By Brad Hem
Last week, Jon Christian at The Outline shined a big, bright light on a dirty corner of the PR-journalism industrial complex. Contributors to Mashable, Fast Company, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and likely numerous others accepted personal payments from marketers and PR people in exchange for mentioning their clients in stories, he reported under the banner “Bribes for Blogs.”
PR and media professionals endure enough questions about our credibility without a few people working the system for their own gain, and I’m happy to see it exposed. Every client wants to see their company’s name in one of those outlets, and while TDL has successfully gotten many of our clients coverage in them, we have also had our story ideas shot down by all of them – probably more often than not.
Unfortunately, it’s only a symptom of a bigger problem. Over the last decade-plus, newsrooms have shrunk as media properties struggled with shrinking revenues. Just Tuesday, Mashable’s new owner, Ziff Davis, announced it would cut 50 people. But even with smaller newsrooms, publications still have to pump out content to satisfy their audiences. To meet that demand, many have increased their reliance on outside contributors willing to write for free in exchange for getting their names out there or the gravitas that comes with a byline on a prominent site.
That in and of itself isn’t so much a problem either. I know plenty of contributors who hold themselves to high standards and follow the strict guidelines media outlets provide for what they can cover and how they cover it. I’ve also seen some write blatantly promotional articles about companies they have relationships with. Probably every PR person has a story about a writer – notice I didn’t say reporter or journalist – who ignored or rejected their pitch but then went on to cover essentially the same story about the client’s competitor. It’s frustrating and tough to explain to the client.
As a journalist, I never would have accepted money for a story, and as a PR practitioner, I never would offer payment for coverage. One of the more disturbing details in this article was how commonplace this practice seems to be among some marketers. TechCrunch reporter John Biggs didn’t even seem surprised by the practice. He gets offered money for coverage 2-3 times a month. Thankfully he ignores them.
I’m not such an idealist that I think this Outline story will completely end this cancerous practice in an ailing journalism industry, but it seems to be having a positive effect so far. Several articles and profiles have disappeared from the exposed sites and no doubt some editors will take a harder look at some of their contributors. That’s progress even if it doesn’t completely resolve the problem.
In today’s world where reporters somehow trail used car salesmen in trustworthiness polls, we have all, at some level, come to question the legitimacy of what we read and hear from even the most distinguished and established news sources. Sadly, this (thankfully) exposed practice will plant even more seeds of doubt in the minds of readers. It is a very real source of disappointment and frustration for journalists and PR practitioners alike who hold themselves accountable to the longstanding journalism code of ethics.
Having worked as a reporter, I have tremendous respect for the role of journalism in our society and democracy. It’s been hard to watch the industry flail for the last decade-plus. So much of that was due to circumstances beyond its control, but it drove these publications to create an environment where this kind of ethical lapse could not only happen but become a widespread accepted practice. Many of these outlets have a strict editing process that all articles go through, even for contributed content, while others allow contributors to post at will, which is dangerous and leaves the door wide open for this type of corruption. That said, even if it goes through the scrutiny of the editorial team, it is often next to impossible to decipher whether a company mention was bought or is actually a legitimate and relevant part of a story.
We cannot ask business and technology writers to simply stop mentioning businesses and technology altogether. Which means it is up to us, as practitioners, journalists, agencies and media like The Outline, which values what is left of the integrity and original mission of the PR and journalism industries, to call it when we see it and remove the disease before it eats us whole.