Conflict of interest doesn’t apply to blogs (another reason newspapers are dying)

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Why is anyone concerned that I tell you who is paying me when I write about something?

Every time I write about a person or a company it's a conflict of interest. Because I want to be on their radar. It's good for me. And the same is true for every other intelligent blogger because that inherent conflict of interest underlies why blogging is so valuable for someone's career.

The reality is that readers are not hurt by the conflict of interest. Readers are hurt by bad content. But only once. Because if readers hate the content, they leave. (I know this to be true because of all the people who leave comments on my blog that say “This post sucks. I'm unsubscribing.”)

Mainstream media is mostly about money, so they reveal every time they have a financial conflict of interest. But bloggers are more about influence than money. So they have conflict of interest all over their blog, with every post. For example, every time you link to someone, you are hoping for some sort of acknowledgment, or some sort of good karma. Do you need to acknowledge that so as to protect your readers? Of course not.

Here's how it really works: Guy Kawasaki keeps such close track of favors exchanged that I think he must have it on a spreadsheet. When I link to him, he definitely notices, and he definitely helps me in exchange. So, should I list the conflict of interest every time I link to him? And every time I say I love Alltop?

No. Because if I tell you I love Alltop, and you go there and it's stupid, you will think I'm stupid. (Note: What Alltop is good for is finding out what sort of blogs exist in a given category. Amazingly, there is no other efficient way to do this.)

And what about my blog post about oral sex? I've gotten way more oral sex since I wrote that. Mostly because I realized from my research and from the comments section that men who don't do oral sex are losers. So I stay away from them. Should I disclose that I had side benefits from that post? Should I disclose that I have benefitted beyond the benefit of just educating the public? No. Who cares? Insanity. But honestly, getting more oral sex far outweighs any financial gain I could have gotten from any given post.

And that is saying something. Because I've made a lot of money selling posts. For example, when I wrote a post about PayScale, I was getting paid $5000 a month to talk about them. (I considered not revealing the true value of the contract, but then I thought: Well, PayScale is the poster child for transparent salaries, so how can they complain?)

But readers don't need to know that I was paid to write the post. Readers should just want the post to be useful and interesting and all the other things you want from any post. Who cares how I get paid as long as I write well? The post got about 100 comments, and it got picked up on 20/20 and in the New York Times. That means it's a good post. In fact, it probably means that PayScale has good ideas and that's why I chose to work with them. You should just trust me to take money from smart companies—if I take money from stupid companies then I'll write stupid posts.

Here's another reason bloggers shouldn't talk about who sponsors them: It's boring! Here's my post about telling you that LinkedIn sponsors my blog. Here's my post about how to use LinkedIn if you're a journalist. You know what? The second post did way better than the first one. There are tons of incoming links to the journalism post, and I got three big speaking gigs at journalism conferences, which made LinkedIn happy (they wanted journalists to use LinkedIn and then write about it.) And it made me happy because it gave me a platform for telling journalists they should sell their columns to the highest bidders because bloggers are doing it.

So we don't need stupid rules about conflict of interest for people who are putting themselves on the line. That rule is for old media, where writers were putting only the brand of the newspaper on the line. In old media most journalists were no-names, writing under big (newspaper) names. So if they wrote something moronic, so that they could increase the value of a stock they held, or, maybe, get more oral sex, they would put only the newspaper brand at risk. Not their own.

Which means that the arcane conflict of interest rules are to protect the newspaper, not the readers. And this, by the way, is why newspapers are going down: because they are more about themselves, and their hierarchies, and rules and structures, than they are about what their readers want. Readers should not care about the business dealings of the writers or their publishers. Readers just want good content.

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  1. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    You are so right about newspapers. I bought the paper for the baseball box scores and the New York Times I read recently doesn’t have box scores anymore. Used to get evening paper for stock listings and particularly enjoyed the Chicago paper that would have an insert availble by 4:30pm where you get todays listings. Papers do not put the listings in anymore. I could easily go on but would waste space. Everyone knows the content of newspapers has dried up. I still love my Boston Globe but the out-of-town price has gone from $0.75 to $1.50 in the past year. The Sudoku and Crossword can be replicated and if they take out baseball box scores or cut out Benjamin, Ryan, Shaughnessy why would I buy. I learned how to get everything I want off the net because the newspaper quit giving what I want. If it can be read before I finish my at desk lunch I will quit buying the paper and I love my paper. When I read your blog I want something different, well written, diversionary, inciteful, interesting, scandalous and provocative. I like that I get what I want from you.

    • Chris Gammell
      Chris Gammell says:

      I agree with Don and find that a similar phenomenon is creeping into other media too. NPR has started reporting stories I see when they first appear thanks to social media sites pushing them to the top right away. I can stick around for the extras (and often do) but looking for targeted stories is just so easy these days that it’s tough to argue for the extras (in newspapers, please don’t take away my NPR).

      Penelope, as long as you don’t start reviewing cook books or dog training methods, I’ll consider reading what you write and even the products you review (paid or not). And if I like what I read I will continue to come back to your site for what I expect: raunchy commentary and career advice.

  2. Vi | Maximizing Utility
    Vi | Maximizing Utility says:

    I agree with you in that a conflict of interest should not prevent you from writing what you want to write about. But I do think that financial conflicts of interest should be disclosed (which you obviously did at least to some degree in this post). You don’t need an entire post about it, because, yes, that is indeed very boring to read. But I do believe in transparancy.

  3. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    I’m sorry dear, I respectfully disagree about disclosure. I conducted a major study for an EU telecom sponsor and found that the influence variable is extremely fragile.

    see the report here if you need bathroom reading:

    You can, no doubt, write honest and useful (even stellar) posts whether they sponsored or internally generated. That’s not the point. Here is the rub – do your loyal readers deserve to know what drives the direction of your editorial coverage – why you are writing more posts about cunnilingus and less about fellatio, fer instance.

