Bloggers Bash Into Chinese Walls, Part XVI

Once again, the non-journalist end of blogging is finding that its world is surprisingly like the old world of media. TechCrunch, a widely read blog of things going on in the social media world of Web 2.0, has run into the kind of conflicts that traditional media grappled with (and are still grappling with) since time immemorial (well at least since last Wednesday.)

The story, in a nutshell is this: TechCrunch sets up a UK version of its site. TechCrunch, itself heavily sponsored by Web 2.0 startup advertising, co-sponsors a Web 2.0 conference in Paris. TechCrunch UK editor attends said confab, which ends in controversy and accusations that the organiser, one Loic Lemeur, messed up. Organiser lambasts TechCrunch UK editor’s own accusations. Sparks fly, one thing leads to another, and TechCrunch UK editor is fired by TechCrunch owner and the UK website suspended. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth within blogosphere and talk of raging ethical debate.

I can’t pretend to have read all of the raging ethical debate (as raging ethical debates go, you want to set aside a good chunk of time for one that rages in the blogosphere: Harrington’s post on the subject currently has 78 comments, a few dozen more here before its suspension. Even Journalist.co.uk and The Guardian wrote about it, although judging from the headline I don’t think it was for the front page.)

Now there’s plenty of fodder for good debates here, and it’s not only Arrington who is getting a fair amount of flack for all this. But there’s an easy way of looking at this: Arrington is the publisher of TechCrunch. He’s Murdoch, Maxwell, whoever you want. TechCrunch is his brand. Anything that damages that brand, or appears to be damaging that brand, needs crushing, and that trumps everything else. You can’t blame him for that; if the editor of The Guardian starts damaging the brand of the paper you’d expect him to come in for some flak from the owner.

It gets complicated further in, however. Arrington is also an editor and writer. He’s also in the advertising and circulation department, since he’s out there drumming up business (often with the people he writes about, but that’s another story). So his role as publisher clashes with his role as editor, since a good editor will demand the independence necessary to criticise anyone, whether it’s sponsors, advertisers, even (and we’re talking theory here) the owners or publisher. Arrington in his role as editor was in conflict with his role as publisher and owner.

This is why traditional media separate these functions, and why, inevitably, TechCrunch and its ilk will have to too, as these kinds of crises occur. Editorial departments in traditional media have little or no contact with other departments, so oftentimes have no idea whether they’re sponsoring an event they’re attending. That’s how it should be, although it does perhaps contribute to the notion that journalists occupy their own little dreamworld.

Who knows where the truth lies in this particular mess, but if it awakens the blogosphere to the need to have Chinese Walls between advertising/sponsoring departments and the editorial side then that can only be good. In this case, if I were Arrington, I would start building them quickly. TechCrunch has at least 144,000 readers, a very respectable circulation, and that, whether he likes it or not, puts the publication into the realm of an outfit that needs to clearly demarcate the boundaries of its interests.