<![CDATA[Shill or new-age delusional, I am accused of being wrong to take the Marqui deal according to two folks who have jobs at well-funded blog publishers. One, Stowe Boyd, whom I've shared conference rooms with but never talked to, still says I am a shill while hectoring about the civilities of the blogging community, and Jason Calacanis, whom I count as a friend and will continue to, says I've gone over to the dark side.
So, let's dive in and review: My points about the ethical questions these and other folks have raised are well documented in other posts, so I'm going to take the Fisking approach to this particular argument, citing what I've already written before rather than get extensively into new territory. First, let me say that this is exactly the kind of debate and discussion we need to have as bloggers embrace filthy lucre in many ways, rather than just the one old-style ethical model of traditional publishing.
I don't want to assume that anyone involved in this debate is actually aware that the publishing business model itself has evolved rather dramatically and, therefore, it's form in 1995 was only a temporary not a permanent state of affairs, but I believe Stowe and Jason know that. We should be actively engaged in this process of learning how to change. We should have bloggers set up sites to police blog ethics (how would they earn revenue, one wonders?), but we should not have bloggers descending to name-calling, which I feel Stowe's argument has fallen to when it off-handedly in the opening sentence calls Marqui-sponsored bloggers "shills."
Jason’s posting first, since I hear his plaintiff cry and appreciate it.
This Canadian company that no one has heard about has started hiring a bunch of bloggers to write about their products for $800 a month. It’s up to the writer to disclose they are in on the take. As anyone who reads my blog knows, I hate the idea of sponsors buying the editorial space.
I’m fine with Nike Art of Speed, just like I’m ok with magazine inserts.
I’m also totally cool with people holding contests on their blogs and giving away products… that’s just fine.
I love the idea of people having cutting edge, even text-based, advertising on their blogs… as long as they are clearly labeled.
What’s wrong with Canadians or companies coming from nowhere trying to find an audience? Unless I am sorely mistaken, most Canadians like most Americans and they have as much right as, oh, say, X10 (to pick the most annoying company from nowhere) to place marketing dollars in the market to attract attention. But, I dealt with this critique in detail, first criticizing Marc Canter’s original plan in my Red Herring blog, where I said:
Bloggers do what they do for enlightened, ordinary, and hedonistic reasons. Suggesting there is one reason people blog is silly; that is why the real challenge for anyone looking at the blogosphere as a market is not to try to manage conversations, but to figure out where to enter them authentically.
This is where Marc Canter’s suggestion that bloggers be paid to write comes into play: a fee paid for words generated about a product doesn’t treat the blogger as a conversationalist, but as a performer. When bloggers do talk with genuine enthusiasm about a product, as Joi Ito did about a set of Shure earphones, or with disdain, sales figures may be impacted dramatically in the short or long term.
But just paying the blogger to mention a product – whether with positive or negative sentiments – doesn’t a conversation make.
However, it does make sense for would-be advertisers to join a conversation on a site where they think they can make headway on their product’s behalf.
A blogger, having assembled a small or large audience of people who care about a specific issue, whether it is gaming systems, a car, or a favorite species of cat, is similar to a good host whose party the advertiser wants to be invited to.
Mr. Canter suggests that advertisers can pay to have their product discussed at the party, no matter how small it may be. Weblogs co-founder Jason Calacanis says that the party has to reach a critical mass before any advertiser will care, but any inauthenticity will scuttle a blog’s credibility before the host can cash in.
And later, after I had agreed to write the contract that Marqui used, I wrote:
At every publication and at the ON24 Network, we’ve had a rigorous system for keeping ad people out of editorial (it only occasionally involved cattle prods) and as an editor at other publications I had to wrestle and still wrestle with the business side over the supposed influence of a dollar coming in the door. In the newsletter business, for instance, the battle is whether or not subscribers will get your honest opinion or simply get you to tell them what they want to hear so they can use it in their business presentations.
There are bloggers who rave about the free hardware they use, but don’t tell you it was free. There are bloggers who go on junkets and don’t disclose that their way was paid by a company they are suddenly in love with. There are reviewers who use and keep products, but never mention that they especially like to keep certain products for which they have become cheerleaders. We’re all human, but until Stowe actually explains a substantive difference between a flat $800-a-month sponsorship agreement and the various advertising and marketing programs his company offers, I’m going to reiterate that his accusation we Marqui-sponsored bloggers have become second-class citizens is not well-founded.