    Not every post needs to be disclaimed, but a page that spells out the sponsored relationships is an absolute, as far as this analyst is concerned. I am no moralist, but I have turned away work from some of the prominent analyst whore shops because I could not agree with them about disclosure; and I needed the money baby.

    In the preceding situation, I knew that these comprehensive analyst reports were sponsored by the vendors, and that I couldn’t deviate from an overall positive adjudication of the matrix of product coverage. I needed to consider the long term impact on my meager reputation. Some of the big analysts who are banking big bux and run their own opinion blogs are, in my opinion, compromising their integrity.

    I have had a dry stretch since my last substantial contract, and I am glad to say that is coming to an end in June. I can say to that client that I have not been influenced nor sponsored to elevate one company or product over another.

    I will be making good money again, and will also be available for “dining”, if you are still looking for a nice, Jewish man.

    Oh Yeah, right!

    • Dara
      Dara says:

      Alan, I don’t think P is saying to write positive spin about something you can’t get behind. I think what she’s pointing out is that her reputation is on the line more so with this blog than it is for a bylined writer.

      It’s almost as if getting paid is irrelevant (which I know is a naive assumption). She wrote about Payscale because she got paid AND because she thought they offered something great. Her reputation as a blogger relies upon the trust or interest of her readers, meaning readers are the real key to the purse strings not sucking up to a company for contracts. If she starts selling out just for contracts, she knows that could have a worse impact long term (both finanicially and personally). At least, that’s what I got from her post.

  4. Julie Kosbab
    Julie Kosbab says:

    Interestingly, while you say it doesn’t matter, a lot of bloggers who rely on search engine traffic (I don’t know that you do, but I bet you get a lot) discover it matters more than they thought. Google, in particular, get very cranky about pay-to-post postings that create links between the buyer and the ‘bought.’

    Because Google treat number of links to a web site as a core metric for determining visibility for relevant text searches – ie, if someone has more links from relevant sources that are themselves popular, they are likely to show better in search engines – they get really cranky about what they perceive as ‘paid links.’

    They think it means the vote is ‘tainted,’ or bought. So they can penalize or devalue the links provided, or even delist the providing site. This is really funny if you consider a link as a vote, as they do, because geez, seen the political fundraising system in this country?!

    In any event, buying and selling links can end up impacting web sites negatively. You’re probably ok, although I am not the ‘judge’ or jury. Still, as someone who helps small businesses with their search engine visibility, admitting to pay-for-posting in public strikes me as a little on the edge. It’s like waving a flag at a bull.

  5. Alli
    Alli says:

    Not only do I disagree, I also think sponsors (depending on their goals) might consider requiring you to disclose that there is an arrangement. Under the old rules, of course, this wouldn’t have been necessary (and could have seemed crazy). Under the new rules, it seems lack of transparency can be pretty damaging to a brand.

  6. Shandra
    Shandra says:

    I disagree with you. You seem to be looking at it from a purely traffic-driven perspective, and you’re probably right there. But as far as credibility goes, this post has lowered your credibility in my view.

    There is a difference between influence and networking, conflict of interest, and compensation. You seem to be lumping them all together. Trading links and networking is pretty benign, but writing about a service as if you’ve objectively researched the marketplace (but really you’re covering it because you were paid, or because your brother owns it) does lower the quality of your content.

    Granted there are still grey areas in between all those things, but that’s why professionals talk about, develop, and adhere to standards. Newspapers may be dying in part because their credibility has been weakened (particularly in the US) but mostly due to their business model – that doesn’t mean that readers don’t appreciate journalistic ethics and standards or don’t want those things to apply in different media.

    This is one of the things I’m aware of with blogs and that I feel pretty strongly about: Writers & journalists have generally had editors and publishers between them and the dirty business of monetization of content. Writers were paid. Ads were sold. Writers were not paid to write about particular brands.

    It has been in the past the role of writers and editors to build audience, and the role of publishers and ads sales to leverage that audience to make money. The publishers have generally understood that part of what they are selling is that integrity. If I want a press release written by Merck, I’ll go to their site, than you very much. And readers did remove their support (subscription money) if integrity was not preserved.

    Blogs certainly are flattening out all those lines, and have benefited from the fact that readers are not necessarily aware of all the business ins and outs because they haven’t had to be. And also, some bloggers have held themselves to higher standards than traditional media and that is a part of their product.

    But I think readers are catching up in their awareness that now some bloggers deal directly with companies for money to write about them. Certainly marketers are more sophisticated in how they go about getting bloggers on board (like 23andme’s recruitment of mommy bloggers). Readers are catching up. Some won’t care. Some will.

    I do think that as more bloggers accept money and stop revealing conflicts that people will start to distrust blog voices, and it will be good news for traditional media with real editors and publishers because eventually integrity will be appreciated again and become a point of sale. And then ad dollars will shift that way again.

    People who make choices like you have won’t benefit at that time. And that’s fine; it may not even be this decade and you may not care.

    As far as I’m concerned though, you don’t value integrity. I’ll still read your blog but I’d be less likely to hire you as a consultant or do business with a company you owned.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      “As far as I’m concerned though, you don’t value integrity. I’ll still read your blog but I’d be less likely to hire you as a consultant or do business with a company you owned.”

      The more I read this blog, the more I find myself echoing this feeling. Penelope (or whatever you real name is), please pick up a book on integrity or business ethics. It doesn’t do most business people much good, and it might not help you as well, but then again, it just might.

      And by the way, read my blogpost about why you should buy stocks in GE, Pyramid Systems, and Red Vesselware – they’re going up!
      The fact that I might own stocks here, and work in one of these firms, is a conflict of interest that bloggers don’t care about, right?


