I’ve been watching with great interest this silly little debate about integrity and journalism between Marco Arment, John Gruber, and Joshua Topolsky, and I couldn’t resist the urge to comment.
First, a quick summary of the issue. A number of prominent tech sites, including The Verge and Engadget, wrote articles about the HP Spectre One all-in-one desktop computer, which looks suspiciously like an Apple product ripoff (think Thunderbolt Display bolted on top of a MacBook Air, with the same wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad as an iMac). Each of these sites neglected to mention the similarities with said Apple products.
And so Marco noticed and alleged this was due to said tech sites being toothless and wanting to remain chummy with OEMs because their business model depends on it. Gruber chimed in and believes that this has more to do with these sites taking an editorial position that more closely aligns their views with those of certain readers who believe these manufacturers are not copying Apple, are entitled to do so, or one of many other similar positions. Topolsky responded with a pretty emotional and heated post. After that, a bunch of Internet ego dick wagging happened on Twitter.
Egos aside, I’m more interested in discussing what I believe to be the core issue with the business model of sites like The Verge that leave the door open for these types of omissions.
I haven’t worked as a journalist, but I have worked on the other side of the fence, in PR. Tech news sites, like any other news sites, are faced with a few fundamental problems: a high volume of news stories, too few resources to adequately cover them in depth, and fighting the clock to get “breaking” news out the door and on the site. These sites primarily make their money through advertising, which either directly or indirectly pays higher returns for greater pageviews. This means there is an incentive to be the first to break a story, to have an exclusive scoop, or take a controversial position on an issue. With so much competition, if you’re too slow in getting to a story, you’re losing out on potential “eyeballs” from referrals and other sources.
On the flip side, companies like HP and their PR agencies spend a lot of time and money trying to craft compelling pitches and use other tactics to get the interest of journalists. The gold standard for PR is that your press release gets published verbatim in whole or in part. Runner up would be that your messaging and spin is intact, even if the words aren’t. Providing the messaging isn’t totally over-the-top, journalists are happy to do this because they are working on deadline, and need to post a high volume of stories in a timely manner. This means there’s no time for editorializing straight news like a first-look piece. This is how the PR business stays alive and stays successful, and news sites keep costs down and revenue up.
What it comes down to, I think, is not a desire to suck up to OEMs, or to pander to Android and PC loving readers, or willful maliciousness by sites like The Verge, as Marco and Gruber seem to believe, but rather a sort of unintentional journalistic laziness that results from the pressures of the job and these publications’ business models.