The proof will lie with the people on both sides of the argument, though I am not going to spend a lot of time and effort—probably none—policing the other guys, like Corante, since my focus is on what I want to write about. That’s where I’ll be judged and I’m perfectly content with that….
Marqui did not go with the original version of the contract that I wrote, but it did use my language about how and when to acknowledge the sponsorship, the lack of requirements that there be a length or qualitative standard, though it did introduce an anti-obscenity provision that I think was a mistake. I also have no interest in earning referral revenue, because that requires active selling, which I believe is unethical. However, it’s up to the blogger, not the company, which is the essentially positive thing about the Marqui experiment. I am being criticized here (in comments) by a blogger who would more actively discuss the product, so I just can’t win (and Marc should hire the guy to write about Marqui, too).
Back, then, to Jason:
Heck, I’m not even so offended when Nick has his writers thank the sponsors each week (although that is a little much, and I don’t know if I could get away with telling my bloggers to do that!).
This is exactly what I am doing here. What is the difference, Jason, between what I wrote and what you say doesn’t offend you over at your erstwhile competitor’s site? The similarity between yours and Nick’s companies, in that they are well funded, is striking in light of this apparent hypocrisy.
Jason goes on:
Bottom line: I’m a capitalist who loves to make money. Now, it’s not the money so much as the fact that the money let’s me pay great writers to build build great brands—that makes me happy. I understand that most media is advertising based, and I support efforts to make advertising more successful for both the marketers and the reader. We’re doing this ourselves at Weblogs, Inc (you’ll notice we are 15% ads and 85% content, and CNET is 85% ads and 15% content—we’re trying to be good, not evil).
Now, the problem I do have is when writers get paid for their editorial space, and their voice. Even if you tell the public what is going on, the public has to wonder about everything you write going forward if you’re in on the take. That is why journalists are not endorsing products. It’s really basic stuff in fact.
Take for example my friend Mitch Ratcliffe. I think Mitch is a really smart guy, I love his blog. However, every time I read his work going forward I’m going to have in the back of my head “Oh yeah, he got paid by the Canadian content management software company… I wonder how that impacts his views?!!?”
If I was running Silicon Alley Reporter again, or if I was the editor of WIRED or New York Times, I would never hire Mitch to do anything related to server software. If I did hire him to cover that space then I would have to run a really dumb disclaimer at the front: “Full disclosure: Mitch got paid $800 bucks a month to write about this obscure Canadian company’s software.”
Trust me, editors hate that. They would rather not hire you then have to deal with such huge conflicts of interest.
Why, I am an editor, too. InnovationWORLD has been charging $12,000 a year for its newsletter (we’re about to lower this figure dramatically, by the way). See, the thing is, I don’t want to write about server software for a living, so where’s this conflict? I do write about business issues, which are not compromised by an advertising relationship that consists of “thanks for the $800” to a “Canadian company.” There’s something decidedly odd about this, because each of Jason’s blogs are vertically focused and, therefore, closely tied to specific advertisers’ spending, which has a direct effect on the blogger’s compensation. I don’t want to write about server software, but his bloggers who do know that they will make more or less based on advertisers’ willingness to support them. I happen to think Gizmodo, one of Nick Denton’s blogs, shills constantly, and since there often are commerce links about the products discussed (or, at least, were last time I looked), this is a starkly unethical form of product placement.
Also, my blog is much more than 85 percent editorial content.
But, hey, to each their own…. This is about choice, which was my point yesterday. We need a lot of experiments going on. To wit, Jason replied:
You know what Mitch, that is a of fancy talk that boils down to giving people an excuse to do unethical stuff. The ethical guidelines in media have been tested for a long time and guess what? They work! I’m all for testing new things, heck Weblogs, Inc. is one big experiement to me–honestly it is, I have no idea if it will work. However, I do know that you don’t have to do experiments to figure out when something is unethical… and taking money to write about people products, and/or trying to fool the public is wrong. No amount of new age thinking will change that.
