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How do you feel about tech bloggers who invest in tech?

I come from journalism, where ethics precludes investment in the industry you cover. That's why I don't own any stocks or have any investment in any technology company.

But a recent generation of bloggers doesn't feel that way, and believes that if you disclose your interests, you can cover your own industry -- you can even write opinions about companies you have direct investment in.

Strong editorial defenses of Path in a privacy scandal by Michael Arrington and MG Siegler, who are both investors in Path, triggered Dan Lyons to pen a vicious attack on such bloggers, who Lyons called Silicon Valley's "cadre of paid apologists and pygmy hangers-on."

http://www.realdanlyons.com/blog/2012/02/13/hit-men-click-whores-and-paid-apologists-welcome-to-the-silicon-cesspool/

The L.A. Times' +Michael Hiltzik chimes in: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20120222,0,704588.column?track=rss&cid=dlvr.it&dlvrit=52116

What I want to know is: What's YOUR view? Does it matter to you if opinion columnists and bloggers invest in the companies they write about?

(Photo of Michael Arrington by John Keatley: http://www.keatleyphoto.com/blog/2011/09/michael-arrington-outtake/ )
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72 comments
 
To me, it sounds like they are personally invested in those investments doing well and that their opinions should be warily listened to.
 
If you are a journalist, and you are investing on that which you report on then you most certainly have a conflict of interest. You also are possibly involved in insider trading. I don't trust you, disclosure or not.
 
It is about credibility, not only ethics. In my world, if a blogger adds a disclaimer saying (s)he owns stock in that company, I just read it as a news release not an independent opinion.
 
Yeah, I wouldn't trust a guy like that. Telling people where he invests may appear honest, but it's really just openly saying "don't trust me" instead of someone finding out later.
 
Careful, I wouldn't say it's a generation of bloggers, it's a pretty specific collection and they span a reasonable age range.
 
It's a slippery slope. And most will ultimately start to get sucked in. Some may be able to walk the edge longer then others, but sooner then later they need to make a choice and once they go gray they're lost.
 
It absolutely matters to me. Arrington and Siegler didn't have much credibility with me before they started CrunchFund but once it became clear with the Path privacy gaffe that they would be using their bully pulpit to protect companies they are invested in, I lost whatever care I had left for them.
 
If they can remain neutral and openly disclose those investments each time they mention them, then not so bothered as I can dismiss any potential bias in an article. But as it's not typical to disclose it's something I'd prefer didn't happen.
 
Very good question!

Personally, I think it's a huge grey area. By investing in the companies that you blog about, you're opening yourself up to ridicule if your writing is considered "too favorable" to said companies. Readers want objectivity and if you are somehow profiting off of these companies as you write about them, it's hard to prove that you are being objective.

On the other hand, if you are actually offering "full disclosure" on the subject, and your writing/behavior hasn't turned towards Apologetics, then I don't know that I would care very much.

I've never thought about this before. Now I'll have to do some research on the subject. As always, thanks for the thought provoking write-up +Mike Elgan :)
 
In the future, journalists will be required to write 3,000 word essays about why they deserve each paycheck.
 
Well, technically, a Journalist should write about something in a way that, even if his point of view is made clear, you are still able to understand drawbacks or other points of view. If this were practiced, I would say no.

Unfortunately, most of the tech journalism I see today is based in passion and emotional involvement, so my answer is yes.
 
Heard about this on TWIT. Investing in tech companies raises red flags as to the credibility of your opinion (with various levels of sketchiness - M.G.'s actions are particularly fishy). Given that there is no shortage of bloggers sharing their opinions on technology, doubts like these are enough of a reason to ignore these people and focus on other, more honest bloggers.
 
Arrington et al do opinions and those opinions are interesting- something like entertainment. Journalists do reporting and that carries much more weight. However, journalists sometimes do a poor job of weighing conflicting issues because they seek balanced reporting. They can make very non-balanced issues seem balanced. The mainstream political media struggles this way. Bloggers don't.
 
They should not blog or write anything as their opinion doesn't matter no matter how hard they try, whatever they write will be little biased.
 
Tough call.
On the one hand, if they think something is potentially huge, why would they not want to invest in it themselves?
On the other, there can be a tendency for authors to think, if I just disclose this interest then I'm being upfront, and there's no issue. But there is still an issue, it's just been mitigated.
Personally, I guess I accept it under disclosure.
 
