Godspeed on That Investing Thing, Yertle–But I Still Have Some Questions for Your Boss, Arianna
Would it surprise you to know that BoomTown doesn’t really care anymore if TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington sidelines as a blogger while he makes investments in tech companies his tech news site covers?
In a post yesterday, titled “An Update to My Investment Policy,” Arrington made his seemingly cogent arguments that plenty of disclosure made it all “fine,” took one of his typical look-at-me swipes at anyone who dared to question this logic (apparently, we’re crappy “direct” competitors, so we haters have no standing to comment!) and presumably went on his merry investing way.
While I was first irked–because it was an appalling show to many of us cranky standards-insisting whiners–I soon realized Arrington had made a good argument about who he is and, frankly, who he has always been.
In other words, it’s a kind of there-he-goes-again thing, vaguely icky but hardly surprising and completely genuine.
Meanwhile, his new boss, AOL content head Arianna Huffington, pointed me to his post in an email.
When I asked her for an on-the-record comment, as usual, she politely and quickly complied, writing in support of Arrington:
“TechCrunch is committed to transparency. Michael has written about the guidelines he follows–that he rarely writes about companies in which he is an investor, and that, when he does, he clearly discloses this information. The same rules apply when TechCrunch’s writers cover these companies.”
Hold the phone.
Because while I kind of understand where Arrington is coming from, what I don’t understand is how this kind of convenient and on-the-fly rule-making can govern a much larger company whose strongly and repeatedly stated goal by Huffington herself is to create quality journalism.
Since I believed Huffington–whom I like very much as an Internet figure and as a friend–I was confused at what the rules for the whole of AOL content were now.
That’s why I sent her a long new list of questions to answer, which are:
1) What are, if any, the ethical guidelines about making investments for the editorial staff at HuffPo media group properties?
2) Since Arrington now seems to have permission to do so from you, can other editors at AOL properties do the same–that is, make very adjacent investments to what their site covers, as long as they disclose it? For example, can an editor who runs the entertainment site make investments in entertainment companies she/he has coverage responsibility over? (By the way, did you give him permission to make these investments? Did he ask?)
3) Is there anyone who polices what is fair coverage of competitors–i.e. companies competing with companies your editors invest in?
4) If an editor makes investments in a company and someone who works for them writes about that company, does that editor have to recuse himself from the story? Is that even possible?
5) Since you just fired someone for what you called an ethical breach–asking freelancers to work for free and also seemingly defending an attempt to curry favor with an advertiser/client–why is this not an ethical breach?
I had a lot more questions, still unanswered by Huffington, but you can see where this is going.
Simply put, does AOL, which is touting itself as a 21st-century media company, need to have 21st-century rules of the road? Or perhaps not so much?
UPDATE: Now, it is a real clown circus at AOL, with the company declaring that editorial personnel cannot make investments, except Arrington!
“As a rule, in order to avoid conflicts of interests, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, writers, and reporters may not have a financial interest in a company or industry that they regularly cover,” AOL said in a statement to Business Insider today, even though I nicely asked for a comment on the issue yesterday. “Arrington operates from a unique position.”
And how! Where do I get such a faboo ethical hall pass from Content Principal Huffington?
I suppose I should go all slouching-towards-Bethlehem here, and wring my hands over this unusual ruling, but what’s the use?
As you might have read: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
How did this all start, especially since I feel like this ridiculous tempest in a Silicon Valley teapot over Arrington’s investment-making might actually be my fault a little bit?
On Tuesday night around 10 pm (just when I start getting revved up), I wrote a testy email to Arrington’s bosses at AOL–Huffington and CEO Tim Armstrong–as well as the Internet portal’s sharp PR head, asking for a response about what seemed to me to be a glaring conflict of interest at TechCrunch related to new investment activity by Arrington and the site’s coverage of those particular companies he had invested in.
It was all disclosed, of course, but it still felt, as I said, icky.
And, given the recent and loudly stated goal of promoting quality journalism by Huffington–including the recent dismissal of AOL’s Moviefone site editor over what the company considered ethical lapses–it seemed pertinent to ask.
Mostly because I don’t think they actually knew much–if at all–about Arrington’s increasing investing action. Armstrong said as much in an email to me, and Huffington assured me they were going to check it out tout de suite.
