Charles Arthur 

A blogger or a journalist? Debate over the power and influence of tech writers

Charles Arthur: Newsweek's Dan Lyons accuses bloggers of reinventing PR, dressing it up as journalism and playing at venture capitalism
  
  

The debate asking "Are bloggers journalists?" was exhausted by about 2005. (Answer: yes.) But in Silicon Valley, the question is being asked differently: are there times when bloggers shouldn't be journalists?

The issue was raised in a titanic rant by Dan Lyons, technology editor for Newsweek and now for Tina Brown's Daily Beast website. He accused the latest breed of bloggers-turned-journalists – who have, in turn, morphed into venture capitalists – of basically reinventing PR, and dressing it up as journalism.

"Hit men, click whores and paid apologists: Welcome to the Silicon Valley cesspool" he wrote on his personal blog this month. It was illustrated with pictures of Michael Arrington, the founder of the TechCrunch blog, and MG Siegler, a longtime friend of Arrington's, who still writes for TechCrunch, both offering an Adele-style finger to the camera; the post suggested that the duo are doing much the same to the idea that journalism should be independent, reliable and open. Lyons wrote of journalists envious of just writing about people getting rich when they felt that they should be getting rich themselves, and finding a simple solution: use your prominence and influence to rustle up a bit of funding from Valley venture capitalists (VCs) and create your own VC fund.

Then, he suggested, you might go around to various companies and offer inconsequential bits of funding – $100,000 here and there – while pointing out how helpful your "influence" in the press could be. The companies take your investment, you write influential things about them and, if the companies thrive, so does your money. And if they don't take the money? Woe betide.

So why picture Arrington and Siegler? Because Arrington is the founder of CrunchFund, a small venture capital fund set up late last year. Siegler joined it in October.

Now, if Arrington or Siegler were working for the New York Times (or any other "mainstream media" organisation) their new role would mean congratulations, followed by a bin liner for their belongings, a trip to the door and wishes of goodbye and good luck. But Arrington wanted to keep writing for TechCrunch, because he is its founder and led it all the way to AOL's acquisition in September 2010 for a rumoured $25m.

That led to a power struggle with Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and head of editorial at AOL, despite only coming aboard when AOL bought her site in February 2011. Arrington couldn't possibly invest in companies and write about them – or competitors. The conflict of interest was obvious. Well, it was to everyone outside. Not that it had troubled Arrington before; as the Columbia School of Journalism noted, "He wrote about companies that were paying him as a consultant, and some that he had actually invested in". (A more telling detailing of how Arrington's favour swung to and fro over companies appears in one of the comments on Lyons's blogpost by "James Matts", who detailed the anti and pro coverage of Airbnb, a social rental company, before and after a TechCrunch-linked investment.)

Journalists like Kara Swisher the grande dame of the Wall Street Journal spinoff blog All Things Digital, laid into Arrington, and AOL (which was an investor in CrunchFund), calling it "hopelessly corrupt" and "a giant, greedy, Silicon Valley pig pile".

But – wait for it – Swisher is married to Megan Smith, a Google vice-president (a fact disclosed at her ATD profile, which is prominently linked from each story), leading Arrington to suggest that "I think someone will think twice before slamming a company and then going to sleep next to an employee of that company."

In the end, Arrington lost the fight with Huffington, though Siegler, despite joining Arrington's VC team, still writes occasionally for TechCrunch.

With that backdrop, Silicon Valley headed into one of its periodic conniptions. Is Arrington really allowed to blog? Of course. Is it journalism? Well … Lyons accused him of in effect acting as a PR man when Path, a social network for the iPhone, was discovered to be uploading users' address book details to its servers. After Nick Bilton of the New York Times laid into it, Arrington complained that all apps doing that should be criticised, not just Path.

Oh, yes, CrunchFund is an investor in Path. Which led to Lyons's post, prompting Arrington to disdainfully dismiss Lyons, writing "I spent a half hour on the phone with [Lyons] a couple of weeks ago at his request to explain how venture funds work because he didn't really understand it". (It seems more likely that Lyons, with decades in the game, was trying to get Arrington to say something unguarded.)

