Category Archives: Media

Friends, Lovers, Investors and the Messy World of Disclosure

Michael Arrington, the bull in the china shop that is the tech industry, recently revised his 2009 proclamation that he would divest himself from the companies he was covering and stop investing in startups to avoid a conflict of interest. In his revision, he announced he has begun investing in startups again and rationalizes it by making the investments public record. This has led to cackles from his peers, most notably from Kara Swisher who pointed out the hypocrisy of his boss Arianna Huffington to allow Arrington to be the sole exception to her policy of not allowing her employees to invest in the companies they cover.

Investments, however, are just one component of what can lead to a conflict of interest. I would submit that a far bigger conflict that goes unspoken and leads to much worse journalism are the relationships writers have with the people they cover. Friends, lovers and acquaintances muddle who gets covered and how they are treated by the people covering them. I can speak with some degree of seeing this with my own eyes when it comes to the New York tech startup beat and the founders they cover. Many of the same people writing about these startups are good friends with the principals, and the nearly flawless fawning coverage reads more like an extended arm of their public relations group than anything resembling real journalism.

On top of that you have people who hop between being journalists and working as either advisers or evangelists who participate in promotional events for products. The conflict of being an adviser or an evangelist is obvious, diluting the person’s journalistic ethics and their ability to be impartial.

The participation at various events can be harmless in some cases if it’s simply to cover the event and gain information about a product. Too often, though, the participants wind up becoming a shill for the very product and, in fact, in some cases, are even used in the promotional material. They also make their affinity for the product or service known through social media. These folks can no longer be taken seriously on any journalistic level.

Would disclosure help fix this problem? If there was better transparency of the investors, would the relationship the writer has with their subjects lead to a more informed reader who could take those biases into account when reading an article? In a study I was directed to by’s Courtney Humphries, the answer is that disclosure may actually make writers less ethical.

The study (PDF) found the participants felt that if journalists disclosed their conflicts they would have carte-blance to lay their biases on thick. Assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management Daylian Cain along with with Don Moore at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley and Professor of Economics and Psychology George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University conducted the study.

In the end the only basis for our ability to weed out good information from bad, propaganda from well balanced editorial or commentary, is our own motivation to seek out alternate sources. Al Gore once changed the famous Thomas Jefferson quote: “A well informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will” to “The well-informed citizenry is in danger of becoming the ‘well-amused audience’“.

Given the rapt attention toward the political aspirations of a certain New York City real-estate mogul in recent months, it’s not difficult to see which of the two quotes applies more accurately to our modern culture. We’re all too eager to reinforce that which we already believe rather than look for proof to the contrary.

The Rise and Fall of Gawker Media

Full disclosure: I was a contributor at Gawker in 2009.

How has Gawker’s major redesign altered their traffic? It all depends who you ask and what measurement service you decide to use. They all seem to paint a slightly different picture and everyone you speak to will give you a different explanation for why it is so. Gawker had been using the measurement service, Sitemeter, that they proudly displayed prior to the redesign, and still exists on Gawker’s UK site in the old reverse chronological format they tossed away.

The new format launched on February 10th, and you can see the massive drop off on that very date. Gawker’s editor-in-chief Remy Stern claimed the Sitemeter was not working anymore. The new format of the site was created in such a way that the measurement could not be accurately detected by that type of tool. So let’s toss out the Sitemeter entirely since it seems incapable of giving us a true look at Gawker’s traffic.

Instead, we’ll look at Quantcast, which shows a steady decline in pageviews for Gawker since  the end of January. Additionally, unique visitors fell off a cliff shortly after February 7th and have struggled to reach their previous levels ever since.

The way the site is designed now, without getting too technical, does not make it easy to be crawled by search engines. This is a pretty serious oversight by Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, who had been beta testing this design for quite some time. Gawker had to deal with a massive security breach just before the launch, where hackers had wide ranging access to user account data, internal chat logs and the source code for the current redesign.

Stern posted a screen shot of Gawker’s internal Google Analytics to counter what others were saying about Gawker’s drop in traffic, but the numbers he posted are prior to the redesign. Denton even publicly (he habitually “leaks” his company memos) acknowledged that the new design has caused traffic from Google to drop “significantly”.

Denton seems to be pretty sure of himself in thinking that the future of the web is not in blogs but in the magazine design he’s now embracing; a design more suited for an iPad or even a television. Most times when everyone has doubted Denton, like when he reorganized his network by selling off some sites and folding together others to prepare for a bad economy which he correctly predicted would hit the Internet ad marketplace hard, standing by what he believes has paid off.

His sites have grown more profitable and increased their audience since that time. Oddly enough, the editor during the period who followed Gabriel Snyder and helped grow Gawker from the New York City inside-baseball media rage of the creative underclass to the national tabloid it is today was essentially pushed out to make room for the current EIC, Remy Stern, and his site CityFile, which has yet to be fully integrated into the Gawker network. Chris Batty, head of sales at Gawker left the company after an unresolvable disagreement with Denton over the new direction the redesign was taking the network towards.

Denton said regarding the redesign: “We got ahead of ourselves — and now we’re rowing back.”

The question is, will it be too late for Gawker to row back after losing roughly 50% of their audience in the process, and more importantly, was it all worth it? Denton has proved everyone wrong before, with the odds stacked against him, and he’s going to try to do it once again.