The Blogosphere’s Soul Has a Buyer

The blogosphere is reaching its moment of truth sooner than one might have expected — in the form of a website that offers a marketplace for bloggers willing to write about a product in return for money. What’s revealing is the discussion that follows news about on TechCrunch — comments that not only bring into sharp relief the, er, varied, attitudes about not only PayPerPost, but other blogs and websites — including TechCrunch itself.

First off, the owner of the service, Ted Murphy, adds his own comment, in which he tries to clarify what the site does and does not do: “Advertisers will post all sorts of Opportunities, from a simple “link back to this site” to product reviews with pictures. Each Opportunity will have different compensation based on the advertiser. It’s up to you to pick the Opportunities that best suit you. If it doesn’t feel right, if you don’t own the product, or if you can’t be honest we ask you to pass on the Opportunity.” As he sees it, it’s a chance for bloggers to “make a buck for all the benefit they provide to companies. Celebrities get paid millions to wear products and be seen with their favorite drink. It’s up to the celebs to choose what they wear and drink and if they are being true to the fans. If they love the product and they can make a buck at the same time everyone wins.”

TechCrunch’s Marshall Kirkpatrick is suitably horrified about the new service, which he says requires not that the payment for coverage be disclosed, but only that must approve your post before you are paid: “Is this a bad joke designed to torpedo the blogosphere’s credibility in general? It doesn’t appear to be. If we’re all trying to negotiate a space between Hollywood and mainstream journalism, this is taking things way too far towards the most insipid parts of Hollywood.”

Which is pretty much my response. Murphy’s idea is flawed for a simple reason: If you as a blogger love a product, it’s your lack of financial and professional link with the company behind that product that gives your opinion some weight. That’s why media exists — to pay a salary to people who act as a medium between company, government or individual and the public. The public buys the media product because they believe that what they’re reading/seeing/hearing has some credibility, some independence from the subject they’re covering. As soon as someone acting as a medium accepts money to promote one item, their credibility is shot, not only for that item, but every single other thing they discuss.

What is interesting, though somewhat depressing, is the range of views of those who posted comments. Several of those betrayed a very weird understanding of what mainstream media is. Juan Luis wrote: “I really don’t see any difference with real old media… Or do you really think that advertisers don´t pay for reviews and articles in all sort of magazines,newspapers, tv, radio etc… Has the blogosphere more credibility than the CNN or Car&Driver??” Another: “Do you listen the radio? If you do then you’ve probably heard this type of advertising 1,000 times per day, when the host’s voice tells you about a product or service which they endorse and love. Ever read magazines? Then you’ve seen this kind of coverage all the time– when a major advertiser spends major dough, editorial coverage is all but ensured. Obviously it’s unseemly in many regards, especially if someone is running a tech blog and the advertisers are tech bloggers. But, if this website for example had a post by Marshall or Michael saying that he refi’d his mortgage through Ditech, and he had a positive experience, and that he’s being paid to write this post, I don’t think I would have a real problem with it. Using the cred you’ve gained from blogging to endorse a product is not that awful.”

Others pointed to blog sponsorship and ads as a sign this day has already come: “Product placement is everywhere and it’s already been happening for free in the Blogosphere since its inception. The only difference is that now a handful of people will make a few dollars off it … go to almost any bloggers site and you’ll see an ad already on there, including the sponsors of this page. They pay for ads here becaise it gets traffic – and exposire is what advertisers pay for.” (Sorry, haven’t corrected all the grammar here.) Another: “Why is it ethical to put Google Adwords in your blog, and it’s not ethical to write a paid post from time to time (provided that you openly disclose at the beginning of the post that the post is advertising).”

Others pointed to the widely perceived venality of some bloggers who only write about products that they get freebies of: “And allready there are a lot of bloggers who receive gifts and products to review them.This is the same as paying, or not? Perhaps this could be a more transparent way to get relations between bloggers and advertisers.”

OK. I acknowledge there are some gray areas here, born out of the fact that bloggers need to make money, and advertising is the obvious way to do it. This is no different from old media. What is different is that there are none of the usual Chinese walls that keep editorial and advertising apart (in theory), so that journalists are not influenced by, or even aware of, the advertisers that are buying ads next to their copy. True, these lines can get blurry, especially on radio and in “advertorials”, but they do exist. Blogs that carry ads are not Hollywood stars wearing company products as endorsement; they are a continuation of MSM’s advertising. Every ad is (or should be) clearly marked as sponsorship or ad. Of course, the proof is in the pudding; Will that site be objective about that sponsoring company in its writing, and, if it is, will the sponsor see that as a betrayal of sponsorship?

