Journalism is rife with conflict. Get over it.
The tech media wars continued yesterday, with LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik basically accusing certain tech bloggers of being “influence peddlers.”
The whole issue has become fairly tired — long predating L’Affair Path — but I can hardly attend a tech-related event these days without being asked to weigh in. So please indulge my two cents:
All journalists who break news are in the business of giving and receiving favors. I know that sounds more like Godfather than Columbia J-School, but it’s the truth. When we talk about “developing sources,” all it means is forming a business relationship to further improve our product. And just like in any business relationship, both sides expect to get something out of it.
Sometimes, a source simply wants someone to listen to them. Sometimes they want to leak information that damages a rival, or benefits a friend. Sometimes a source simply likes to trade gossip. You tell me something, I’ll tell you something.
Yes, there are situations in which a new source magically appears with valuable information with the purest of intentions. But it’s the rare exception (see Throat, Deep).
In any case, it is a journalist’s job to weigh a source’s motives against the information’s value to readers (after first confirming the information’s authenticity). For example, when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, a lot of venture capital funds were sitting on more capital than they could ever responsibly invest. Some of their investors began agitating for fund size cuts, but certain VCs resisted in order to protect ongoing fee-streams. So those same investors began calling people like me, to get the word out that such disputes were occurring. And I obliged, because it was an important story to my readers. We used each other.
“But that has nothing to do with money changing hands,” says rhetorical reader. “That’s when the conflicts of interest violate a reader’s trust.”
Ok, let me first point out that almost all reporters are dependent on advertisers. Few of us actually sell our own ads (disclaimer: I did so at my prior employer, but am not allowed to do so at Fortune), but most of us know where our bread is buttered. This isn’t to say that we won’t write something critical of an advertiser — just like most of us will write something critical of our own sources — but the conflict isn’t absent from our thought process.
But let me make this more specific to the tech press, including some holier-than-thou types who gleefully watched TechCrunch implode under the guise of protecting journalistic integrity.
Most tech media site hosts live events, for the primary purpose of generating revenue. Yes, there are secondary goals — increasing brand awareness, generating exclusive content — but a well-attended conference can generate more money in a day than can a month’s worth of on-site advertising. Trust me, I’ve done them.
And do you know why those conferences are well-attended? High-profile speakers. The higher the better. And do you know who usually recruits those speakers? Journalists, because they’re the ones with the existing relationships.
In other words, journalists basically ask the people they are covering to appear at an event for the purpose of making money for that journalist’s employer (which then has more money to pay the journalist, or give them a raise). Not exactly the same as asking someone you cover for an investment in your employer, but not exactly in a different ballpark.
Ultimately, it all comes down to reader trust, which journalists and media outlets gain over time by regularly publishing accurate, insightful and/or entertaining information. Anyone can publish unfounded rumors or gushy pablum about their own supporters. But those outlets won’t stand the test of time (and, consequently, won’t produce a good return on investment for their VC backers). Readers have limited time, don’t suffer fools lightly and have plenty of options.
The work is what matters. The rest will come out in the wash.
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