As yet another jousting match goes down between a member of the New York City media elite and a Silicon Valley-based blogger dude, we're starting to get concerned that journalists covering the tech industry have no idea what they're doing. Robert Scoble is the latest geek in the crosshairs, after NewsBeast's technology editor Dan Lyons took aim at the veteran tech blogger for allegedly scheming behind closed doors in order to create a venture capital firm that would invest in the companies that Scoble blogs about. Scoble starkly denied the report. Lyons apologized. Twitter fumed.
On the micro level, the specifics of the spat seem a little silly. Lyons' report paints Robert Scoble as a money-hungry hack more interested in building a portfolio of soon-to-be profitable companies so that he can make a fortune. "Traditional journalists cringe at this kind of 'hacks for hire' business model," Lyons wrote, citing an anonymous he-said-she-said source that claimed Scoble was firing up his own VC firm. "But from an utterly cynical perspective, it's kind of brilliant—as long as you can get over the whole 'ethics' thing." This accusation obviously rests on the idea that Scoble is going to start a VC firm. Scoble says he is not. "Truth is my life rocks and I am not sure I want to screw that up," Scoble blogged. "My contract with you is that I will tell you [readers] when I have conflicts of interest and then you’ll have to decide which list you put me on, or even if you keep listening to me."
But once we zoom out and think about these issues on a macro level, it's worth asking whether Lyons might be on to something. What is up with all of those bloggers drinking lattes in Palo Alto coffee shops? Do they trod on the same sort of moral high ground as Scoble? Or are they just using their own WordPress sites to prop up and promote their investments?
Who the heck knows. Lyons draws a parallel to Michael Arrington, who was pushed out of AOL last year during a firestorm of controversy linked to his launching a new VC firm within the AOL-owned TechCrunch blog empire. Few would argue with the idea that Arrington's situation was legitimately shady, especially given his then-boss Arianna Huffington's stated goal to bring the editorial presence at AOL up to the standards of places like The New York Times. Responding to a Los Angeles Times piece claiming that "far too many tech bloggers in Silicon Valley have financial conflicts of interest," Arrington meditated on the big picture issue. "I argue that there's no such thing as objectivity, and that transparency is a much higher standard to aspire to," Arrington blogged. "In the end this debate feels like it's more about the insecurities of the old tech people than it is about 'objective journalism'."
We'd adjust that last line a bit. The debate feels like it's more about confusion of the old tech people than anything. After lots of readers sided with Scoble, Lyons wrote to Scoble on Google+ with a public defense of his thin reporting:
Is it possible that a venture capitalist was going around approaching other VC firms looking to raise money on your behalf but without your knowledge or consent?
My source is a top guy at a serious venture firm. I don't think he would make this up. But if that's the case, then this is all very strange, and I'm sorry to have played a part in it.
This is all very strange. Because, despite the medium being around for a couple of decades, the Internet, and blogging, more specifically, is still a relatively new breed of journalism. Scoble may or may not identify himself as a journalist -- he most often refers to himself simply as a "blogger" -- but as a top editor at one of the top news sites in the country, Lyons is undoubtedly a card-carrying member of the press. Indeed, there's a very fine line between covering the startup culture and being involved in the startup culture. Sloppy reporting is still sloppy reporting, however. If Lyons wants to write about an unconfirmed rumor citing an unidentified source, that hardly passes the journalism school test for a solid report—perhaps, in attempting to keep pace with the new journalism, he simply failed to uphold certain basic tenets of the old.
One thing that seems clear is that Silicon Valley is just as big a smoke-filled rumor mill as Washington DC, Wall Street, or any of those other beat capitals. Inevitably, gossip is gossip, and that's best left to the tabloids. Then again, maybe that's what NewsBeast is going for.