  7. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I am shocked that there is so much disagreement. Here’s another way to look at this issue: Hollywood has been dealing with conflict of interest forever. And Hollywood does not disclose sponsors, precisely because Hollywood brands work similarly to blogger brands — you trust individuals to be true to the personal brand they’ve built. That’s the brand you connect with.

    Take Sharon Stone, wearing a GAP t-shirt to the Oscars. She is a smart woman. I'd be very surprised if she did not get paid by GAP for doing this. But she could not have done it if the outfit didn't look good. And she could not have done it if it was not consistent with her personal brand – €“ taste maker, fashion icon, hottie. So we don't care if it's a conflict of interest. We only care if she is not the brand we expect her to be when she shows up for the Oscars.

    And really, the Oscars are so long. Can you imagine if each presenter told you that they have a conflict of interest promoting the particular designer they are wearing because that designer gives them tons of freebies throughout the year in exchange for wearing the out fit to the Oscars? We don't care. We just want the Oscars to be fun to watch.

    Here's another Hollywood example. I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Garner got paid by Starbucks to walk around each morning with a Starbucks drink while she was pregnant. So tons of paparazzi photos of her pregnant include a Starbucks cup, and this helped Starbucks by promoting the idea that going there is not bad when you're pregnant.

    If someone paid Garner to smoke while she was pregnant, we would have hated her. But Starbucks is fine, and actually, when I was pregnant people were judgmental about everything, including me drinking coffee (yes, I did it, but not a lot). So the whole deal seems to me to help all women. And Garner is good for this – €“ that's her brand. Down to earth, practical, and real. Real women drink coffee while they're pregnant. I don't care if it's a conflict of interest. I like both brands.


    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      On the other hand, do you know anyone other than studio executives who doesn’t hate the idea of product placement? I don’t.

      And given the way sponsorship has evolved, it actually would surprise me if Gap paid Sharon Stone to wear that t-shirt to the Oscars. They may have given it to her, but I doubt they paid. The game didn’t work quite that way then.

      Beyond that, why are you shocked that there is disagreement? It’s a controversial topic that doesn’t go away, which presumably is why you’re posting about it.

      I also don’t see why you need to write a whole post about (for example) LinkedIn’s sponsorship. That seems like overkill. Including one sentence in a LinkedIn-focused post, though, is pretty simple.

      • Sara
        Sara says:

        Um, I love product placement. I wish all TV shows were supported by just product placement advertising instead of annoying ads. That way my entertainment isn’t disrupted, but marketers can appeal to my subconscious desire to be cool because all the characters are holding iPhones. Whatever. I wasn’t aware product placement bothered other people.

        In general, I agree with Penelope. Everyone’s motivated by something, and she’s not pretending to write an unbiased column. It’s more unethical, in my opinion, when newspaper writers or people doing research, try to ignore their biases like the fact that they are personally politically liberal, or that their research (and therefore entire life) is funded by some company. Those people try to be neutral, which isn’t actually possible. It’s the responsibility of the readers to get information from as many sources as possible in order to form their own opinions.

        Furthermore, the completely uncensored comments here more than allow for “the other side of the story.” And people certainly let her have it, if necessary (and frequently, when it’s not).

    • Monica O'Brien
      Monica O'Brien says:

      I agree with this. Especially since so many people contact me now to sponsor my little 1000 reader blog. I don’t let everyone work with me, only the cool people. And I don’t have time to disclose how much free stuff I’ve gotten as a result.

      Readers should just assume that if you have a big blog you are getting these sponsorship deals pitched to you all the time, and you are only accepting the good ones that are consistent with your brand. In fact, that’s the only reason Hollywood stars are so rich and always have nice clothes – not because they get paid that much from doing movies, but because they get so much endorsement money and because anyone who wants to be a fashion designer gives their clothes away for free the first few years just to get visibility in OK Magazine.

      Another great (and closely related) example is TV. Research shows that most teen girls ages 11-17 choose their products based on what the watch on TV (not the internet, as you might expect). So if your brand gets featured on shows like Hannah Montana and Gossip Girl, you’re basically an overnight hit. That’s why Vitamin Water paid a ton of money to be on Gossip Girl for season 2, and now it’s taking share from Dasani. V Water Case Study.

      When you have influence you are going to get approached for sponsorship, and honestly I’d rather someone make money from that than pasting stupid banner ads all over their site in the name of disclosure.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        “Readers should just assume that if you have a big blog you are getting these sponsorship deals pitched to you all the time”

        Why? I’m not sure that most readers have any basis for this assumption, unless they’re also familiar with these deals.

    • ioana
      ioana says:

      I have a question.

      Has there been any instance in which you changed your content about a company BECAUSE you received money?


    • Ina
      Ina says:

      But that’s just not true. Stone didn’t get paid by GAP, and Jennifer Garner didn’t get paid by Starbucks. IF either of them had been, it would be have uncovered by someone like Nikki Finke or the companies involved would have either bragged about it, or found a way to make those relationships pay off more (remember, both are publicly traded companies). You know NOTHING about how Hollywood works.

      Stone would have gotten an entire GAP wardrobe (this is a woman who kept a loaner from Harry Winston). Garner would have posed for photos taken by real photogs, not the paps, and she would have had editorial approval.

    • jay
      jay says:

      yes but we understand that the Oscars are themselves an ad, for the movies that were produced in the past year. when you’re putting ads on ads, there is an expectation that everything associated with the show is bought and paid for. it is disclosed in red carpet interviews when stars say what they’re wearing and who lent it to them.
      when you are dispensing career advice and you link to a site or say you think it’s great, I don’t think you got paid to say that, I think you are doing an independent review and I am the beneficiary of your expertise.
      this is why I don’t read car reviews in the newspaper. even though they don’t always say “advertisement” I know they are paid shills and I do not respect them. likewise, now that I know you are shilling for pay and not disclosing it, I put less faith in everything you say.