It does. To me +Mike Elgan that is a clear conflict of interests. And reduces the opinion of that columnist or blogger to the same level as the sham-wow guy.
 
It is one thing for them to devulge an conflict of interest and I think +Robert Scoble does a good job of that. We all know he works for rackspace and is promoted companies which use their services, in fact that is his job. Others are who to themselves as journalist cross the line and I have stopped following them as a result. Even though he often has a story first, I can only assume that +MG Siegler does because there is a quid-pro-quo and his opinion is a matter of financial self interest even though that interest in not disclosed.To this point I agree with +Kara Swisher and +Leo Laporte journalist only have weight if they come from a vantage point of dis-interested objectivity; like any good judge.
 
Surprised by the number of "if they can remain neutral" comments here. The existence of the conflict tells us they already picked a side. And only fools believe that a conflicted writer can edit out all his bias. Some seeps through, even when no malice is intended. Our worst biases are the ones we don't notice.

That said, even if there is spin, it's always interesting to hear from an "insider" which I think is why such writers continue to be successful.
 
It's the same as Pete Rose; even if you don't bet against your team, no one can know for sure what the motivations are.
 
It doesn't matter to me, whether they invest or not. Bring on some good points, thats all that matters. In case of Path, Arrington made some points that made sense.

Tech journalists sometimes are too critical, it sometimes makes sense, to give the other side of a story.
 
Seems pretty straightforward. Joe Writer writes a glowing review of Product Z telling me it's the most awesome widget since Product X hit the market an entire six months ago. Then he totally transparently discloses that he's an investor in Product Z. Great, thanks for the disclosure, but your review is worthless to me; it's tainted by self-interest. This really is black and white; there are no shades of gray. Be a tech journalist or a tech investor. Either is fine, but you gotta choose.
 
The same way I feel about executives at major firms like Enron boasting record profits while secretly undermining the future of the company.
 
So a blogger covering tech should not invest in tech, because it's a conflict of interest?

That hardly seems fair: if tech is what you know, tech is where you're likely to invest. If a blogger invests in tech, I want a disclaimer about it, and a responsible blogger will provide one. Of course having an investment in a company will affect what the blogger writes about it, but so what? It means they believe strongly enough in a company to invest in it, because it will make them money. It will affect what they say about the company they are invested in, and what they say about the company's competition, but I can adjust for that as long as I am aware they have a stake in the game. I'll be interested in knowing why they have that belief. It might just be they're right and it's a savvy investment.

How much I trust any blogger is based on many factors, and where they put money on the table is only one factor. In the case of Arrington and Siegler, I didn't have that high an opinion of them to begin with, so the fact that they are investors doesn't really matter one way or another.

I expect bloggers to try to separate facts from opinions, and clearly label the latter. I don't expect any blogger to totally succeed - they are human - I just expect them to try.

And I've seen an awful lot of bad coverage from bloggers who don't have money on the table, but are biased in one manner of another about companies they write about, and allow the bias to affect their coverage.

It's like any other form of journalism - there will always be an inherent bias, because human beings are writing it. The trick is being able to know what the bias is, and correct for it as you read. If you don't know what the bias of the source you're reading is, be leery of forming any judgements until you have a better feel.

I'm confident of the quality of my BS detectors and my ability to correct as needed for bias based on whether the writer has a stake in that particular game, so whether a blogger covering tech is also an investor in tech is a non-issue for me as long as I know they investment exists.

(I will leave untouched the question of whether bloggers are journalists. Being one does not automatically mean you are the other.)
 
I prefer journalists to shills. So, ethics first, investments second. If we moved this discussion to another industry (say government intel/defense contractors), people would be less accepting of the cozy relationships. 
 
I think it's unrealistic to have bias-free journalists. I just want clear disclosure in every post when a journalist is also an investor so I know which opinions to take with a pillar of salt.
 
It's definitely an interesting question. I think it's possible for a columnist to invest in a company and give objective opinions about it, but it's very easy to abuse that position for personal gain. It's not quite the same thing as being literally paid to advertise a product, but it raises a similar ethical dilemma.

Even though I recognize this, I am very unlikely to trust someone's opinion on a piece of tech if their portfolio is riding on that product's success. I suppose that's the most important thing: even if you can remain objective, your credibility is shot.
 
