Disclosure: the rules are in flux for all

Stephen Baker

Michael Arrington writes:

We don’t fit into a neat little box like traditional media, who refrain from financial conflicts of interest with their readers and feel that they are therefore above reproach. They aren’t, but they really, really feel that they are, and look down on blogs and other media as the unwashed masses.

Heather and lots of others responded to his post. Nick Carr previously wrote a treatise on the subject. But there's an assumption that runs from Arrington to Carr that while traditional media have set standards on disclosure and conflicts of interest, blogs still have to figure things out. I think all of us, blogs and mainstream outfits alike, are all facing tough questions. This is because all of us are embarking into new businesses and business models where the old rules don't necessarily work.

Arrington's right that we used to be in neat little boxes. As I wrote the other day, traditionally the editor in chief handled the relationships with the rest of the world. That included readers and, to a certain degree, advertisers. Working down below, we never came into contact with advertisers or the business side of the magazine. We were production workers. I never once heard if an advertiser was unhappy with a story. If there was unhappiness from that side, or financial pressure, the top editors buffered us from it.

They still do at the magazine. But the magazine business, like most media, is in flux. The challenge for all of us is to be more entrepreneurial, establish new media products and services, new businesses and franchises, and yes, generate revenue. True, church and state still respect boundaries. We journalists don't cut deals. But we're much closer to the businesses than we used to be. In a sense, we're more like bloggers (even those of us who aren't yet blogging). As this trend continues, I have no doubt that more and more of us are going to get paid from these side businesses. They could be sponsored podcasts, TV series, speaking engagements. Business 2.0 has already announced plans to pay bonuses to in-house bloggers who generate good traffic. In a sense, they're running their own businesses. The lines between inside and outside will continue to blur. And as that blurring occurs, big media will be grappling with many of the same disclosure and conflict of interest issues now debated in the blogs.

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