  8. Lee
    Lee says:

    I watched the 20/20 clip. I think that the way you publicly brow-beat the highest paid employee into taking a $40,000 pay cut was cowardly. Why didn’t you have the guts to do it on your own? It was a tacky and spineless act. I cannot believe anyone would want to work with you or be affiliated with any business you run.

    You have no integrity or scruples.

  9. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    You argue your case well, but are you sure that you’ve drawn the right conclusions based on an objective examination of facts? Humans have a great capacity for justifying their own choices and actions that just happen to be in their own interests.

    As a blogger, you are both the writer and the newspaper in the scenario you refer to above.

    I agree with you that the post about the fact that LinkedIn is sponsoring you is not as interesting as the other post about LinkedIn. I don’t think that’s an argument against disclosure. There’s no reason why you couldn’t just slip in a disclosure that LinkedIn is a sponsor in the more interesting post. I appreciate context with my content. It won’t stop me reading it if I value what you have to say but I would respect you more for letting us know either way.

    It’s an interesting point about how there’s still a conflict of interest when it comes to influence and links and it’s not just about whether or not you’re being paid.

  10. Alexis Grant
    Alexis Grant says:

    You make a good argument! And while I’m not convinced that newspapers shouldn’t worry about conflict of interest, I’m impressed with your ability to get oral sex into this post. Thanks for making me laugh!

  11. Theresa Quintanilla
    Theresa Quintanilla says:

    I disagree because there will always be an uneven distribution of power and knowledge between readers and bloggers who are being sponsored, even though it will dissipate over time. As your reader, I would like transparency, please.

  12. Carol Saha
    Carol Saha says:

    Shandra–journalistic ethics. Hah! And when your comment is longer than the original post halfway thru everyone goes “blah, blah, blah” and skips it.
    Penelope-I think one of the things that happens with your readers is you say “hey, here’s what I do and why because this is what you readers like.” and your readers say “she can’t tell me what I like and don’t like, I’m going to disagree.” even though you are right.
    People–read Seth Godin’s blog and books. This is the new way of marketing and it works much better than the old way.

  13. Casual Surfer
    Casual Surfer says:

    Wait, you get $5k/mo just to mention a company, live in an area with a very low COL, and you can’t pay your light bill? What gives?

  14. Alli
    Alli says:

    Jennifer Garner’s career is not primarily about promoting healthy pregnancy or coffee. Her undeclared sponsorship of Starbucks does not directly violate the integrity of her acting. A primary part of your career is providing career advice. To include undeclared, paid sponsors in that advice does, then, violate the integrity of your advice.

    But beyond that, just because undeclared sponsorship happens, doesn’t mean it’s OK. While the new media was made possible by technology, I think it was also made possible by a reaction against the perception that mainstream media was bought and paid for. It’s not surprising that the cycle would continue, but it still doesn’t make it OK.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      Not only that, but where’s the evidence that her Starbucks consumption involved a sponsorship? People have incredible brand loyalty about coffee. I have one friend whose sister loves Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and won’t tolerate hearing Starbucks mentioned.

      Maybe she was sponsored–but the odds are pretty good that Garner just likes Starbucks. The cameras are always there to photograph her, regardless.

  15. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Can I just say THANK YOU for actually giving us a glimpse at what kind of money people are talking about when they talk about “sponsored posts”?! This is the FIRST time I’ve ever seen an actual amount mentioned and I am awed and impressed! I had no idea companies are willing to pay bloggers $5,000 a month; here I was thinking companies pay like $25 a post or something. Granted, you are an exception–I’m sure what you get paid versus what regular bloggers get paid are two dramatically different amounts–but, still. Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve been reading/thinking/blogging a lot about this lately, what with the FTC reviewing its guidelines with regard to bloggers, and frankly don’t know what to think anymore. Sure, I’m taking the high road now–blogging is about good writing and not about making money–but I put a ton of time into blogging and how many people actually read my posts or care anyway? Although I do think that disclosure is important–if for no other reason than when the FTC starts cracking down, people who have invested a bunch of time and effort into cultivating blogging as a business could stand to lose a lot if they don’t disclose stuff.

  16. Tory Lynne
    Tory Lynne says:

    Great content always was, and always will be, essential.

    However, conflict of interest rules do help the reader. I want to know that you're writing about/linking to a something because you think it's fantastic – €“ not because someone waved a paycheck in your face.

    Transparency shows that your concern is your reader. That even if you do get a paycheck, you still believe in the company. If you're willing to be open about that relationship, I can come to my own conclusions – €“ including the fact that you choose to get a paycheck from a specific company because you believe in it. That's what you did here…

    By writing great content recommending great companies, you’re giving your posts ethical credence. But when other bloggers write great content recommending crap companies, how will your readers know the difference between the two of you?

    Conflict of interest rules help you. They help you become a trustworthy source of information, one that readers will believe in, buy from, and preach about to their friends. That's the kind of blogger I look for.

  17. red
    red says:

    I see your logic in the tediousness in conflict of interest, but it’s not in place to protect the Sharon Stone’s and the bloggers of the world. It’s in place to protect the consumer from making bad decisions based on skewed and biased information. This was the heart of the battle between John Stewart and Jim Cramer where the CNBC anchors were all kissing up to the CEO’s of these financial institutions – giving them a platform to lie to their shareholders and potential shareholders. These same companies ended up destroying our economy, took jobs, and livelihoods. So I do think financial conflict of interest is important. After all, our entire economy is based on nothing more than faith that all the information out there is accurate.

