What constitutes journalistic independence?

This post is likely to piss off  a lot of people, but here goes.

 The discussion regarding credibility and ethics related to sponsored-content as been civil and illuminating, and has generally reaffirmed my belief that there are now many forms of valid B2B communication, even if one believes one is morally superior to all others.  The one uncomfortable part of the discussion has been the veiled accusations of moral failure for certain individuals and organizations.

 So last night I did a quick content snapshot of several publications. On one side I looked at sponsored-content sites, including New Tech Press in that category.  On the other side I looked at three sites that identify themselves as independent journalism. This is what I found.

 On the independent sites, there were 40 to 50 pieces of content.  On one site, eight pieces were original and the other 42 were press releases, articles paid for by sponsors, and ads.  On the second site there were five rewritten press releases, a video interview of an executive from an advertising company, 20 verbatim press releases, seven ads and two pieces of original reporting. On the third site there were 8 ads, 15 pieces of original content feature representatives of site advertisers, and 10 verbatim press releases, and three pieces of original content not featuring advertisers.

 Over on the sponsored sites, all content was original, New Tech Press had three pieces that mentioned sponsors, but were primarily about applications that included several companies' technologies, and 10 non-sponsored pieces.   Spark and Intel Free Press, on the other hand, did not mention the sponsoring companies in the content at all, except to point out that the content had been subsidized.  There were no ads, press releases (rewritten or verbatim), no contributed opinion pieces from corporations.  Moreover, the links in the text directed readers away from the sites 9 times out of 10, and always to other independent sources.

 What can we assume from this?  Does true journalistic independence mean that multiple sponsors pay the freight in exchange for 80 percent of the real estate on the site... or is it based on personal intent? 

The wall has disappeared

 The argument that a medium is independent, ethical and credible simply because it accepts advertising from multiple sources does not hold water.  The esteemed "wall" between advertising and editorial in the B2B world was obliterated decades ago when publications started accepting contributed articles.  Every time a journalist sits down with an advertiser to discuss his latest product announcement, and then writes a story about it, the wall does not exist.  Every time a journalist picks up a print edition a thumbs through it... and sees who is advertising... the wall does not exist.

 A medium is independent because the people operating it have decided to be independent and ethical.  Only they know the real truth. In the end, it is up to the medium's audience to decide what is credible. If the journalist is intentionally acting independently, or is acting in collusion with the corporation to delude customers, the audience will figure it out.

 Not to get religious on you, but this guy named Jesus said it this way: Don't condemn the intentions of others, unless you want to be condemned as well.

What transparency costs

Something happened this week that brought up the issue of transparency, journalistic independence and why both are needed for a vibrant media that properly serves the industry.  As many of you know, I was asked to start a blog on EDA Cafe back in June and started a series of podcasts focusing on the bottom line of design automation.  in other words, finding out the industry could justify its existence financially to its customers.  

We started out with a couple of interviews with the CEOs of Magma and Tanner EDA and then of the Real Intent CEO.  The first two readily admitted that figuring out the real ROI of EDA tools is something that has not been done well and needs to be done better.  The third interview had the same revelation, but you might notice that the interview is no longer available on EDA Cafe.  Real Intent lodged a complaint to EDA Cafe regarding the statement in the interview from the CEO that they could not accurately estimate the ROI but were sure they had the right price point on their tool.  I also pointed that out in the written introduction.  They wanted the interview taken down, and since Real Intent pays for their presence on EDA Cafe, their demand was met.  One complaint and it's gone.

So that's what we have to deal with.  Many publications on the internet are ultimately controlled by the companies they cover.  Those publications believe the companies supporting them will pull that support unless the toe the line.  That means, ultimately, you can't really trust the content on those publications.  It's not that the publications are unreliable, just the content they allow on the site because they don't really control it. Specifically, EDA Cafe has not violated any form of journalism ethics because their business model is not set up to maintain them.  They are paid for industry happy talk.

Some people might put New Tech Press into that same category because all the content is sponsored, often by the company that is being written about, but this is where maintaining independence and transparency comes in.  New Tech Press requires sponsoring companies to accept the condition that they can only control the factual content of the material, not the way it is presented.  We maintain the right to contextualize the content.

We recently had an article sponsored and were all ready to publish it when the sponsoring company said they didn't want to be identified as the sponsor.  We refused to publish it on New Tech Press because that request not only violated our agreement, it also violated our commitment to transparency and independence .  I'm sure we will never be approached by that company again, but then, we wouldn't accept their business again either.

My point is, and always has been, that ethics only count when you actually have a choice to maintain them.  I was approached by EDA Cafe to start doing this podcasts and I made it clear, then, that since I am not getting paid to do any of it, I am going to ask the questions I want to ask and post the answers I get.  I don't have to be honest about it.  In fact, some people think if I engage only in happy talk, some companies might be more interested in hiring me.  But I didn't go into this business because I thought I would get rich from it.  I'm in it for truth and to help the industry right itself.

I still have several interviews to finish editing and posting from my time at DAC.  Not sure if EDA Cafe will allow them to be posted, but I'm going to finish what I started.

Oh, I wasn't entirely accurate about the Real Intent interview being taken down.  It is taken down from EDA Cafe.  It is still available on iTunes (search under Lou Covey or the title From the outside in), here, and soon on New Tech Press and the NTP Network partners.