Now, here’s where I am genuinely surprised at and a bit offended by Jason’s comments. I am not a new ager, the process of learning I am talking about is based on several time-tested approaches, including the academic university system, the evolution of the science and, in cold hard capitalism, the transformation of companies’ business processes. The committee of ethical behavior Jason advocates is the opposite. It would establish a single standard and if others didn’t conform to it, use their position as a platform for valuing other blogs, which is what companies with several million dollars can do, whether in technical standards or touchy-feely arenas like journalistic ethics. Jason says:
Well, the idea behind the ethics group is that it would not oversee anyone. It would be *OPT IN* only. If you believe in these principles then you can signup and put this icon on your homepage. If enough folks do that, and the public likes it, then maybe it someday means something.
However, this is not the ethics police as some folks are trying to spin it as. This is the “we are a group of folks with ethics, and we want to promote that with our community” group.
I guess I should be flattered (or scared) that people think of me (and Nick) as some masters of the universe. Nick has eight blogs, Weblogs, Inc. has 65. That’s 73 blogs. There are 2-4.5 million blogs out there depending on who you believe. Nick and I represent like
We’re not trying to tell folks what to do, we’re doing what we think is right and letting people join us for the ride if they want to. Not sure how people got the idea that this was going to be some oversight organization… Nick and I both said that this was not an oversight group, but rather a working group for people to opt into. Additionally, I said i had no interest in doing it alone, and I don’t care if i don’t have any official position in the group… I’ll support it as a member.
Finally, if we do this anyone can be involved and there is no money involved.
The point is not that Jason and Nick are masters of the universe, they just have funding. That’s all. I am bootstrapping a side-business, partly to help find a business model for bloggers that doesn’t involve being part of a company, which I believe has some downsides along with the obvious benefits. That funding will be used to establish and drive the ethical standards committee, just as Microsoft often spends money to support standards discussions in order to influence them and get an early certification advantage. I like the fact that my readers judge me, that I don’t have to put a badge on my site that says I’m okay.
I’ve quit jobs at huge publishing companies because I didn’t need a cubicle and the company’s computers and network resources to do my job, the cost was that I had to start over with regard to my ability to get some people to take calls from just Mitch Ratcliffe and not MacWEEK or SoftBank. But I’ve never had to appeal to anyone about my ethics, because I have consistently disclosed conflicts of interest. I write and do other things and write about it all, because I write largely as avocation. That’s why this blog, even though it doesn’t fit the new Merriam-Webster definition precisely, can still be called “a blog.” It’s personal. I’m involved in the things I write about, just as Jason is.
The reason I find the Marqui program acceptable is precisely that I am a champion of the decentralized publishing model that treats every writer as an entrepreneur. I believe in the freelancer and the rigorous management of integrity that freelancers have to do. It keeps them far sharper than people on staff who are lulled into complacency or threatened into compliance with lay-offs. There are new challenges that come with that model that blur the lines of the traditional publishing model, and let’s not forget that even today many publishers hire writers for their political stance or willingness to write pabulum about products, like movies, cars and software. The publishing model of 30 years ago was very different than today. Fifty years ago, the publisher would have been unable to recognize today’s magazine inserts. A hundred years ago, publishers wouldn’t have thought twice about firing a reporter whose facts disagreed with the publisher’s politics; those publishers lost out.
Back to Jason:
If Mitch goes and does ten of these deals a year, and makes $5,000 on each deal then he’s got $50,000 in his pocket for “just blogging.” However, every time he goes to write something—on his blog or somewhere else—everyone is going to say “wasn’t he paid by IBM, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, JetBlue, Tivo, Diet Dr Pepper, MoveAble Type, Dell and EBAY to write about their products? I wonder how that plays into his opinion about X, Y and Z????”
I think you get my point by now. Selling out like this for the quick buck makes everyone think about you as a sellout for the rest of your life.
Look at Mitch’s last post:
Okay, it’s Thursday and this is the first of my weekly postings thanking Marqui for its sponsorship of this blog. I appreciate that they can get behind the wide-ranging subjects that I talk about and I hope you’ll check out their communications management system for the enterprise, because it would be great to have the checks keep coming.
Sad. Every week jumping through the hoop for spare change… come on, really.
