Richard Pattinson

California district judge William Alsup did something interesting earlier this month. In an unexpected court order, he called on technology giants Google and Oracle to make full disclosure of any “print or internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers” either organization had paid during an ongoing trial over patent rights. Writers across the industry felt a chill run down the spine.

Alsup’s order brought into sharp focus the underlying economy of the blogosphere. It underscored what everyone intuitively knows but few publicly discuss: that the rich tapestry of professional comment in the media (whether online, in print, or over the airwaves) is broadly supported by a mix of direct and indirect payments. None of this requires rocket science to figure out. Take a commentator supplying a regular column for a magazine. It’s reasonable to assume the writer is receiving payment from the publication itself. Nothing unusual there. Similarly, when an organization takes steps to publish its own editorial content — using its website, for example, to host news and related material on industry events — it’s understood that the money to support the endeavor is almost certainly coming from the organization itself. What’s less clear though is payment in the realm of third-party punditry. And that’s what makes the district judge’s intervention particularly striking.

Buying Influence

Paying individuals to write or say apparently independent things on your behalf is hardly new. In the decades leading up to Prohibition, leading elements of the American brewing industry paid off newspaper editors to produce copy favorable to their cause. More recently, the Levenson inquiry — established in the wake of the News Corp hacking scandal — brought the often cozy relationship between U.K. press and politicians sharply into focus. Closer to home, the latest activities of self-styled “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday have thrown a spotlight on the interplay between journalists and the PR industry.

Editorial adsNone of this should be surprising. The dotted line between editorial and advertorial is as old as the hills. Newspapers and magazines have long carried advertising features that (for a split second at least) appear like standard copy — until you spot the advertorial disclaimer in the top-right corner. Many leading media organizations form part of larger business holdings that comprise activities from online education to the manufacture of microwaves and digital cameras. The reputedly richest individual in the world holds 8 percent of the New York Times’ publicly-listed stocks. And what’s the connection between the Wall Street Journal and the biggest grossing movie of all time? Rupert Murdoch’s media interests assuredly stretch far and wide.

This is not to be cynical about the complex web of commercial connections that underpin the U.S. media landscape. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have strong policies in place designed to insulate their editorial decision-making from the wider commercial interests of the groups in which they sit. Elsewhere across the media, journalists take their duty to transparency seriously indeed. Many American writers and editors are diligent (often to a fault) in disclosing any potential conflict of interest when reporting or commenting on a story. The presence of money is not in itself problematic. One could even argue that money is a useful indicator of likely editorial quality. Commercial backers tend not to waste their cash on dross. Yes there’s plenty of trash online, but there’s a sea of quality too.

The presence of money is not in itself problematic. One could even argue that money is a useful indicator of likely editorial quality.

The question is the attitude we take in identifying vested interest. This can be a particularly challenging task given so much content is now produced outside of the walls of the establishment media. Primarily, we need to remember there is no general obligation across the web to disclose a conflict of interest. Instead the responsibility heavily falls on us as content consumers to follow the money (where it exists) and ask the right questions: Who’s paying for this ad? Is the writer likely making money from this blog post? What’s motivating this blogger to publish her latest in-depth article about the best shoes to buy?

Cutting out the Middle Man

The rise of the company as direct publisher makes for an interesting counterpoint in this dynamic. Whereas in the past, an organization might funnel significant money to external PR in an attempt to influence the public conversation, this is no longer the only or most effective path. Companies have increasingly recognized the advantages of producing custom content in a push to boost online presence and develop thought leadership within their industry. Meanwhile, social media channels provide rapidly improving platforms for organizations eager to showcase their tailored offerings to existing and potential customers.

“Commercial interest doesn’t make website content – if thoughtful and well-rendered – any less useful.”

In many respects, this is a more direct and open form of conversation with the marketplace than the traditional smoke and mirrors. Think of an in-flight magazine. Any traveler looking to stave off boredom at 40,000 feet immediately gets that the glossy (possibly dog-eared) magazine she holds in her hands is produced by — or on behalf of — the company. Consequently, the reader is able to judge the relevance and appeal of the content on its own merits while passing the time in the air. Equally, the parent in the market for a car seat intuitively understands that the car seat manufacturer has a clear commercial interest in getting him to spend time on its website. That doesn’t make the content on the manufacturer’s site — if thoughtful and well-rendered — any less useful to the parent building up his options.

Show and Tell

Content writers must value accuracy and honesty in their work, whatever the commercial motivations.

In the event, Google and Oracle’s response to the district judge’s ruling was concise to say the least. Oracle gave up two names whereas Google disclosed nobody, requesting further clarity on the scope of the judge’s order. Unimpressed, William Alsup gave Google a further week to come up with something better. The firm from Mountain View sprang back with a lengthy dossier significantly more comprehensive in its range than its initial submission. At the same time, Google continued to insist it made no direct payments to bloggers or related media players in return for commentary on its legal dispute with Oracle. It’ll be interesting to see how this case proceeds as it winds its way through the appeals process (the judge ruled in favor of Google in the initial trial).

Regardless of how the chips fall for Google, Oracle, and the blogging community more generally, the episode reveals the continued importance of old-fashioned values in the production and consumption of content. Content writers must value accuracy and honesty in their work, whatever the commercial motivations. Ask the right questions at the right time. Respect your audience. And for writers and readers alike, be wary of taking things at face value.