    For a career advisor, this seems to be a shocking endorsement for white collar crime.

  18. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    When you’re accredited in public relations, as I am via the Public Relations Society of America, full disclosure is one of the core principles to which a practitioner must adhere.

    I think not disclosing has more consequences than whatever may be created via conflicts of interest. And, while it may not be your responsibility to disclose that you’re being paid to blog about something, I think the company has an obligation to disclose it. If they have PR people working with you who are accredited and they don’t disclose their “sponsors for causes and interests they represent” I think they may have violated the PRSA Code of Ethics and might be subject to losing their accreditation.

    Having said that, disclosure on blogs makes me uneasy. When I see them, I don’t want to read the posts. I’d personally rather not know. I’ve come to trust you as a blogger. Part of your branding is truth-telling. So, if you’re getting paid for what you write – good for you – b/c I don’t think you’d lie for money, and hopefully, the same is true of all the other bloggers I read.

  19. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    Interesting thoughts, to which I have varying opinions.

    To Shandra’s comment: “Writers were paid. Ads were sold. Writers were not paid to write about particular brands.”

    That’s true to only some degree. I’ve been an on-staff writer and a freelance writer for magazines. In both positions I’ve been paid to write about products, stories such as “hottest items this season,” or “best holiday gift ideas.” The editors directed my product content, meaning I basically wrote about brands that sent the coolest promos to the editor. Not exactly conflict of interest as mentioned above, but to some degree it is.

    My second opinion relates to credibility and how things have changed. When I studied journalism back in the day, writing with credibility was a huge part of our learning. I recently heard a radio reporter talking about how times have changed. He was previously required to have three reliable sources before making a news statement. Now he can simply use another media as his source, such as “According to The New York Times…”

    I think things go in phases.

    Years ago, readers viewed the internet as an accurate source and bloggers were considered professional in their field of expertise (even though neither requires any credibility).

    Nowadays we have a gazillion so-called “experts” on the internet, not to mention this fad of transparency. Most readers today recognize the internet’s lack of credibility and are starting to see the same in journalism.

    But I wonder if this phase won’t reverse? I wonder if public demand will tire of entertainment and want a reliable source?

  20. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    The analyst whore shops of ill repute have had a pay for play ethos for such a long time, that the so called, “magic quadrants” are now looked upon with a jaundiced eye. Gartner, Forrester, etc., all have substantially compromised their credibility by taking money to say nice things about their sponsors. They only exist by dint of their self-sponsored, quantitative research, which is very expensive to compile.

    After so many years of charging clients to basically write whatever, the industry sectors they serve have grown weary. It took a while for the blush to be eroded from the rose of those 4K$ reports, but they are now officially compromised. They collected the cake for a good many years under the rubric of “impartiality”, but now we know better after several analyst defections.

    Same thing for the industry bloggers, they may make a payday for awhile yet, however, credibility is not so easily recovered.

  21. Danilo Campos
    Danilo Campos says:

    As other posters have mentioned, you’re conflating a lot of different things into a single “conflict of interest” umbrella.

    Whatever else there is to say about the rest of it, taking money to do a post and not disclosing that money is slimy. Your readers deserve to know when you’re being genuine and when you’re shilling. Let’s not pretend you can do both at once. If that were true, no one who paid you would have needed to pay you to post.

    You’ll do what you want and post-rationalize accordingly, as usual, but the fact is that you have a trust to maintain with your readership and not disclosing paid posts is a simple, straightforward, black-and-white violation of that trust. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious — I don’t think the trust involved is so inviolable as to factor into the direction of your faith’s afterlife, for example, but the violation does exist and depending on how much you value the trust, it can have consequences you don’t enjoy. When you set an expectation for content being your personal viewpoints the injection of a paid commercial message, regardless of your editorial spin, is elementary school-style, nuance-free dishonesty.

    Disclosure isn’t “for newspapers.” Disclosure is for the building and maintenance of trust. If a friend comes to me for advice on a subject with an outcome that could lead to my personal gain, I’m a douchebag if I don’t make that friend aware that I have a dog in the hunt before sharing my guidance. The fact that I am not a newspaper does not absolve me of that obligation.

    I would retitle this post “Conflict of interest does not apply to my blog; assume everything I do is out of self interest with no regard for your own.” You have every right to do what you’ve described — just don’t try to take the high ground at the same time.

  22. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    First, I’ll proofread:

    “And it me happy because it…”

    “And it made me happy…”

    Since, you know, we’re doing that now.

    Anyways, I also disagree. One, I’m a medical editor. We HAVE to get conflict of interest statements from our authors because we need to know that when a paper says, “This drug is awesome,” that that study wasn’t funded by that drug’s company. I think it’s plain to see why that would be problematic. And since you frequently cite studies (or articles about studies that came from press releases about studies, which were written by the studies’ funding sources, which is how most journalists write about studies and that’s why most headlines about studies are total bullshit), you should care about this. To understand whether a study makes any sense, it’s not enough to agree with the findings just because it supports your bias. You need to know that the study was conducted properly and that all conflicts of interests are transparent.

    I didn’t say that you can’t have a conflict of interest. You are absolutely right when you say, of course bloggers have conflicts of interest. They are bartering influence. Of course doctors work for drug companies. They make more money and have more influence doing that than in having a humble family practice. But they have to disclose that. They have to be aware of their bias (we all have bias) and then they need to disclose it so their peers and consumers can decide if what they say has merit.

    And Hollywood gets into trouble for having Pepsi cans in movies. It happens. People were pissed at Sex and the City the movie for this (I was just pissed because the movie sucked).

