Journalism is Dead. Long Live Journalism.
September 19, 2011
I had an interesting conversation with a tech reporter last week about embargoes and how they are frequently broken. What started as a very specific dialogue about embargoes led to a larger discussion about journalistic ethics, and the very definition of a journalist. In the “old days” it used to be easy to spot them: men, in hats, trench coats, Hemingway notebooks, often looking for the nearest phone-booth to call the newsroom. The reporters of yesteryear had a strict code of standards that included truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. That was then.
Like everything else, everything has changed in world of journalism to the point where most aren’t quite sure who qualifies as a journalist and what standards, if any, they need abide. Example: we have a client who makes widgets, but not just any widgets, these widgets are made for a very specific type of user. Occasionally the WSJ will cover news of the widget world but there is a guy, one dude, with a blog that focuses only on the kind of widgets our client makes. And this dude gets nearly a million visitors to his blog per month – visitors who read about widgets, use widgets, buy widgets. Is he a journalist? Maybe – depends on what defines one. Two years ago this guy was making Hemp necklaces on the beach in Maui. In the interest of being a little less cryptic let’s consider two very high-profile individuals who look like journalists, act like journalists, work like journalists, but claim they’re not journalists and should not be held to the journalistic standards.
David Pogue wrote for MacWorld magazine from 1988 until in left in 2000 to cover personal-technology for the New York Times. Over the years Pogue has written on the coolest consumer technology gadgets and services. A recommendation by Pogue can make an enormous difference for a company and its products. But David Pogue doesn’t consider himself a journalist. Earlier this year in an interview Pogue claimed he is an entertainer – not a journalist. He said “I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career…I try to entertain and inform.” Fascinating stuff. Speaking of fascinating how about a big dose of Michael Arrington?
Arrington is arguably the most loved and hated individual in the technology world. The news (opinion) site he formed in 2005, TechCrunch, has become the object of insaitable desire for tech CEOs, investors, and by extension PR people. Many have gone to great lengths, including taking their clothes off, to get an audience with this often elusive character. Why? Because like with David Pogue a story in TechCrunch can mean life or death for a company, or at least it feels that way. The euphoric feeling a CEO derives from his/her inbox being flooded with congratulatory emails from friends, colleagues, board members, and customers can be as intoxicating as a 5th of Bourbon or hallucinogenic as a special mushroom. We’re not here to talk drugs, but like a drug there are those who have and those who want. Michael Arrington is clearly the Manuel Noriega of the technology media world.
So back to the matter at hand: is Lord Arrington a journalist? If you ask him you’ll likely get a very Arringtonesque “fuck-no I’m not.” Really? He and his former staff ask to be treated like journalists; they want exclusives, they want access, they want the scoop. They won’t however honor embargoes and do play by their own set of rules, because they can. With AOL’s acquisition of TechCrunch and Arrington’s recent departure many argue TechCrunch will never be the same. Is that a good or bad thing? Depends on who you ask. What’s clear is that TechCrunch, and Arrington, had a cataclysmic impact on technology journalism and have re-written the rules of engagement with PR folk.
So where do we go from here – will journalistic rules continue to erode? Are rules needed? After all, there are no (real) rules the PR industry abides by and certianly no punitive measures even when PR folks commit egregious acts. With the rise of Citizen Journalism and Online Journalists we’re certain to witness a continued shift away from what used to be considered the sanctity of journalism.
Until the new rules of journalism are codified I’m going to rely on the old inductive reasoning of the Duck Test: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.