But rather than the answer I was waiting on, up popped Arrington’s missive yesterday, which I assume came after his bosses asked for some info on this.
In it, he explained his controversial decision to go back into investing again, in what is clearly a more significant manner.
It was a practice he had abandoned years earlier, apparently after being pecked by detractors for it.
But, dear readers, no more! Let Arrington be Arrington!
And that seems to be a talented blogger with a flare for the dramatic, with a clearly sharply-honed news nose and sassy writing skills, but a scribe who much prefers to be a playah than just an observer and chronicler of that play.
And, after more reflection, I thought: Well, maybe it is a better idea for Arrington to go play with all the boys in Silicon Valley, which would probably be more fun than taking flack for lack of traditional journalistic ethics he never ascribed to in the first place.
I once jokingly nicknamed Arrington Yertle the Turtle after the Dr. Seuss book on one dubious king of one small pond in Sala-Ma-Sond, after he went particularly nuts on the topic of news-embargo breaking.
That diatribe on how he saw news rules–which is to say, there aren’t any that bind him–was vintage Arrington, too. And, after reading his latest post, I suddenly realized that it’s pointless to give a turtle a hard time for not being a fish.
But Huffington is another story. She has put herself in word and deed right into the center of the debate on where news is going on the Web, especially after AOL paid $315 million for her Huffington Post news and opinion site.
Huffington has certainly taken a lot of hits over the years as the HuffPo has grown, some deserved, but she has clearly led an impressive effort.
In fact, I think the cute-kitten and celebrity-loving angle played up by her detractors to dismiss her is silliness, because she and the Huffington Post are clearly more than that and are obviously having a major impact on the future direction of content in the digital age.
But that power she has sought also gives her a responsibility to say exactly what that means on a real and granular and consistent level, beyond the platitudes of wanting to make great journalism that she declares all the time now.
In other words, very specifically: What does Arianna Huffington stand for in regards to journalism? What are her rules and standards and codes? And, perhaps more importantly, what does she not stand up for?
These are questions I hope Huffington–who is really good at smacking back at criticism, too (See: the New York Times’ Bill Keller)–will address in one of her patented blog-xplosions and many times over, too.
Until then, here’s a link to my very long and very detailed ethics disclosure on All Things Digital, which is exactly how our little site thinks it should be in the digital age.
In short, besides signing the Dow Jones Code of Conduct–standard at The Wall Street Journal and other DJ publications–all our editorial staff is required to also pen their own in-plain-English personal and detailed account of disclosures that are pertinent to their job.
(You can read an extensive interview with me on the subject, in fact, which was posted here by Two Bananas Marketing, this week.)
My ATD disclosure is probably the most detailed of all of them, since I gay-married Megan Smith a dozen years ago. She later became a VP at Google, which I cover from time to time, especially related to other companies I focus on more, such as Yahoo.
Most of the time, if you care to read my posts on Google, I am probably tougher and snarkier than not, mostly because I know the search giant from its earliest days.
And, even though I once wrote extensively for the Journal about Google since its founding and before Megan arrived there, I thought it wise to lay it all out in detailed detail.
(By the way, if you want to try to tweak me by asking what News Corp.-owned Fox News’ ethics rules are, I don’t know, as ATD belongs to Dow Jones, which has had them forever. I will say, though, that Roger Ailes often freaks me out.)
In any case, as Arrington preaches, the more disclosure the better, and perhaps I should say even more so here, given the current swirl, by noting explicitly that I garner exactly no financial benefits from my relationship with Megan.
That might seem odd, because she certainly earns more. But I don’t know how much nor do I ask, since we have separate bank accounts and she always pays up–well, almost always–when half the bills are due. While it sounds painfully un-romantic, we only spend overall what each of us can afford equally in an exact 50-50 split.
In addition, I also legally signed away all rights to inheritance–although I had no such marriage rights in the first place, being gay–of Megan’s assets, which are in a trust for her relatives and our sons (for when they are too old to have any fun).
More to the point, I believe this makes me the only person to marry an exec at a hot Silicon Valley company with no prospect of any gold-digging.
Thus, I clearly would make the worst investor ever–not that I ever invest in tech or plan to while I am a reporter covering the sector.
Thank god, I suppose, that Michael Arrington is there to take up the slack.