The state of journalism is bad. Of course, Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria—high-profile writers at The New Yorker and Time, respectively—were recently exposed as frauds and plagiarists, but that’s not the worst of it. Not even close. The phone-tapping scandal that nearly imploded NewsCorp’s news division last year? Nope.
In fact, nothing illustrates the distressing state of affairs more clearly than the reaction to Judge William Alsup’s recent order that Google and Oracle turn over the names of the reporters and bloggers whom the two companies had paid for potentially positive coverage supporting their case in a high-stakes copyright lawsuit.
Wait, what reaction? Oh, you didn’t even hear about this?
Don’t worry, you didn’t somehow miss the stunned denunciations from the media elite. You didn’t miss the outraged editorials by the Poynter Institute and Columbia Journalism Review. Because they didn’t happen. Just as Sherlock Holmes gets his clue from the fact that the dog didn’t bark in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the lack of outcry is actually the sound of every insider in journalism tipping his or her hand. Reporters taking bribes from major tech companies in Silicon Valley? Old news!
The corruption is endemic. Take Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch.com, which sold to AOL for $25M in 2010; his bold editorial stand last year caused him to be ousted from the site he started. What was that stand? Simply that he was perfectly justified in simultaneously launching a side business called CrunchFund, which would invest venture capital in the very same startups his immensely powerful blog covered. It would be hard to imagine a clearer conflict of interest, but most of his peers eagerly took his side.
Some, like former TechCrunch editor and tech journalist Sarah Lacy, even followed his lead. This year, she founded PandoDaily, a new technology news blog. Investors include Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Tony Hsieh and Chris Dixon. If those names sound familiar, it’s because they are the owners, founders or funders of the biggest companies in tech—outfits like Facebook, Zappos, PayPal, LinkedIn and Foursquare. Mr. Andreesen is also an investor in the news website Business Insider. (Full disclosure: The Observer Media Group is partially owned by Josh Kushner, a principal in the investment firm Thrive Capital, which funds a number of start-ups.)
What happens when the robber barons once again not only pull the strings of the industry, but also control the press that is supposed to cover it and hold them responsible?
At the end of the day, it’s these guys who are the real “customers” of the news outlets: not all of the readers out there, but the marketers, advertisers and investors to whom journalists are trying to a deliver product—that product being you and your attention.