What is really stupid about the whole thing is that you could just work hard and get 500,000 page views a month and charge a $8 CPM and make the same kind of money. Of course, that would take months of hard work… taking $800 a month for selling out is so much easier.
Come on Mitch, you are so above this pandering. You’re a great writer, and this whole thing is making you look like schmo. I know you’re not a schmo, but this is how you look. I’m your friend, I’m telling you straight: give the money back (or to charity) and keep your dignity.
Mr. Canter’s idea envisions paying bloggers who agree to post about a particular product, even if they say it consumes every day for three months. Of course, if they do that the company paying the blogger is going to cut them off. And if a blogger does praise the product incessantly, his audience probably will stop reading the blog. Without an audience, the blogger’s purpose – the fun that makes this look like a promising business – will be wiped out.
A three-month guarantee of payment, which Mr. Canter promises his client will pay, isn’t enough to make up for the loss of a blog. Likewise, no company can subsidize endless criticism. There has to be a compensation structure both blogger and advertiser benefits from, but it remains to be negotiated.
Since that time, I’ve done some of that negotiating, writing the contract that I think encompasses a fair and equitable range of choices for the blogger and sponsor. I don’t think Jason has kept up on that, instead he believes Marc Canter’s original posting is representative of what the Marqui program is today.
What is also very telling about Jason’s final screed is that it envisions an economic model that simply doesn’t apply to many of the blogs in the world. I’ve “worked hard” on this blog at various times over the last two-and-a-half years and have about 100,000 total page views. While Jason cites an $8 CPM, he hasn’t proven he actually gets that by issuing the kind of transparent accounting statements I praised yesterday when point to Bill Gross’ handling of Snap’s books. Instead, I opted for transparency from the very beginning. I told my readers I got $800 for a specific type of placement and I am sticking to the subjects I want to write about here. The postings thanking my sponsor are clearly labeled by their content as commercial messages. If it would be better to make the headline “Blatant Commercial: Thanks, Marqui” then I would welcome that feedback.
Now, over to Stowe Boyd, who has labeled this program “Marquiism… a vice, but not one that should lead to the banishment from the community of bloggers, or jail time.”
Robin Good recapitulates the now-standard argument for Marquiism: we are paid to mention, but not praise; our reputations remain intact; its not really different from ads; readers will ultimately judge Marquiists on the value of their words; we serve them, not Marqui….
Alan Herrel (the head lemur) asks “We can disagree, but before tarring and feathering , don’t you think that a little evidence is in order?” Hmmm. I don’t really think I am leaping to conclusions. My argument is that being paid to write about a company, without clearing marking it as a sponsored entry, a form of advertisement [a practice we are open to, by the way, at Corante] is ultimately confusing to readers who are unacquainted with the subtleties involved in Marquiism. That’s all. Its confusing, and as a result it will (to at least some extent) debase the purported goals of social media — to have an open dialogue based on personal convictions.
Ted Rheingold, Ralph Poole, and John Furrier chime in with me, replaying the themes of loss of trust, independence, and the small-potatoes aspect of Marqui’s money. Why risk so much for so little?
I’d actually like a clarification about what practice Corante is open to—Stowe seems to describe a relationship with advertisers that has deep implications for Corante’s reputation. But, yes, Stowe is jumping to conclusions. My posting about Marqui’s sponsorship was a blunt as can be and in no way misleads the reader.
Then there is question about the “small-potatoes aspect of Marqui’s money.” This is a perception borne of the traditional publishing model, which does deal in large monetary figures for hundreds of millions of page views. For the rest of us, small businesspeople who are balancing our ability to earn a living against blogging time. None of the Marqui bloggers gets a pay check from a company for their writing, and none of us carries overhead that requires a big-potatoes money. Condemning the amount paid per month as worth less than the sums paid to Corante, Weblogs Inc. or Gawker is imposing an arbitrary financial comparison on the two business models, the established media model and the bootstrapped publication, that bears no relationship to the goals of the organizations involved. Moreover, there is not one approach that can be labeled Marquiism, because different bloggers in the program are taking different approaches to the sponsorship.
I look forward to making some judgments based on what actually happens, but for now the protestations of well-funded blog publishers that their way is the only way is the only premature claim I see.]]>