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you being paid to talk about a site but it’s something you should disclose. I trust that you wouldn’t take money from a site that sucks because you wouldn’t want to talk about that on your blog. But would you still talk about them if you weren’t getting paid? If the answer is no, that’s a problem. That’s a conflict of interest and you need to disclose that. Because the money made the decision, not you.

    Dooce discloses. She has ads galore but she clearly states, over and over again, that when she links to something in her posts, unless stated otherwise, it’s because she loves it, not because she got paid. It doesn’t make her blog or influence any less valuable.

  23. Larry Chandler
    Larry Chandler says:

    Comments like this are another reason many blogs aren’t taken seriously. Sure TV and movies have product placements that they don’t disclose. But that doesn’t mean that because someone else does it it’s therefore a good thing to do. And it’s not likely to impact people’s decision to go to another movie.

    Your trumpeting your own lack of ethics can hurt other bloggers if people assume all bloggers are crooks. You may praise a product that isn’t all that great just because you are paid to do so. And someone else might spend money on that product in the belief that you genuinely liked it and perhaps they will too.

    Getting away with it does not make it right. Bad content will drive people away, but that’s not relevant to dishonest content. You can be a good bank robber and get away with it, or a bad bank robber and leave your personal ID at the bank as you run out with the bags of money. But you’re still a thief.

  24. ScottS
    ScottS says:

    The problem with newspapers is that they have all kinds of conflicts of interest that they try and claim don’t exist. Their insistance at perpetuating the myth that they are always above the fray when it is painfully obvious they are not has permanently damagaed their credibility. Penelope is right: their motivation is all about the protection of their brand, but most people now see through all of that. This is one of the main reasons for their ultimate decline.

    The internet, on the other hand, has never had this pretense of objectivity. There is an implicit assumption that there is some underlying financial motive for most of what goes on out here, and readers are indeed ultimately more interested in the individual voices than some sense of moral propriety about the content out here. I always assume that if anybody (Penelope included) writes about a product or service, they have a financial or personal motivation of some sort behind it. Otherwise, why do it?

    That doesn’t, however, make the content less engaging. Readers do just want good content. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to rush out and buy something or do something just because Penelope says it a good idea in some subliminal way. I just don’t see how disclosing a financial interest in a topic would have any effect one way or the other on how a thinking individual would view it.

    I’m not saying integrity is not important. I’m just saying I think it’s odd that anyone would think a blog should be the picture of objectivity. It’s like people thinking Wikipedia is accurate. Take stuff for what it is and enjoy engaging content wherever you find it.

    And to provide a small amount of personal disclosure, I generally don’t agree with a lot of what Penelope writes, but I really do think this one hits the mark.

  25. Justin Kownacki
    Justin Kownacki says:

    If someone tells me they like something, I’m interested.

    If someone tells me they were paid to review something, I’m less interested.

    If someone was paid to review something but didn’t tell me at the time they suggested it, and then I discover their motivation afterward, I now distrust them.

    Why withhold information on the basis of opinions outweighing trust?

    There’s a reason magazine ads that look like articles are labeled “Paid Advertisement”. Otherwise, it’s a very fast erosion toward medical journals replacing research with unlabeled pharmaceutical ads and selling it as “news.”

  26. Larry Chandler
    Larry Chandler says:

    The main reason for newspapers’ decline is not because the public can now see through their lack of objectivity. It’s because their advertising model has failed. The New York Times for example has lost millions in advertising and is in financial trouble. Yet it has one of the strongest online brands in news rated among the top in viewers. But they don’t know how to monetize it.

    Newspapers never really were objective. Every one of them used to be as partisan as Fox News or MSNBC is now. Advertising paid the way. It won’t now.

    But using that as an excuse to be dishonest is idiotic and deceitful. If you pay less attention to a blogger because he/she discloses payment then you are willfully choosing to be deceived. People these days may assume that bloggers are dishonest, but blogs like this do nothing to reverse that perception. If you read a blog for its comic value, that’s fine. But if you read it for information, you want that information to be accurate and truthful.

    And an attempt by the FTC to crack down on this is more than welcome, even if the chances of it succeeding are remote.

  27. Erik
    Erik says:

    Really good post. I think on the final paragraph you miss it a bit though. I think the reason newspapers are about themselves is that's what readers wanted. They went to a brand they can trust (New York Times), so the brand has to protect itself. Now that you, the writer, are the brand, rather than the newspaper you write for, you have to police yourself (i.e. do what's right for your brand, which is the same as doing what's right for your readers since they are reading you for you, not for some larger entity).

    Interestingly, Vallyewag, which is a blog, but staffed by ex-big media writers, just spent a post bashing a blogger for not disclosing conflicts, and she defended herself saying that she actually really liked what she was promoting (though not as eloquently as you).

    Also, I wonder how someone like Arrington at Techcrunch would think about something like this. he's basically lending his brand to his other writers. Should they have to disclose? It blurs the line, I think.

  28. Jane Greer
    Jane Greer says:

    I have some acquaintances who are always funny and entertaining but completely untrustworthy. When I spend time with them, I’m entertained but wary.

    I have friends who are not so funny or entertaining but whom I would trust with my life and whose word is their bond.

    My FAVORITE friends are funny, entertaining, AND trustworthy. I return to them again and again for worry-free pleasure.

    It seems to me that a blogger should strive to be that kind of friend. Absolutely, you need to provide great content, but you also need to be trusted. A sponsored post is a commercial. I really HATE it when my favorite talk radio hosts break into a commercial without taking a breath–a commercial that my brain doesn’t even RECOGNIZE as a commercial until it’s halfway through. On the other hand, I don’t mind host-read commercials if timing and other cues make it clear that they’ve switched from content to commercial and then back again.

