Sunday, June 24, 2007

Are blogger ethics "people ready?"

Traditional news organizations have a long history of maintaining separate departments responsible for advertising and editorial content. Sure, you can look at many magazines and television programs these days that don't seem to have gotten the memo. But at most news organizations the reporters will never speak directly to the business managers.

Coming from the world of journalism, this is one of the things that scared me most about blogging. Most bloggers don't have that background, and more importantly, they don't have those resources. If you're running a company of one, or even a company of 5 or 10, you probably can't afford to hire someone to handle the business while you crank out content.

And that's why it's not surprising to see the latest mini-controversy to hit the blogging world. (I say mini, because like most news about blogs, its 15 minutes of fame will probably last through the weekend and disappear the moment there's something else to focus on, like the iPhone).

In a nutshell, Web 2.0 gossip site Valleywag, which is usually filled with speculation, allegations, and generally unreliable information, lobbed some accusations against top bloggers including Om Malik and Mike Arrington Friday.

Basically, Federated Media designed an advertising campaign and website for Microsoft, asking "when did you know your business was people ready?" A number of prominent bloggers wrote answers to that question, and snippets of their replies were placed into banner ads which appeared on their sites and other web pages. While they weren't paid directly for their quotes, the bloggers did receive payment for every ad click from their web sites.

Several bloggers, including Om Malik later thought better of their involvement (after the Valleywag article), and withdrew the ads from their site. Others, including Mike Arrington defended their campaign, even after Federated Media pulled the ads. If you want a more detailed description of the controversy, I recommend checking out Jeff Jarvis's thoughtful post on the topic.

While some have tried to turn this into a question of whether bloggers should be accepting advertising revenue (the answer is obviously yes, ads have been a major source of revenue for media for over a century), the larger question here is the blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial content.

In my old newsroom I never once had a conversation about underwriting (I worked in public radio, so I won't get into the fine line between underwriting and advertising -- I would guess that most listeners don't notice the difference).

When I began blogging I was a bit concerned that it would be hard to keep a strong editorial firewall. But Weblogs Inc and AOL (the parent companies of Download Squad and TV Squad), are at least as good at maintaining a separation of church and state as most old media companies. And for this personal blog, I use services like Google AdSense, because they take most of the control out of your hands. You're not picking and choosing your advertisers, and there's no real pressure to write positive reviews of any particular product, because you never really know what's going to be advertised on your site.

But once you get into campaigns like the "People Ready" one, you're seeing bloggers taking an active role in advertising. And once that happens, you'll never know if you can really trust that blogger's words in the future, or if they're making sponsored endorsements. In fact, probably the best thing about the Federated Media campaign is that it was so blatantly obvious. It highlighted who some of these bloggers are.

I respect Om Malik, Mike Arrington and the others, so I doubt I'll stop reading their blogs. But this incident might make me pause to think a bit more about what exactly it is that I'm reading.

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