Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Selling out is selling out

Federated Media, the blog advertising network, recently got caught using its bloggers to help with an advertising campaign.

What's wrong with that? What's wrong is that these bloggers have presented themselves as independent voices in the tech world. That's a journalistic function. Yet they lent their names, and words, to advertising in exchange for money. In this case, the client was deep-pocketed Microsoft, which wanted to push its meme of "people-ready".

In the old-fashioned print media world, this would be an obvious no-no for ethical journalists. We journalists are not supposed to tie what we write to advertising dollars. And we most definitely are not supposed to get paid for lending our names and journalistic prestige to ad campaigns.

Some people on the Web like to call this old-fashioned idea outmoded. The new paradigm, they recite with a numbing patter of marketing jargon, is to bring in advertisers along with journalists and the public. It's a win-win-win.

Some call this an example of "conversational marketing", which its advocates say is a way to benefit all parties ---- journalists, readers and advertisers ---- by getting them talking with each other to find out the others' needs.

But conversational marketing is also a convenient way of sugar-coating an attempt by advertisers to control how journalists write. Nick Denton of Valleywag deserves thanks for exposing this campaign. Now that it has been exposed to the light of day Federated Media has hastily retreated from its conflict-laden plan.

Jeff Jarvis, one of the most far-sighted media types, forcefully made this point about Federated Media's plan.

Jarvis, who had a long career in print media, said the case reminded him of similar attempts to buy him.

"In each of these cases, the advertiser’s effort is to get more closely associated with us, our content, our reputations, our brands," . . . Jarvis wrote. "They want us to speak their names. Nicely. Or at least be near them, associated with them. This happens at every editorial product I know and it becomes incumbent upon their editors to resist and to protect their integrity from integration. . ."
Read it all.

Jackie Danicki provides more perspective.

Some of those involved in the Federated Media debacle, such as tech guru Om Malik, reacted honorably. They recognized the criticism had validity. Their reputation for integrity was too valuable to tarnish.

John Battelle, founder, chairman and CEO of Federated Media, honorably took responsibility for the debacle. However, he still doesn't seem to get it. He gives a straw-man version of the criticism:

"Microsoft was trying to do something new, but the overwhelming presumption behind many of the critics of this campaign has been that Microsoft was being evil. That it was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. That it was, in short, a bad actor. Why? Why this knee jerk assumption that an important character in the conversation happening in our world is evil, wrong, malicious? And that all the authors associated with the campaign are dupes, fools, schills? Are we really still stuck in 1996, where every single thing the company does is presumptively evil?"

This has nothing to do with Microsoft being evil. This has everything to do with an advertiser's attempt to get involved in the editorial process. Once you've said it's okay for journalists to help advertisers with their campaigns, you've broken a crucial ethical barrier that is there to prevent undue influence. It is a bad precedent.

Microsoft was just doing what many advertisers would do, if given the opportunity. And Microsoft was not breaking any ethical barrier; it is not a journalistic outfit. It is not Microsoft's duty to obey standards of editorial integrity and trust. That is the duty of journalists.

Still, Battelle deserves credit for wrestling with the matter. Much of what he writes about the value of conversation with advertisers has validity; it is referenced in the classic ClueTrain Manifesto. He just needs to remind himself that technological advances do not necessarily invalidate ethical considerations.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, who evidently doesn't value his reputation as much, was less responsive than Battelle. Arrington told his critics to "go pound sand."

"People understand that if there’s text in an ad box, someone is paying for it to be there," Arrington said.

But people don't expect that a supposedly independent journalist is being paid to provide the text. They don't expect, and shouldn't have to expect, that the journalist is being paid by an advertiser to advance a pet theme.

This is no new media paradigm. It's an old-fashioned conflict of interest. (Judging by the numerous blinking, tacky animated ads on his site, Arrington is desperately doing all he can to kiss up to advertisers, even at the expense of annoying his readers).

Give the man credit for openly admitting he doesn't see an ethical problem with advertisers buying his words. Now the onus is on Arrington's readers to figure out which words are really Arrington's and which words are from advertisers using Arrington as a ventriloquist's dummy.

And some in this sordid mess don't seem to take their own "conversational" schtick too seriously, at least when they're on the defensive. Chas Edwards, Federated Media's vice president for sales and market development, posted a weasel-worded defense of his company's campaign, "Does Relevant Advertising Mean Selling Out?"

Of course, the headline is misleading. The relevance is not in question; it's editorial co-operation and pay for taking part in advertising.

Yesterday, I left a comment on Edward's blog saying so. It hasn't been posted. Indeed, no responses have been posted.

Perhaps Chas Edwards doesn't like what the public is telling him and has decided to shut down the conversation.

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