    A sponsored post is a commercial. You may or may not have researched the product, but you’re writing about it because the company is PAYING you to do so. Being transparent about conflicts of interest is one of the few things that the news media still does RIGHT, and readers of blogs haven’t stopped thinking that it matters. It matters a lot.

  29. LPC
    LPC says:

    I don’t want long posts about sponsorship but I want the data. I want to be able to follow the trend. I want to be able to analyze whether your sponsored posts are different from your unsponsored posts. Just tag the post sponsored. Put <> in the title. What’s the harm? And if you resist doing that, then I suspect your sponsored posts are in fact biased and not what I thought they were.

  30. Matt Secor
    Matt Secor says:

    Besides the counterpoints already made, I think it’s hypocritical to be a proponent of transparent salaries but not to divulge monetary conflicts of interest.

    Citing the number of comments, and who picked up the post, doesn’t make it honest. Good writing doesn’t automatically equal honest writing.

    You make a decent point in that a credible blogger will only take money from a good company. If they take money at all. That doesn’t stop the blogger from letting compensation determine which product to endorse, if evaluating a number of similar products. Without disclosing paid endorsements, it’s hard to maintain credibility.

  31. says:

    Take Sharon Stone, wearing a GAP t-shirt to the Oscars. She is a smart woman. I'd be very surprised if she did not get paid by GAP for doing this. But she could not have done it if the outfit didn't look good. And she could not have done it if it was not consistent with her personal brand – €“ taste maker, fashion icon, hottie.

    I don’t think this analogy works. If I see a huge celebrity like Sharon Stone conspicuously wearing a shirt that says “GAP,” I instinctively think: “Eh, I’ll bet Gap paid her to wear that.” Same thing with product placement in TV or movies.

    In contrast, if I see a blog post gushing over a specific product or company –with no explicit statement of any kind of bias — I would like to think it’s a disinterested opinion. Now, maybe that’s naive and I should be more skeptical. But we’d be living in a better world if this this attitude were actually accurate because everyone followed a rule of disclosing conflicts of interest.

    I also don’t see your point about how Sharon Stone looks good in the Gap and wouldn’t have worn it otherwise. That just means her advertising of the Gap (assuming you’re right that they paid her) was effective. Indeed, that’s why Gap is smart to want her showing off her Gap shirt. Naturally, a clothing company wants its models (including covert models, e.g. people at award ceremonies) to look a lot better than average in their clothes. By the same token, a company would be smart to want you writing a positive post about them, since your blog posts are a lot more interesting and better written than the average blog post. But this just means the conflict of interest is exploited efficiently. That doesn’t negate the problems with undisclosed conflict of interest; if anything, it heightens them.

  32. Stuart Foster
    Stuart Foster says:

    Agreed. Readers just want to be informed, entertained and learn something from your writing. Bias for the most part has become extremely easy to detect (as in if you can’t detect bias…you are a moron).

    So lets open up the flood gates. Disclose your position/reason but write what you want to write about. Let your readers sort it out, not your editor.

  33. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    Hey, P-Lope:

    What brought this all on, anyways? Did someone call you out?

    I kinda always thpught the job/career/sex writing was a sponsor play anyhoo, ya?

  34. Anne
    Anne says:

    I just realized another reason why I love this blog. I love it because Penelope is both respectable and sexual at the same time. She can blog about her career one day and oral sex the next day, put her real name and include her picture on the site. In so many spheres of life, women are basicly forced to separate their sexual beings from the rest of their lives in a way that men are never asked to do. There’s usually some type of demeaning label attached to a woman’s sexuality that doesn’t ever get put onto men. Men never are called sluts if they talk about sex. So I love that, here is a woman who is openly a human being. And yes, that means a sex life. And no, there really isn’t anything wrong with that!

  35. says:

    There’s usually some type of demeaning label attached to a woman’s sexuality that doesn’t ever get put onto men. Men never are called sluts if they talk about sex.

    That’s because all men are assumed to be sluts.

    Anyway, men are called womanizers. That’s a label that isn’t put on women.

  36. Wil Butler
    Wil Butler says:

    I really don’t think that conflicts of interest should be much of an issue in writing. Most of us can tell when what we’re reading is a bullshit fluff piece.

    Hell, most of us have lived with junk mail, telemarketers, ads every-freaking-where, and spam, in all its fantastic forms, for our entire lives, or at least most of them.

    I think that most of us have a pretty good filter for finding good content among all the fluff. People trying to blog their way into our wallets are more likely to die a slow death of unpopularity than to trick us into something we’re not interested in.

    So, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who’s cutting the checks for all the content we take in, because, whatever their devious plan is, they’re not going to succeed.

    Also, glad you’re getting together with more men with eager tongues! I just hope more women follow your example.

  37. Susan
    Susan says:

    I find so much more info out there on blogs than newspapers. It takes forever to weed out all the crap I don’t want to read. If I’m interested in someone’s blog, I’m pretty certain I’m going to get the info I want and enjoy without much difficulty.

    You do write about oral sex alot. Maybe you should start a different blog giving tips.

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Looks like you found a new poll topic. Why don’t you ask your readers what level of disclosure they want from you?

  39. Huck Finn
    Huck Finn says:

    Lately, I’ve taken a shine to the music of Leonard Cohen & John Prine, the former more than the latter by a hair, but both just the same.

    I’d like to take a moment to use your blog to mention this fact. Ultimately, I hope that others at least give both a cursory listen and share my new love.

    Thank you in advance, Ms. Trunk. You’re fun – and I’m serious.

  40. Peter Spellman
    Peter Spellman says:

    I have to say that I always enjoy your posts and agree with some of the points in your post, but I have to disagree with the fundamental premise. I think the disclosure is essential if the article is being paid for. Right or wrong, I believe there is a belief on the part of readers that writers are operating with a degree of objectivity unless explicitly noted.


