We’ve all stepped in it at one time or another. Modern communications is a fast paced, team effort however it consists of people so mistakes are sure to happen. Maybe you’re a journalist who misquoted a source or a spokesperson that cited the wrong fact only to see it shared across the web moments later. As long as it was not malicious you hopefully identified where you went wrong, learned from your error, and moved on. There are others though who will blame everyone but themselves for their error.
This week a fake press release made the rounds purporting that Google had acquired ICOA. The release appeared on PRWeb, was quickly picked up by media outlets from small blogs to the Associated Press. Eager journalists provided insight regarding the importance of the acquisition and swiftly retracted those reports once the release was identified as untrue.
This would be the perfect time to publish a retraction and if asked, own up to jumping on a bandwagon with others who did not check their facts with either Google or ICOA. Enter TechCrunch’s east coast editor John Biggs.
In an article published the day after TechCrunch, along with many other media outlets, reported the false news of the ICOA acquisition, Biggs highlighted the reporting error by lining up buses to throw everyone from the PR industry to his own audience underneath. It is a sensational article and well worth a read if only to understand the degree to which Biggs feels burned by the whole ICOA affair.
Weaving a thread through his article, Biggs mainly focuses on the increased speed of the news process in a digital world. It is an ongoing argument in communications circles regarding how to balance the speed at which journalists report the news with the voracious appetite of their audiences. It has become a chicken or the egg question as news sites seek revenue generating page views and consumers want to be the first to learn of and share breaking stories. (The wife of my former publisher was fond of saying,”It’s called news not olds.”)
There is a valid point to be made and a perfect opportunity to again own up to having rushed to press with unverified information (newswires or competing media outlets are not the sources I have in mind). In an odd turn Biggs preferred to martyr his profession by putting himself in the position of a journalist working to meet the needs of everyone but his craft.
“While I can’t defend the “reposting” of any press release without proper vetting (and to be clear plenty of people fell for the ICOA pump and dump scam), I think the value we’ve added to the process itself far outweighs some of the risks.”
Amazingly Biggs embraced his fellow journalists to share in any blame and accomplished the difficult “backdoor brag” perfectly in a single sentence.
So what is this value-add? According to Biggs it is spreading the news quickly. Huh?
“Call it process journalism or call it “just talking” but what we do at TechCrunch and what they do at AllThingsD and what they do at TNW and GigaOm is approximately the same thing: we spread the word on important deals, inventions, and improvements in the tech industry. If that’s wrong then I don’t want to be right.”
Now that’s a nice bit of rhetoric. Biggs stated an obvious description of news production only to follow it with a statement with which readers people can only agree. Biggs follows by setting the stage for martyrdom.
“The problem comes when that churn, that endless wave of news, crests over our abilities to manage and vet. There is a call, for example, to slow down when it comes to coverage. You don’t care that Angry Birds Star Wars is out the moment it’s released. Why not just sit on that news for a few days, really give it a good dry rub? Why not give old Mighty Eagle a call, get him on camera. Really make an event out of it. We don’t do that because that’s even worse than pasting in a press release. There is a very large percentage of people for whom the words “Hey, Angry Birds Star Wars is out. You can get it here” is far superior to a 1,000-word article on how they got birds to look like Han Solo. We’re not any company’s marketing organ, no matter how many times we post about Apple. Those who want more can always find more. Always. So slowing down isn’t the answer.”
I agree that slowing down is not necessarily the answer however if doing your job means slowing down then you have a decision to make. When I started out as a reporter for a weekly newspaper I had to tailor my reporting knowing that I was up against a daily competitor and news sites online. My strategy was simply to dig up facts that I knew the other outlets did not possess. If there were no more facts then you decided to shelf the story or run it with added commentary to provide a greater insight. Speed worked against my competitors since I could use their reports to pursue different avenues of questioning with my subjects or dive deeper into their news briefs.
I can understand Biggs’ frustration at wanting to report every story 24/7 however even journalists need to know their limitations. Journalists need to pick and choose their stories with greater care given the “endless wave of news.” A simple rule could be adopting a policy that says if you can’t vet a story then you can’t publish it. It really should not matter what the policies are at other news outlets. Editors are responsible for their outlet’s integrity and no other site. I seem to remember a recent story where an entire industry blamed each other without looking at their own practices. Oddly enough it also had something to do with investments…
But let’s not slow down. This is where Biggs takes a really bizarre turn in an argument against posting less and vetting more:
“Could we post less? Sure. I’d love it if we did. But we have a team of people who want to write. They want to get stuff up. They revel in breaking news even if that news doesn’t seem important to you, specifically. It’s like asking a gazelle to take the bus. So that’s out.”
So who’s in charge over at TechCrunch? Unfortunately the TechCrunch writers enjoy writing so much they can’t slow down so there you have it. Yet this argument feels wrong. Is there someone else to blame? How about the usual scapegoat: PR.
“The answer, as far as I see it, is simple: avoid PR and PR newswires and keep the conversation going naturally. If you’re a founder, either hire a marketing manager internally or do it yourself. If you made something cool, tell us directly. At this point in the game gathering a list of friendly journalists is as easy as visiting 100 or so websites. It didn’t used to be that way. To get access to a newspaper you had to send a letter to an editor that would, inevitably, end up in the trash. Now you can spam a bunch of writers who are hungry to feed that maw.”
So it appears that journalists also fall victim to the awesome power of Spam.
Too bad they can’t think for themselves. I remember once upon a time I thought for myself as a reporter. But then again spam came via fax so unless the office assistant handed it to me I could avoid it. (If you are in PR or want to learn a bit ore about the industry, I urge you to read the comments section follow Biggs’ article for some fantastic responses from members of this profession.)
So will there be any sort of acceptance by Biggs for TechCrunch posting false news without confirming it with Google and ICOA?
“If we jump, once in a blue moon, at something that looks like it might be the little guy finally catching a break (and it’s actually a pump and dump scam or a stupid product or a lie), forgive us or at least understand: We’re getting up every morning and not going to bed in order to keep you informed. If you don’t like that, there are plenty of other ways to get your news, but I feel few are as fresh or as fascinating as this new form of tech journalism that we are all now building.”
An interesting ending that truly martyrs the profession while telling an audience that “there are plenty of other ways get your news” if you are unhappy with TechCrunch’s reporting. Seems like a non-apology I heard recently that was also covered by TechCrunch.