A Formulated Technology Column


Do Conflicts Of Interest Even Matter Anymore?

In 2011, Michael Arrington was fired — very publicly and unceremoniously — from the blog he single-handedly founded, Silicon Valley’s indispensable daily news site TechCrunch.

While the reason behind the eventual ousting varied from a power struggle between Ariana Huffington to a disagreement of the acquisition agreement signed with AOL, the underlying reason of why he was dismissed alludes to a journalistic code of conduct that dates back to several centuries: a journalist must be impartial.

Arrington, while operating his own venture capital firm CrunchFund (backed by, perhaps ironically, AOL), was also the lead writer on TechCrunch. Without him, TechCrunch would lose very much of its voice and in turn, its audience.

To say that Arrington was a conflicted person is perhaps an understatement at best, an under-exaggerated lie at worst. At one point, his bio on TechCrunch included the following disclaimer: “Sometimes I have so many financial conflicts of interest that I can’t even keep them straight. So when you read what I write … understand that I’m conflicted. A lot.”

But the question is, if suppose Arrington started his VC firm in 2013 instead of 2011, would he have been fired too?

My guess is no.

Here’s why: at this day and age, content triumphs any personal conflicts of interest one might have.

If a reader decides that something written by someone who has billions of conflicts of interest is great and worthy of their time, why should they care about the underlying conflicts of interest?

The same goes for the contrary: if the readers think that a certain writer is nothing more than a paid shill, they can (and I hope would) simply stop reading whatever he has got to say.

It all boils down to this really simple equation: great content = readers.

The readers are the ultimate judge of if the content is great or not — no matter who it’s written by. To eliminate these potentially great writers with a strong voice and opinion after years of experience just because they might have a conflict of interest in their writing with their work would be doing nothing short of a disservice to the readers.

Let the writers write. And let the readers read. And then let the latter be the judge.

If the readers decides that the content written by a conflicted writer is great, then why should the writer stop writing?

If the readers think that a piece written by a conflicted writer sounds too much like a press release by a PR company, then why continue to read the writer’s future content?

Eventually, I believe, the best content as determined by the readers will rise to the top, while the junk will sink to the bottom — kind of like Darwin’s natural selection theory, if you will.

Today’s technology blogs are finally starting to realize that the reader’s judgement of content is often more important than the century-old practice of having only the most unbiased writers write for a publication (remember: unbiased = boring — and often, a waste of the reader’s time).

Pando (previously called PandoDaily) is entirely funded by VCs. Do they have conflicts of interest? Sure they do — too many to count, I’m convinced. But why are they still up and running today? Simply because they are producing content that readers want to read. Readers who are, I believe, aware of the conflicts of interest that the blog is involved in (this isn’t an endorsement of what Pando publishes: I don’t really like their content 95% of the time) and yet still not mind because of the stuff that its writers are publishing: great content that people want to read.

If we had continued to follow the archaic idea maintained by most journalists working for print publications (NYT, WSJ, WaPo, etc.) that no one wants to read the stuff written by a conflicted writer because it would sound nothing more than a glorified press release, Pando would have, undoubtedly, not survived for more than a few months since launch. But guess what? They’re still here today. And that, if anything, just goes to show what people really want (great content) versus what journalists think people wants (unconflicted content).

Recently, the technology news industry had a newcomer that many took notice (with great interest) of: former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin’s paywalled site, The Information. A couple days after the announcement of The Information, Lessin and her team threw a launch party, an event that was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle. From their article:

When former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin celebrated the launch of her journalism startup at a Pacific Heights mansion this week, the event attracted the tech A-list: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived in a gray hoodie; Brit + Co founder Brit Morin brought flowers; and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo started hugging friends as soon as he walked through the door.

These high-powered tech celebrities are some of Lessin’s close friends, sources — and new subscribers.

And guess what: her site will probably be very, if not extremely, successful.

Conflicts of interest?

What is that you say?