I was speaking with Brian yesterday afternoon, and he suggested what should have been obvious, that I open up to the public and talk about this with the blog-o-sphere. It all started a couple days ago when we at BlipMedia reeled in a new client interested in pursuing an aggressive marketing plan in launching his new website. Amongst the many resources we at Blip have to offer in the way of marketing new products and services, we have a quite a few very popular and influential podcasters and bloggers that are users at Blip. Suddenly, it occurred to us that there are people in our client base and beyond, who would like to pay our bloggers and podcasters for their positive opinion of their new or existing venture.
This excited us at first. It presents a great opportunity for us to facilitate more interest (figuratively and literally) in independent journalism and it’s with those two words we stop short. We’re talking about independent journalism here. What does a journalist have but his credibility, anyways? If a journalist starts selling his opinion to the highest bidder, doesn’t that run counter to our stated mission?
In case you missed it, we at Blip have a stated mission of fostering independent media, and turning on it’s ear the flawed business model that has sustained Mainstream Media since it’s inception. Very directly, the question becomes: “What are the ethics involved with independent journalism and profit models?” As with most good questions, the answers aren’t very cut and dried, and they become more complex the more you analyze them.
It isn’t coincidence that this topic is coming up in front of the podcasting community of Blip, I would imagine. A lot of bloggers are starting to look at the various business models involved with blogging for dollars, although there is a growing community of those who would wish we’d call it “ProBlogging.”
On the whole, a recent conversation from BlogHer-Con was pretty revealing on the aspects of pro-blogging I have questions about. Elisa Camahort started the session by asking her panel the question we just asked: “Where do you draw the line when you start thinking about money? Are you trading credibility when you put ads on your blog?” After we discard our wishy-washy ‘create-your-own-ethics’ answers, we aren’t left with much. My personal opinion on this is that if you are using a service with a model close to Google’s AdSense or Overture, there isn’t much credibility question.
Let me explain. The genuine flaw in advertising models today comes from conflicts of interest. If your entire television program is underwritten by pharmaceutical interests, how can we trust you to be honest when it comes to revealing the side-effects of popular dieting pill, for instance. Services like AdSense and Overture take that problem out of the mix – you aren’t bound to the advertisers that are on your site or media project, they are just randomly mixed in based on keyword bids and context searches. To dig a little under the surface on this one, yes, I’m aware there are sneaky ways to cheap the system into making more money for you, like blogging about topics who’s keywords are above average on the pay-per-click scale, but in my experience, efforts like that are entirely transparent, as bloggers who engage in that tend to not have much other interesting content.
Back to our original question, though: “Is credibility destroyed when you’re paid for your opinion?” Let’s not forget history here, the Daily Kos is still reeling from it’s run in with lack of disclosure when they took money from the Dean campaign to say positive things about him (to the tune of $12,000). On the other hand, how many people do you know stop listening to their favorite drive-time DJ because he’s doing a 120–second spot for flowers, car insurance, and record stores? Independent journalism comes in just as many forms as mainstream media, and a one-size-fits-all approach can’t be used for paid-placement.
The trouble comes, I think, from the blurred lines of blogging and podcasting. One of the elements of independent media is the personal feel to it – you not only feel more connected to your favorite blogger or streaming radio host, you are more connected to them. You count on their periodic injections of personal opinion or mundane goings-on to keep things interesting for you. It is this feeling that makes paid-placement an attractive marketing tool – the sales pitch can be thrown in under the radar (to mix a few metaphors).
I have a couple proposals for how to deal with this, and I’d like to invite my readers and users in on this discussion so that we can refine them and come to a consensus. If you are going to be paid to write an opinion piece to market something, I think that it goes without saying for those who consider themselves journalists that it should be marked somewhere in the entry itself that this is a paid-opinion piece. A clever blogger or podcaster will be able to work it into the entry seamlessly, instead of having a stamp somewhere denoting it’s status. For those that consider themselves entertainment based, I’m not certain a disclaimer should be required; certainly not for those that are link and review based sites.
Who makes the decision on the genre? It’s hard to imagine that anyone but the author would be qualified to make that judgement call, but on the other hand, who wants to tempt an otherwise credible journalist with a decision like that, and possibly bring controversy down on their head? If the folks over at the Kos were never approached by the Dean campaign, who knows if they would have sold out like that?
Let’s come to a conclusion on this – I encourage you to comment here on the site or to email me privately with your thoughts