I’ve also written more than once, my kudos don’t extend to everything (or even most things) she’s done with the Huffington Post, which achieved its prominence in part on the unpaid labor of bloggers, salacious content and aggregation techniques that have, in my view, overstepped honorable “fair use” of others’ content. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds