Scott Kirsner

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Bloggers' choice: Free agents, or infomercials?

San Jose Mercury News, February 4, 2007

- Scott Kirsner

Just before Christmas, dozens of influential bloggers received an e-mail from Microsoft asking them whether they were interested in receiving a laptop worth about $2,000.

"...While I hope you will blog about your experience with the PC, you don't have to," a Microsoft employee wrote in an e-mail. "Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are doing playing with it, or you can give it away on your site, or you can keep it." Microsoft's goal was to promote its new Vista operating system, conveniently pre-loaded on the machines, as well as the microprocessor inside, made by AMD.

The publicity ploy highlighted the growing influence of blogs (as well as other forms of digital self-expression, like audio podcasts and video clips), and a choice facing bloggers. Do they intend to be a trusted source of insight and information for their readers, or the Internet's version of an infomercial? Though many bloggers don't consider themselves journalists, and lustily criticize what they see as the hidebound and hamstrung "mainstream media," they may need to adapt some of the disclosure practices, and the clear separation between advertising and editorial content, that guide traditional print and broadcast outlets. Ultimately, cultivating those practices could enable bloggers to develop a more transparent and accountable relationship with their readers than the mainstream media has ever had.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, about 12 million Americans now maintain blogs, and some of the most popular attract millions of readers. Many blogs, though they may adopt the pose of a tomato-wielding outsider, are now every bit as powerful and well-connected as their older media brethren. On the day in January when Apple unveiled its new cell phone, the tech blog Engadget delivered 10 million page views, which translates into an audience of about five million readers. (For comparison, the monthly print circulation of San Francisco's Wired Magazine is about 620,000.) Engadget is also owned by Time Warner, the world's largest media company.

As a result of that stature, it shouldn't be a shocker that marketers and PR mavens are now trying to sway the people who publish blogs, produce podcasts, or post video clips on the Internet, in the same way they've long curried favor with print and broadcast journalists. Shortly before Microsoft and AMD doled out free laptops, a company that customizes the interior of private jets flew a Lear-load of bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers) to Washington State for wine tastings and a dinner. Last year, in an attempt to counteract negative coverage of its employee health care offerings, Wal-Mart funneled rebuttals to certain right-leaning bloggers - some of whom posted the material without noting its source - and later surreptitiously helped fund a pro-Wal-Mart blog called "Wal-Marting Across America." Companies like PayPerPost.com, ReviewMe.com, and SponsoredReviews.com also dangle cash - as much as $1000 - before bloggers willing to write about a particular product.

And bloggers can run into conflicts of their own, from consulting or contracting work they do, political volunteering, or selling sponsorships on their sites.

The issue of blog disclosure - making it clear to readers where financial relationships exist, and when a substantial freebie has been accepted - has stimulated heated debates on the Internet since at least 2004, as well as generating more recent coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Earlier this week, at the AlwaysOn Media Conference in New York, bloggers Jeff Jarvis and David Weinberger sparred with the chief executive of PayPerPost, Ted Murphy, about the company's tactics.

As both a blogger and journalist, I like to think that I am completely incorruptible, and zealous about expressing my true opinions or producing fair reporting, even if I've just been handed a free t-shirt by an interview subject (always uncomfortable) or schmoozed by a company's PR rep at a conference where I was paid to speak. But as a reader, I like to know about factors that may have had an impact on what I'm reading: is the travel writer who is telling me about a fabulous new Fijian resort someone who was given a week-long stay for free, or someone whose publication actually paid full freight?

Over decades, newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets have developed ethical standards to try to ensure that journalists can produce work that is as free as possible from bias and improper influence. At most media companies, employees must pledge to adhere to these standards. Political reporters, for instance, are typically barred from volunteering for a campaign, and a business reporter who covers Boeing is usually not allowed to own stock in that company or its competitors. Often, these codes of ethics prevent journalists from accepting meals or gifts worth more than $25. Editors and publishers at most media organizations also draw stark lines between editorial material and advertising; just because Merck commits to buying a series of expensive full-page ads, the pharmaceutical company isn't guaranteed more or better coverage than its rivals.

(Of course, having standards and policies doesn't eliminate sticky situations; CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo was at the center of a controversy recently because of several flights she took on a private jet owned by Citigroup, the financial services conglomerate.)

But while those policies are fairly well-understood within the journalism profession, they haven't always been effectively explained to readers; established news organizations, by dint of their longevity and their track record, expect their readers and viewers to simply trust that they're doing everything they can to present information in an impartial way. And it's only recently that some newspapers have begun to post their ethics policies online.

Blogs, podcasts, and online video shows haven't had decades to develop policies around disclosure, or establish clear divisions between advertising and content. But as they've been evolving, they've been engaged in a very public conversation with their readers, listeners, and viewers about what those policies and divisions should be. If most news organizations have come up with their guidelines in closed boardrooms, bloggers and other online publishers are doing it in an open-air amphitheater.

Almost as soon as bloggers began receiving the laptops from Microsoft and AMD, a blogger named Amit Agarwal compiled a list of 25 people, including himself, who'd received one of the computers. Agarwal said he planned to keep it, as did about half of the other bloggers. The debate on Agarwal's site sparked up within hours after he posted the list. "You just compromised your integrity. Congratulations!" wrote one reader. Another reader defended Agarwal: "Amit is not biased in my view, with or without the laptop."

Online, those who produce blogs and podcasts may be regarded by their audience more as peers than as authority figures. If they accept (and disclose that they've accepted) a junket to Puerto Rico or a free laptop, their readers may respond not with outrage, but by thinking, "Hey, I'd do the same thing." When blogger Brandon LeBlanc wrote that he was planning to keep the laptop he received from Microsoft, he noted that he doesn't make money from his blog. (LeBlanc earns a living as a tech support contractor.) That was fine with several readers, one of whom wrote, "Don't return it. You've earned the laptop!"