Yes it matters. I refuse to read them.
AS for the two gentlemen you mention, they are not opinion bloggers in the remotest; more like mercenaries for hire.
 
+Jim Preston Exactly and I don't want to have to sift through what I think is biased and unbiased. Too much work.
 
I think it is fine to invest in the field you write about, however I would have to opt out of writing about any company I'm invested in.
 
Actually, +Mike Elgan, I think that gives you even more credibility. We live in a time where coverage of practically anything is so mired in vested interests that it's actually refreshing to see you talk about this very important ethics issue. Thanks!
 
Ethics is more for yourself. It's only you who can ask yourself honestly and get the answers.
I would invest with very clearly disclosing the interests.
 
+Mike Elgan I too come from a Journalism background. But doesn't this question go beyond ethics and objectivity -- Isn't there federal law mandating disclosure in the scenarios you referenced?
 
Some bloggers are journalists, and some bloggers want their work to be considered equal to that of a journalist, but don't want to be held to the same requirements. Still, the Internet is different. There is definite value in an intimate perspective. As long as we know who's playing for whom, we should all be able to get along. I agree with +Alex Balcázar, disclaimers are well and good, but that doesn't make it an independent opinion.
 
It's funny how we take it as a given that MG Siegler and Arrington are biased because of their investments, but how many non-tech people know these facts when they are reading articles on the Internet? How many people are aware of the fact that Om Malik of Giga Om is a partner at the VC firm True Ventures? These are important pieces of information to know in order to gauge the quality of the material you are reading.
 
About time someone highlighted +MG Siegler in this way. His rabid support of everything Apple and stubborn opposition to anything Google also seems pretty odd, I'm betting he has some financial interest there as well.
 
It depends. I don't mind disclosure provided the author has no biased towards their own interest. I have seen extreme provocative journalism from techcrunch in general. As a reader, it definitely comes across as opinionated and at times biased leading you to conclude that there is some hidden agenda in that kind of journalism. It definitely streams from the top. This is my view.
As far as your question is concerned, - I see it very common on financial website where an author discloses his position of stock that he is covering.
Take a look at any article at www.seekingalpha.com and there is a disclosure by the author. I think that is the new norm. In a click economy, ethics are left behind egos and agendas. That is a sad fact.
 
I suppose there are plenty of industries where people actively involved tend to invest in what they have become most knowledgeable about, like farmers investing in John Deere. When it comes to journalism... and yes, I consider tech blogging a form of journalism, there is a line that should not be crossed.

Remember when Sony got busted with their ghost writers raving about their movies? People felt that was wrong.

There's also to be considered the frowned upon investment practice of "pump and dump". Can I rely on a particular the blogger to give honest assessments of the subject, or is he hoping to get Microsoft over $35 before selling?

Perhaps a better effort should be made to isolate tech blogging from tech journalism? Journalism is supposed to be unbiased. Blogging is supposed to be... anything but. When does blogging become journalism and vice versa?

Perhaps I'll just invest in salt so that I might enjoy a grain or two with anything I read... anywhere, particularly on the internet.
 
+Garmon Estes Exactly and I don't want to have to sift through what I think is biased and unbiased.

Oh, come now. You did that sifting at one point, simply to decide who you considered biased and unbiased. You had some criteria on which you made those judgements, But your criteria will likely change over time, and the list of people whose coverage you read will too. You can't just do it once and forget it.

And "unbiased" tends to define in practice as "agrees with what I already believe." That's bias of a quite different sort, which requires even more vigilance. What if what you happen to believe is wrong?

Sometimes the stuff most valuable is the stuff I don't agree with, because it forces me to re-examine my own position.
 
As much as i hate the scare tactics used at mainstream media corps run by Murdoch, people like M.G are no better and maybe even worse cause they try and appear to be unbiased. Honestly, i would read his blog until i read that and in my mind lost all credibility in an instant.

It sucks but people can just turn these goons off, the only reason anyone listens to them is because it's entertaining and not informative and i think if people accept that truth than these matters are far more understandable.
 
Wow, if I couldn't invest in tech companies, I couldn't invest in anything I really know anything about.
 
+Dennis McCunney If I know a blogger is financially backing a company that they are covering as part of their news coverage you better believe I am going to be much more skeptical and am going to have to sift through the info with a finer degree of scrutiny. My point is "Why should I have to spend so much time wondering? Why should I not just find someone else to get my tech news from?"
 