In MSM, individual journalists are sought after and influenced into writing about a product, but a good journalist — hell, a real journalist — will never write anything other than a fair, detached and balanced review of the product. There is no cash in exchange for reviews in old media; well, none that I know of. If bloggers aspiring to replace old media don’t know that, they need to. Otherwise the blogosphere truly is riding to hell.

There’s another point here. The very debate about this seems to me to be different to the kind of debate we’d have seen in the blogosphere a year or 18 months ago. It’s a much more pragmatic debate now, less utopian, less principled. As one commenter wrote: “If your writing is not objective enough, people are gonna know that you’re probably getting paid, and over time they’ll be less inclined to stay subscribed to your blog: which means that in the end it’ll all balance out.” While I would have said that would have been true a couple of years ago, I’m not so sure now.

What Blogs Have Over Old Media

Blogs have at least one significant advantage over newspapers: They are naturally configured to make the source of information clear. Whether a blogger indicates it in words (“according to Loose Wire, the earth is spinning”) as well as a link to the original source, or just via a link embedded into the declaration, the reader can easily figure out where the information is coming from. It’s neat, it’s simple, and it’s what the Web is all about.

Traditional media don’t have this inbuilt emphasis on sourcing, although they should. A good journalist always indicates, as high up as possible, the source of his/her information: “The earth is spinning, according to Internet blogger Loose Wire.” If the information seems somewhat hard to believe, or could be obviously a expression of opinion rather than fact, the source is placed first: “Loose Wire blogger says the earth is spinning.” But there’s no easy way in traditional print to offer the hypertext function of allowing the reader to automatically jump to the original source material to gauge its credibility for himself/herself, nor to check whether the original source has been quoted accurately and fairly.

But there’s a more important weakness, and it has nothing to do the shortcomings of the medium. It’s when traditonal media bury the source, leaving any but the most seasoned reader in the dark about where, in fact, the information is coming from. Take this account, for example, from the Sunday Times of London of reports that an immigration officer sought sex in return for helping an asylum seeker:

A SENIOR Home Office immigration officer has been suspended after allegations that he offered to help an 18-year-old Zimbabwean rape victim obtain asylum in the UK if she had sex with him.

James Dawute, 53, who works at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in London, allegedly told the girl: “I know how to win your case . . . I can handle it, don’t worry,” before asking her to go to a hotel with him for sex.

The immigration centre at Lunar House in Croydon, south London, was the subject of a separate “sex for visas” scandal in January, prompting an inquiry into whether immigration officials were trading favours for sex.

Dawute is alleged to have signalled to a security guard to bring the girl forward after seeing her waiting at the centre. He is said to have passed her his telephone number on a piece of paper and asked for her number in return.

He then signed forms allowing the girl to claim emergency accommodation. According to the girl, Dawute called her two days later, saying he liked her and wanted to meet to discuss her application.

At the meeting in a Croydon noodle bar the immigration officer was recorded by reporters from The Observer as he told the girl he wanted to take her to a hotel to have sex and indicated he might be able to help her application.

It’s only in the sixth paragraph of an 11 paragraph story that the source of the information is made clear: a rival newspaper. As far as I can make out there is no original reporting at all in the whole story. This is not just sloppy journalism. It’s a reflection of the fact that competition between newspapers is often conducted to the detriment of the reader. Here, the reader has no idea where the allegations come from (four “allegations/alleged/said to” weasel words in as many paragraphs) until the source is mentioned. (There’s an example of how the story was better handled in The Independent, which mentions the source in the second paragraph.) When the reader’s interests — who alleges this? Where did you get your information from? Is this your material or someone elses? Can I trust you on this and future stories to be straight with me? — are thrust aside for the interests of obfuscating the fact that a rival got the better of you, you can understand why some folk don’t mourn the slow demise of the traditional newspaper.

Imagine how this might have been handled in a blog picking up The Observer story: the link to the original in the first sentence, along with a “report in today’s Observer”, perhaps even a mention of the byline. In the meantime, I think traditional newspapers could do well to focus on raising their game to compete with blogs — not just in aping the technology that makes them so powerful, but the transparent sourcing, that invites readers to check with the original and draw their own conclusions.

It’s all about the reader, and always will be.