The picture that emerges is of a widening gap between what you could still call the mainstream media – with its weighty ethics – (weightier in the US than the UK, perhaps) and the burgeoning technology blogosphere, where pretty much anything goes. "Journalists" aren't meant to be partial. Or financially compromised. If they are, everything falls apart, because you have to start triangulating on their ownership of stock to know where their interest truly lies. (For completeness: I don't own or control any stock.)

But bloggers? Some have been caught accepting laptops or mobile phones from companies to write favourably about them, but don't disclose it. Others take paid "guest posts" where the payment is not revealed -- so should really be acknowledged as "sponsored posts" -- from companies whose only interest is to boost their search profile. (Google frowns on the latter if it discovers them, but it's in both parties' interest to hush it up.)

Rapid expansion also means that news sites have a constant drive to get content up – which Siegler, as a newly minted venture capitalist, could look languidly back on and proclaim that there was "Content everywhere, but not a drop to drink". He proceeded to raze the town that had raised him: "The drive for page views to generate ad revenues means most stories are written with little or no research done". What's more, as an investor, removed from – as he put it – "the day-to-day of tech blogging professionally", he could see that journalists and startups knew completely different sets of facts. Web journalism was essentially rubbish, and bound to get worse: "I offer no solutions because my honest opinion is that nothing will change where we're headed … the best writers will fall away because the system will no longer favour what they will do." His advice was "to take everything you read in the technology press with a grain of salt. The likelihood that at least part of it is nonsense is very strong. And stronger by the day."

So where did this leave us when, late on Thursday evening, he wrote for TechCrunch that Apple had acquired Chomp, a San Francisco startup which intends to improve search on the App Store? Lacking quotes from anyone – including Apple – was this nonsense journalism, or investor inside info, or what? The WSJ called Apple, which confirmed it. Not nonsense, then.

So, I asked, had he found it out through an investment in Chomp? "Ha – I was waiting for that one," he replied on Twitter. "Of course not, or I would have said something." But wouldn't that be an obvious thing to think? By email, Siegler insisted: "If I used information I learned in confidence as an investor to break stories, I wouldn't be an investor for long. Just as with writing, there's a relationship that is about trust. In writing, it's with your readers. In investing, it's with the entrepreneurs. First and foremost, I'm an investor now. That trumps any story."

It was telling, though, that I had to ask him whether he or his partners had an investment in Chomp? "If I had anything to disclose with that story, I would have disclosed it," he said. "Again, that's about trust – but this time with my readers." (He says he may add a disclosure page to his personal site.)

Yet his disdain for mainstream media wasn't in evidence when the Wall Street Journal story didn't mention his story as its origin; Siegler was furious at the lack of acknowledgement. Why? "If you learned about information elsewhere, you should state that. I have no problem with confirming it separately, obviously, but just be honest in acknowledging that you didn't happen upon this information independently," he responded by email.

Felix Salmon, the finance blogger for Reuters, suggests Siegler overheated. "Does it matter whether someone else had the news two hours earlier? Not in the slightest. Is MG Siegler overreacting massively? Yes. Breaking the news of an M&A [mergers and acquisitions] deal is the most transient high in the world."

Possibly Siegler hasn't quite worked off that thrill that keeps many journalists in the job – being first with the news. Is it that which makes a journalist? But Lyons, noting an LA Times piece which had spoken to a number of Silicon Valley bloggers – including Arrington – who have used the "venture funding" model, had a simple response. The LA Times piece, he said, was "a great article but it makes one mistake, which is to think that these guys are journalists, and that they care about things that journalists care about. They're not, and they don't."

• This article was amended on 27 February 2012 because the original referred to "James Matts" as "James Mann". The original has also been clarified to explain that "guest posts" where payment is not revealed should be acknowledged as "sponsored posts".