This discussion brings up some great issues. Why have we come to expect that we'll be fed great content that is trustworthy and reliable for free? Why do some still pay for their news? This is the "free/democratized" web that we all want to some degree, but that brings with it greater reader responsibility and effort to evaluate quality.

I disagree with the Enron exec comparisons here. Those guys had a legal fiduciary duty to shareholders, whom they duped intentionally, a duty which blogger/investors don't have. If you are looking for some law to prevent promoting a company whose stock you own as an investor, I think you're looking for a 1st amendment limit. For licensed pros in various fields, and for corporate officers, there are rules with teeth about conflicts and duties to the public and/or shareholders. Granted, unethical folks attempt to break the rules, but bloggers have no such duty that I'm aware of. The onus is on the reader.
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Bias can be massive even if an individual has no economic investment. I trust myself to be able to make an assessment of how fair and reasoned someone is being. +Jeff Jarvis for example discloses his investments, and his assessments are so well-formed and balanced that I would definitely not dismiss what he has to say because of this fact. The internet has a long enough memory that I'm not going to listen to what a bias journalist/blogger has to say anyway.

That said, I can see the massive problematic grey area. There are obviously risks, and maybe the issue should be more carefully regulated. But to me personally, the mere fact of a blogger's investment(s) does not negate the value of what they have to say - what they are saying should be judged on its own merits.
 
I don't think forbidding investment is some magical solution for creating unbiased journalism--bias is rampant these days. I can personally accept bloggers/journos investing as long as they do so with transparency--the more, the better.

Regardless of investing, if they have an obvious bias then I am not going to pay them much mind. Arrington and MG are two perfect examples of that.
 
+Thom Stricklin What about biases that aren't so obvious? Say there's an issue that's important to you but you're undecided, I'm writing something to persuade you toward one product or service over the other, and you don't know that I own shares in that vendor?
 
Yes it matters. We could always argue "as long as X doesn't y" and keeps "Z away from Q" and so on... but there will always be a CHANCE of bias. The journalist's ethics reduces but doesn't eliminate this.
 
The same as I do about financial journalist who invest in companies they investigate
 
I don't find anything wrong with it per-say...the SEC may not agree however as there are rules with trying to influence market prices.
 
Ethics & journalism has nothing to do with a "good" journalist having a particular slant; if they are employed by a particular journalistic outlet, they will have a POV. Overt or covert, there's just no way around it.
 
I don't think it is impossible and there are those who can do it - provided they they have strong moral character. These two, however, I wrote off a long time ago as wannabe rockstars who have used their blogs to blast startups that wouldn't work with them and have proven themselves to be petty and immature. Money doesn't buy class.
 
What Arrington and Siegler do is no different than when lobbyists in Congress give money to candidates and then say that they don't expect that contribution to influence the decisions that Congressman will make once elected: that's bribery, no matter how you slice it. And Dan Lyons was right: Sielger and Arrington are the flipside of that coin; they are corporate extortionists who corrupt the news function. News and media have gotten bad enough in this nation; we need fewer, not more of these kind of corrosive influences.
 
Of course it matters to me!
Everyone's free to give his opinion, but if I know that he's not impartial I'll take his words for what they are, a defense from the inside (or a possible attack from a competitor, if they're talking of one of them).
 
Path takes your data without your consent? They fixed it. "Given Path’s mission to be your most personal and most private network, I think it’s fair to hold their feet to the fire about this issue simply because it wasn’t stated that it was happening."
Google tracks users on Safari mobile? They fixed it. "And when they got caught, Google stopped doing it. Which is usually not a good sign."

Source: parislemon.com
 
For journalists, there are relatively few of them for the number for the number of readers, whereas for bloggers, if they decided to lie about the attributes of a technology, it wouldn't affect the stock of the company (insufficient readers) but it would harm their reputation as a blogger. Therefore I don't think there's really the moral hazard to be concerned about it, though I know it might raise some eyebrows from the traditionalism standpoint.
 
It is not my favorite thing but at least with journalists you can move the onus to the reader. I have a bigger issue with congressmen investing in companies they have power over.
 
+Alessandro Mencarini nails the reason that MG and Arrington smell bad when they do those things. There's a difference between being biased and being an apologist with an agenda.

