To say that many people do not like TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is some understatement. Anyone who can get the normally laid-back Leo Laporte to start cursing and shut down a broadcast has some kind of unique skills of irritation. (See also: DouchebagName.com) And it’s clear he relishes this distinction, having willingly posed for the photo at right for the late Business 2.0 magazine.No matter what one thinks of him, it’s becoming ever more clear that Arrington is driving a significant part of what journalism is becoming. And while I’ll decline for the moment to unpack what all of that means (I will happily do so for a modest book advance) let me point to two announcements from TechCrunch in recent months.
We’ve never broken an embargo at TechCrunch. Not once. Today that ends. From now our new policy is to break every embargo. We’ll happily agree to whatever you ask of us, and then we’ll just do whatever we feel like right after that. We may break an embargo by one minute or three days. We’ll choose at random.
Some firms will stop talking to us (yeah! less email), but we’ll find other ways to get the news. Others, who haven’t read this post because they don’t read TechCrunch, will be unpleasantly surprised. Maybe if we cause enough pain then PR firms will start to take action against those publications who break the rules.
It’s a radical idea in the world of old media, but that world is quickly ending. This is the business side of political bloggers’ dissatisfaction with the inside-the-Beltway “cocktail circuit” journalism. Those rules are under attack and those can undermine them will.
And, indeed, just this past week the Wall Street Journal announced it would no longer honor such embargoes either. If you want them to hold off on covering a story, it had better be an exclusive. This makes great sense in an age where just about anyone can (more or less plausibly) call themselves a news outlet. “Publish or perish” is a phrase long-established in academia, but it applies in journalism now more than ever.
The lastest example of TechCrunch pushing on the boundaries of journalistic piety comes this weekend from Paul Carr, sort of a Toby Young for the Web 2.0 set, declaring his intention to break from convention and reveal the names of sources whom he comes to believe have lied to him:
I’ll never trust either of my two liars again, but they’re still free to scamper off to another reporter and peddle the same bullshit with a decent chance it’ll be published, at least as a rumour.
Every technology and business reporter I’ve spoken to this week about the off the record problem has their own story to tell about bullshitting sources, and every single one says they don’t know what to do about it. They just consider it one of the risks of the game.
Well enough’s enough. The one-sided contract ends here.
From now on, if you tell me something off the record and I later discover that you’ve knowingly mislead me, our contract of anonymity is immediately void, for breach. That means that everything you’ve told me about the story becomes on the record, and fully attributable.
Here too one can see lessons for print journalism. It may not have saved Judith Miller 85 days in jail, but the notion that journalists are sworn to uphold sources even after being burned by them is a thankless task. For obvious reasons, it mostly goes unreported or is left a matter of allegation. For yet more obvious reasons, this is also much more dangerous than merely breaking an embargo. After all, the consequences for being wrong are much higher than merely breaking an embargo — where one can be, at most, “wrong.”
But the same pressures are in effect: the dissatisfaction with the old way of doing things is finally starting to change, for two reasons that are immediately apparent:
The recent proliferation of news outlets gives writers options to find stories elsewhere, and likewise flacks options to get coverage elsewhere; and
These new journalistic outlets identify with each other much less closely than the television networks or big city dailies of old.
This looser confederation of participants is already producing a more anarchic news environment — one in which someone like Arrington thrives. That means trouble for anyone who isn’t prepared, or willing, to play by the new rules. But it’s a great thing for information consumers — especially those who like some entertainment with their news.
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