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How have ethics changed in tech journalism?

We’re in a new “reader beware” world, where audiences are expected to vote with their clicks to identify sites and sources worthy of trust.

I was looking at Idea Grove’s website in Google Analytics and noticed that The New Yorker was sending us some traffic, so I investigated and traced it back to a story published on the topic of technology journalism. It was headlined Waiting for the Next Great Technology Critic and focuses on erstwhile tech journalism stars Walter Mossberg and David Pogue.

One of the issues The New Yorker documents is Pogue’s history of pay-for-play ethical controversies. On that topic, I had interviewed Pogue, as well as one of his critics on the topic, and published the interviews on Media Orchard. Here’s the back-and-forth. Below is the section of The New Yorker’s piece that includes the reference:

Pogue is going to help Yahoo “build a new consumer-tech site,” where he’ll continue making the lovably goofy videos that have been a hallmark of his reviews. His departure from the Times follows a multiyear span of ethical controversies … Pogue has successfully defended his actions in each instance …

I found the link interesting for a number of reasons. First, it harkened back to my blog’s glory days, when Media Orchard was considered one of the most influential PR and media blogs — prior to me turning my attention to building an agency. I learned a lot about building audiences at that time, and it’s gratifying that that investment in creating good content is still paying dividends nearly a decade later.

Second, it highlighted how much technology journalism has changed since 2006, when my interview with Pogue was published. Mossberg, the tech king of the Wall Street Journal, and Pogue, who had the same role at the New York Times, have moved on to online ventures with strong marketing components. Their former publications, which bequeathed such influence upon them, today no longer have the power of kingmakers.

And Pogue’s ethics controversies of a decade ago are child’s play compared to how the technology media functions today. Just this afternoon, I counseled one of Idea Grove’s clients who was frustrated that blatantly pay-for-play technology review sites do not provide adequate (or any many cases, any) disclosure of conflict of interest.

To paraphrase our client: “I have customers who ask me why I’m not on some list of top vendors in my category, and I have to tell them that it costs $2,000 a month to be on that list and I don’t want to pay it. What about all the customers and prospects who see the list but don’t ask us about it?”

Is there any recourse? There are steps that can be taken, but there are no easy solutions. We’re in a new “reader beware” world, where audiences are expected to vote with their clicks to identify sites that are worthy of trust.

- Scott Baradell