I'm generally a big fan of Google, and not a fan of Apple these days... but that doesn't mean I will give Google a free pass if they do something bad. On the contrary, I pretty much expect Apple to do something snaky--but I'm going to hold Google to a higher standard.

This mentality does not seem to compute with the likes of MG. I don't know if it's due to a corrupting influence, or if his fanboyism just has him so deeply entrenched, but IMO that sort of behavior has ruined any value his opinions once had.
 
What about sponsors? How would +Leo Laporte and +Tom Merritt , for example reconcile Netflix or Audible being a sponsor when reporting a news story about a blunder they might make some day?
 
+Matt Ingrouille : Well obviously being a Tech news blog they'll just have to tell them they have to do their job. There are enough tech blogs, however, that you can probably find one not sponsored by the blundering company in question. That's the difference between bloggers and journalists: multitude.
 
i don't have any issues with bloggers investing in companies they cover, and i believe that no matter where you get your news from you should carefully consider the bias of the writer/newspaper. i have way to often seen major sites like the times over sensationalize stories in order to gain readers. if people don't like what MG and Arrington have to say then there are plenty of other places to get news online.
 
The problem is not that writers have biases. We all know they do. Writers being human are not immune. Having a bias doesn't disqualify you from having an opinion or preclude you from being correct.

The problem is that we don't always remember who has what bias. We know that someone (hypothetically) writing for Macworld is probably going to cover a purely Windows technology from their point of view, probably not too sympathetically. No problem. Say, hypothetically, that +Mike Elgan did have shares in ABC company and wrote an article about ABC company. You need to declare that share ownership on each occasion. I'm not going to remember your affiliation each time you write about ABC company.

The biggest problem is when you write about ABC company's biggest competitor, XYZ company. You don't own XYZ stock and ABC isn't mentioned. Should you declare your interest in ABC each time you cover XYZ? I believe you should but that's going to be a lot harder to police.
 
One really fascinating wrinkle to this question is that it is sourced by Dan Lyons. Lyons bears all the hallmarks of those he's attacking. The niggling difference could be motivation. We are to believe that when Lyons sets his poisoned quill to an issue (notably SCO and anything anti-Linux or Open Source... and oddly related here... bloggers and blogs in general), he does so with the purest of intent. He is, after all, a Journalist. When +MG Siegler or Arrington do it, they're paid hit-men. Accusations of Lyons being a shill are largely rumor and unfounded (as far as I can tell... unless you want to claim blogging is disruptive to Lyons' profession) - even if the behavior is hard to distinguish from the shills Lyons takes a stab at.

The issue that I'm seeing here is that bias is remarkably strong no matter what. Bias to the extent that Lyons could allow himself to be so thoroughly "snowed" by SCO while being insultingly dismissive of SCO's critics and their research. Investments and business arrangements are going to induce bias and conflicts of interest. But we'd be fooling ourselves to think that gaining a purity of information is as simple as removing those particular conflicts.

I'm not a fan of shills who's crafted messages exist solely for the paycheck the work provides ("suits are back!"). But at the same time, there is insight to be found from insiders; professionals who are in the trenches of the subject matter at hand and invested enough to put their livelihood on the line. And even a shill can make a fair point.

At the end of the day, we still have to filter and judge. We have to consider bias - be it paid-for or otherwise. Full disclosure of financial interests is just good sportsmanship.
 
If I knew a blogger who is writing about his own biz related stuff, I usually wouldn't read on.
 
+Dave Kleist : Frankly experience seems to suggest that ALL news must be evaluated that way. Even if the individual reporters have integrity, there's no reason to think their managers do.
 
Is there actually an epidemic of tech blogger/investors who don't disclose their conflicts of interests? What are some examples of that?
 
And can an investor not write about their own work at all? Does it have to be on their company blog, rather than a personal site like uncrunched.com or parislemon.com? Or is it just a problem if an investor contributes to a group blog that is clearly positioned as a 'tech blog'.

Those are some important distinguishing factors.
 
This was a great quote in that article you linked to: "Remember, these guys are bloggers, not journalists. Why shouldn’t they use their blogs to get rich? It sure beats trying to make money selling those crappy little ads in the side column.". It is kind of ethically sickening if you think about what MG, arrington and now possible scoble are doing.
 
+Mike Elgan Reference your remark: Does it matter to you if opinion columnists and bloggers invest in the companies they write about? I hope they do and think it's important that they do.
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