AOL's War on Web Journalism: TechCrunch Edition

Sadly, today's blog post is not about the royal wedding, but it is about a royal pain in the ass known as Michael Arrington. It's also more generally about what's happened to the profession that I have called my own for the past 397 years.

To summarize: Apparently at the prodding of All Things Digital's Kara Swisher, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote a blog post this week clarifying his journalistic ethics -- or, rather, his lack thereof.

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In short, Arrington said he has resumed investing in companies he and TechCrunch write about, after curtailing his investments two years ago when complaints about his ethics arose. Now, Arrington says, it's OK because he'll always disclose that he's invested in these companies when he does write about them.

Right. So here's a question: If Arrington learns of bad news about one of his key investments and decides to ignore it completely, how exactly is he going to disclose that?

Besides violating the ethics policy of any publication I am familiar with, including any that has ever had the misfortune of employing me, this also violates the ethics policies of his current employer, AOL. Or it would, except that AOL made an explicit exception for Arrington, according to an email it sent to Silicon Alley Business Insider.

... in order to avoid conflicts of interests, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, writers, and reporters may not have a financial interest in a company or industry that they regularly cover. ... [But] Michael Arrington operates from a unique position. He was an investor in technology companies and startups before he started TechCrunch, and his extensive knowledge of, and involvement with, Silicon Valley is one of the very things that has made TechCrunch a must-read site. TechCrunch is committed to transparency. Michael Arrington has written about the guidelines he follows -- that he rarely writes about companies in which he is an investor, and that when he does, he clearly discloses this information.

Just to clarify: All those penurious reporters who are making Wal-Mart wages are not allowed to invest in any startups. Their millionaire boss, however, can. Silicon Valley Watcher's Tom Foremski notes the many other ways that making an exception for Arrington will destroy what's left of TechCrunch's credibility.

No matter. Arrington wrote:

Other tech press will make hay out of this because they don't like the fact that we are, simply, a lot better than them. That's fine, but when you read their coverage, remember that they're our direct competitors, even though they won't "disclose" that particular conflict of interest. Luckily they don't get to make the rules we operate under. We do, and you, as readers, can choose to accept those rules and read, or not and leave.

I'm going to censor my response to that "a lot better than them" comment for now, much as it pains me. Is TechCrunch faster to many stories? Often. More accurate? Not so often. Better reported, written, or analyzed? My ass. But clearly I'm just saying that because InfoWorld is a direct competitor to TechCrunch and we're all jealous. That must be it.

Does new media mean new rules? Not exactly. Sure, the barriers to entry have been whittled to a nub. Any lout with a legal degree and loud opinions can start a blog, get investors, hire green writers, turn the blog into a 24/7 news operation, then cash it out for millions before people grow tired of it. You no longer have to learn the ropes by being a cub reporter and having your hand slapped by a grumpy old editor when you screw up or, worse, get canned when you violate the rules.

As a result, you never learn the rules. Or, because your blog has plenty of readers and is making money, you decide the rules don't apply to you. Since you've attained a position of power and influence, you have a ready chorus of lackeys who are happy to back you up, regardless of how asinine you sound to people who actually do this for a living.

The problem here is that you still need to earn your readers' trust. Even here at Notes From the Field -- where the primary mission is to put the biggest tech players on a skewer, dose them liberally with snark, and roast them over a open flame -- trust is essential. If I suddenly started doting on one company or consistently ignoring it when it screws up big time, the Cringe faithful would quickly smell a rat. That's the way it's supposed to be.

Here's my personal disclosure: I don't invest in any companies I write about. With the wages InfoWorld pays me, I can barely invest in a Starbucks venti latte three times a week. It's kind of a moot question.

As for TechCrunch, if you were already skeptical about the stories it has published in the past, this certainly validates your skepticism. And if you believed it entirely? You and Arrington deserve each other.

Have I been too hard or soft on any companies? Ignored stories that deserved more coverage? Focused too much on those that didn't? Help me mend the error of my ways below or via email: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "AOL's continuing war on Web journalism, the TechCrunch edition," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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