  41. Lee
    Lee says:

    Hey, did anyone watch the 20/20 clip where Penelope uses her employees to brow-beat another employee during a staff meeting to take a $40,000 pay cut because she didn’t have the guts to do it herself?

    Penelope, you have no scruples or integrity. It hard to respect anything about you.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      Just watched the clip! I loved the reason she gave for why she did this – “This is how the world works?”

      Wow! Isn’t that the reason almost every white collar criminal gives, for doing what s/he does? This is what everyone else does.

      By the way, I haven’t checked the dates but was this done around the time when her company was suffering from a cash crunch? It almost seems that if you want to fire your highest-paid employee, and at the same time, been seen as a ‘good’ leader by the others, to do what was done here.

      Jeez, and she’s a career advisor to the young generation today. No wonder the country is in a mess now.

      • Bill
        Bill says:

        Outrageous treatment of an employee. But, it did get Brazen Careerist on 20/20. Mission accomplished. And it was SO worth it!

      • Casual Surfer
        Casual Surfer says:

        Wow – and she gets $200k a year according to that whiteboard (and still can’t pay her bills on time??)

        That was a really shitty thing to do to that person. If PT had any integrity as a CEO she would have handled the salary gap without resorting to peer pressure & public shaming.

  42. Rachel - I Hate HR
    Rachel - I Hate HR says:

    I’ve read through all of the comments and I’m disappointed that I’m the only reader to notice that this is all just a ploy to link to these products again and get more money.

  43. gordo
    gordo says:

    Just watched the 20/20 segment, and was left:

    a) feeling all kinds of ick. ick, ick, ick.

    b) wondering wtf penelope’s doing to merit a $200k paycheck

      • Terry
        Terry says:

        A startup where people are making $200, $120, $75, $65? What kind of twits are financing this venture – I can’t believe there is no oversight of salaries? No wonder the company is going out of business. Good riddance…

    • Maus
      Maus says:

      Come on people. P is not a business guru. She is an entertaining writer whose metier is sex. Assuming a 2080-hour year (which is low for a startup) and a $200K salary, she’s making less than $100 per hour. Many escorts and prostitutes make at least twice or three times that, so she can’t rightly be considered a whore, even if she shills in an undisclosed manner and writes ad nauseam about her need for oral sex. But anyone who considers her an expert on careers or business is equally daft.

  44. Jane Greer
    Jane Greer says:

    What 20/20 segment? Did I miss a link up above? I can’t find the segment that seems to be under discussion here….

      • Jane Greer
        Jane Greer says:

        Thanks for the link, Huck Finn. It brings lots of questions to mind, such as:

        What kind of lame HR department doesn’t keep track of employees’ salaries? Why did it take PT writing salaries on a whiteboard–ON CAMERA–before somebody thought, “Oops!”?

        Why did management need to use employee peer-pressure to help them reduce the overpaid employee’s salary? Why couldn’t it just adjust the salary privately? I’m pretty sure the company’s not a democracy….

        Why was the salary “outing” incident taped–or was that a re-enactment?

        The whole thing just feels weird and a little phony to me. Again, if PT has explained all this in a post that I’ve missed, somebody please help me out….

      • LuckyK
        LuckyK says:

        Wow, Penny makes 200. Bet that makes her co-founders feel good. So long Brazen Careerist…we hardly knew ye.

  45. Lee
    Lee says:

    About Bill’s comment regarding: She looked like a twit and you could tell by Elizabeth Vargus’s tone and facial expressions that she thought so too.

    I wonder who owed PT a favor to get her on the show? If 20/20 actually did ask her on her own “merit”, then they obviously didn’t do their homework. The woman on that program was unpolished and obviously struggled to communicate her “professional opinion” with some cop-out of an un-original answer.

  46. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What kind of lame HR department doesn’t keep track of employees’ salaries? Why did it take PT writing salaries on a whiteboard – €“ON CAMERA – €“before somebody thought, “Oops!”

    Um, Jane, at startup companies there is no HR department. At my company the partners keep a spreadsheet of salaries, but I could see us putting them on a whiteboard when trying to make a decision.

    OTOH we would not do that in front of cameras.

    • Jane Greer
      Jane Greer says:

      But every business–even the smallest, newest start-up, but ESPECIALLY one that apparently has some sugar daddies financing it–has to perform some sort of HR FUNCTIONS. And this one apparently didn’t.

      The whole scenario is just sort of artificial and “made-for TV.” I searched for and read a post where PT says that she gave her employees some time to get used to the idea of salary transparency (most were unhappy about it), but did she tell them that the big event would be taped–and appear on national TV? And did they get to opt out of the taping?

      • JTManne
        JTManne says:

        PT’s meeting reenactment shown on 20/20 was indeed made for TV!

        While all the facts are clearly not presented in the story, this quote seems to be most telling: “The employee in question has since been laid-off and did not want to speak with us.”

  47. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Who kidnapped Penelope and submitted this post under her {pseudo}name? Whoever you are, you got one thing right: talking about sponsorships is BORING. And next time, do more research. The *real* Penelope wouldn’t use the word stupid more than 3x in a post. That’s just, well…stupid.

  48. Jack
    Jack says:

    PT, jeez, I’m almost feeling bad that everyone is bashing you on this. I think your advice and insights have often been smart and useful.

    But please steer clear of any issues that may touch upon moral or ethical areas, because (as you can see from the comments here), you don’t have an expertise in this area. You may be good at blogging, at personal branding, at Gen Y careers and maybe even at start-ups. Please stick to those areas, or alternately, check your blog in with someone who is older, wiser, or more ethically aware than you are, before you post something.

    This is just a blog. A comment like this in the print media or on TV, would have killed you.

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