The conversational nature of blogs allows editors to ask their readers to weigh in--even decide--issues that affect the publication. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Michael Arrington at TechCrunch empowered his readers to determine whether the site should accept advertising from Izea. Arrington agreed to abide by the results of the poll. After 24 hours, voting concluded with just under 3,500 people taking part.
Traditional news outlets often establish a wall between the editorial and advertising departments to maintain editorial independence. In other words, the people who line up advertisements have no say in the content, and the editorial staff is completely removed from deciding which advertising clients to engage. Of course, such an arrangement is all but impossible for most blogs and other small publications. These small outlets often have a staff of one, and even with a half-dozen at the helm it may not make sense to dedicate an entire employee to handle advertising.
Since June 2006, TechCrunch has gone on the offensive against PayPerPost (now Izea). The company pays bloggers to write reviews of products, and Arrington has stated on numerous occasions that he's opposed to the business model. He's taken particular exception to the fact that when the company first launched, PayPerPost did not require bloggers to disclose their payment status. PayPerPost has since revised its policies, but TechCrunch has remained a vocal critic of the company.
Since that time, PayPerPost has expanded under the banner Izea and now offers a number of products that go beyond paid-blogging opportunities. Izea CEO Ted Murphy approached Michael Arrington recently about advertising its RealRank application at TechCrunch. Rather than simply deciding for himself whether it is an appropriate advertising client, Arrington turned the decision over to his readers by creating a simple poll.
In his blog post, Arrington points out that he himself is opposed to allowing Izea advertise at TechCrunch: "If you're wondering how I'm voting on this--well, the very first vote is a 'no.'" He also states that, "it should go without saying that even if we accept their advertising, it isn't going to affect our editorial coverage of the company." But while elucidating this stance, he actually contradicts himself: "In fact, I may go more negative just to prove we're neutral." I asked Arrington about this and he told me: "The statement about going more negative on them was more tongue-in-cheek than anything, but I can see how someone coming from your perspective could see it as an odd statement."
Among the 177 comments that the entry generated, a significant portion indicated that it seemed inappropriate for Arrington to turn this decision over to his readership; many felt that this was nothing more than an attempt to shirk his responsibility as editor. Some argued that he should just take the money and run, whereas others indicated that they felt the company was contributing to Internet pollution and shouldn't even be considered as a potential advertiser. A few pointed out that the TechCrunch story itself may have been more valuable than any advertisement deal, and shunned Arrington for giving Izea the ink.
As I was reading through the comments, it dawned on me that the best solution might be to establish a policy for potential advertisers and make the decision around that policy. Only one commenter, Mike, echoed that sentiment. In his comment, he quotes Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo: "If we reject ads that we disagree with, every ad we accept becomes, to one degree or another, a de facto endorsement."
While it would appear that TechCrunch doesn't have a clearly defined ad policy, Arrington told me that it actually does have a policy and that CEO "Heather (Harde) would have likely sold them the ad based on our policies. But PPP brings up such strong negative feelings in our readers that we thought it best to poll them before taking the ad. Given the results, I'm very glad we did."
If the site doesn't allow Murphy to advertise, does this equate to an endorsement of the companies that are permitted to promote their wares at TechCrunch? I'm sure Arrington would argue that it does not, but Marshall does make a good point why it should.
One of the companies on the advertising roster at TechCrunch is Text Link Ads (TLA). The same company also runs ReviewMe which is a competitor to PayPerPost. If TLA was able to advertise without the approval of TechCrunch readers like Izea's RealRank, then there really is a sort of tacit endorsement for TLA and its ReviewMe subsidiary; however, as Arrington points out, TLA has been a TechCrunch advertiser for a long time, and the blog has refused to run advertisements for ReviewMe.
Let's face it, dealing with advertising while maintaining journalistic integrity is a tricky business. There are no easy answers and, in a world of emerging information technologies, we're all bound to encounter some snafus. I think that Michael Arrington's attempts to let the readers decide about a controversial advertiser like Izea probably seemed like a good idea at the time and I completely understand his reasoning, but I definitely don't think that it was the savviest thing he could have done.
Ad-hoc experiments in democracy are not a substitute for a sound advertising policy, and unless the readers will be given the opportunity to weigh in on every potential advertiser (which Arrington says they will not), then this experiment may have actually served to diminish the editorial independence of TechCrunch.
Once the polls had been tabulated, the Izea's advertisement was narrowly rejected (1,913 to 1,524). But this rejection only has any meaning if the readers are now given an opportunity to reject the existing ad campaigns at TechCrunch and are empowered to make these decisions in the future as new advertising opportunities are presented.