Perhaps moreso than the traditional media, bloggers are open to critical comments and responses, which are typically appended to the original posting or video. That gives the audience the satisfaction of at least calling fouls when they see them. LeBlanc, for instance, hadn't disclosed that his "new laptop" was a freebie in his very first post about it. One of his readers declared simply, "blog: compromised."

Over time, I expect blog readers may grow suspicious of bloggers who never seem to disembark from the gravy train. All that free stuff can begin to strain the peer-to-peer relationship that exists when a blogger is perceived as the "little guy," or a free agent operating outside the establishment.

In addition to the question of accepting freebies, bloggers - many of whom are one-man enterprises - are grappling with how to handle the consulting gigs they do on the side, as well as sponsorships, advertising, and other forms of financial support.

In October, the Washington Post reported that the blog "Wal-Marting Across America," which had chronicled a couple's RV trip across the country (focusing especially on their rosy conversations with Wal-Mart employees and customers), had actually been funded by an advocacy group created and financially supported by the giant retailer. The bloggers neglected to mention that their travel expenses were being paid by the group until after the Post's story was published. One of the site's bloggers was James Thresher, a full-time photographer who works for the Post, and who eventually repaid his share of the money. This came less than a year after some bloggers posted material sent to them by a Wal-Mart PR representative, without noting its source.

David Weinberger, an author who also maintains the blog Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, has a disclosure statement linked prominently from his front page that details the work he does as a marketing consultant. "When you think that your entanglement with a company might affect what you're writing, you should disclose that entanglement," Weinberger says, "and the entanglement might be that you consult with them, or you've been using their product for 15 years, or you went to school with one of their product managers. If that's affecting your judgment, you should mention it." (Among the companies Weinberger has consulted for are Microsoft and Edelman, the public relations agency that has worked with both Microsoft and Wal-Mart.)

One of the earliest attempts to pay bloggers in exchange for coverage, in 2004, doled out $800 a month to bloggers who agreed to repeatedly mention a Vancouver software company called Marqui. While the bloggers involved didn't have to say nice things, they also weren't required to reveal that they were on the payroll. Today, there are at least three services that offer to pay bloggers money for writing posts about products, including PayPerPost, ReviewMe, and SponsoredReviews. All of them now make it mandatory for bloggers to disclose the arrangement - a policy that, in some cases, is the result of pressure from high-profile bloggers, who decried paid postings that were not disclosed as such as a "cancer" that would diminish the reputation of all bloggers.

Many of those pioneering the emerging forms of podcasts and video dispatches don't have a background in traditional journalism - and that can be a good thing. "I went to school for computer science," says John Furrier, CEO of the Menlo Park company PodTech, which produces audio and video programming. "I'm trying to deploy social media in a new way." Publishers with different kinds of experience can take media in new directions, but they also sometimes hit some potholes along the way.

I've needled Furrier in the past about the sometimes-hazy distinction on his site between sponsors and the content; Seagate and Cisco are major sponsors, and video coverage of those two companies has figured heavily into the site, including a tour of Seagate's booth at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. Furrier contends that interviews with executives from such large Silicon Valley companies are newsworthy, and the site did also score a sit-down with Bill Gates earlier this month (Microsoft is not a sponsor.)

But Furrier acknowledges that drawing lines between what's paid for and what's not is a continuing process for the company. "Credibility is the ultimate key to success, and we're trying to establish that," he says. For some readers, it may be enough when Robert Scoble, PodTech's star interviewer, cheerfully declares, "Seagate is the only sponsor of my ScobleShow, so consider that I've been paid for telling you about Seagate stuff."

I expect we'll soon see a bifurcation in the blogosphere, with some blogs creating clear and well-understood lines between their editorial content and advertising, and letting readers know about any connections that may influence what the blogger writes. Blogs where paid reviews seem to dominate, or where every third posting is about wonderful free dinners and gifts lavished upon the blogger, will be regarded much more skeptically, and will likely reach smaller audiences. How many more people have relied on Julia Child for cooking advice (who never endorsed a product), versus Ron Popeil, the star of late-night infomercials for the Showtime Rotisserie Oven?

"If your blog is remotely influential, people will attempt to influence you," writes blogger, author, and entrepreneur Seth Godin via e-mail. "The more often a blogger accepts the temptations, the less influential her blog will become."

The blog world is also self-policing; every reader and fellow blogger is a potential ombudsman. "If you try to be secretive or sneaky or tricky by integrating marketing messages, you will get nailed, and you'll get embarrassed," says David Pescovitz, an editor of BoingBoing, one of the Web's most popular blogs, and a researcher at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future. The bloggers who accepted pro-Wal-Mart information last year without mentioning its origins likely lost standing with some of their readership.

In any form of communication, whether a hallway conversation at work, a radio talk show, or a video blog entry, people develop an intuitive sense of who they can trust, and who isn't being straightforward. With one's friends and colleagues, and with long-established media sources, that feeling of trust accumulates (or erodes) over time. Bloggers often interact with their audiences without that context -- in the space of a single page, which a reader lands on by way of a link, or in the span of a three-minute video clip that may be "embedded" on another site. Like everything else in the online world, credibility needs to be established quickly and telegraphically. When it's compromised, the writer-reader connection can fracture forever, since Internet users have so many alternative sources for news and opinion.

Bloggers don't need a uniform code of ethics, any more than all news organizations should share the same code, but they'll benefit from being open about the principles that guide them, and responding to their audience's concerns. That sort of openness and responsiveness can be a model for any entity, in new media or old.

SCOTT KIRSNER edits the blog CinemaTech, and is the author of the recent book "The Future of Web Video." He wrote this article for Perspective.