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. Jennifer Black
    Jennifer Black says:

    Honestly, this post must be tongue in … cheek (nudge nudge).

    First there’s the emphasis on blogger as Mommy: “But readers don't need to know x” … “Readers should not care about y” … “Readers should just want z.” Surely we’re supposed to laugh at this point of view, yes? After all, if this were true, it would mean you see readers as merely blank slates to be etched upon, rather than participants in the discourse. And who wants to suffer silently through being talked at all the time instead of being invited to the party.

    Second, if this post isn’t tongue-in-cheek, it takes a pretty pathetic detour into becoming a perfect example of the freshman composition band-wagon fallacy. Come on, saying, “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,” isn’t so very different than saying, “But everyone’s wearing that dress. I haaaavvvveeee to get it.”

    After all, Sanjaya got a kerchillion votes on national TV. That means he’s a good singer, right?

    Please tell us you’re joking.

  2. Former reader
    Former reader says:

    Thank you for posting your rate card. It will speed negotiation when I want you to say something nice about me.

    Former Reader

  3. Dara
    Dara says:

    “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.”

    Holy crap, this is why I read your blog! You are dead on and the first major newspaper/media company that figures this out and hires writers based on their star quality (i.e. their content, writing style and to some degree their popularity…which is hard to measure beyond blogs/message boards) they will figure out how to make money off of it EASY.

    I’m not talking about the “death of journalism” either. There can be good investigative reporters who are just as popular as good career advice writers. I’ve often thought that newspaper/media companies should be perusing active message boards (about whatever topic they want a writer for) for potential writers. See whose posts get the most response (if a voting system is utilized), which are the most provoking, intelligent or whatever. The blog problem is that everyone seems to have one and editors/publishers might need to start looking at other venues like message boards too b/c it shows (who can think well, has a quick wit, can formulate great arguments and most importantly is able GENERATE interest and involvement).

    • JJ
      JJ says:

      Right, ’cause it’s never occured to newspapers and magazines that they should hire good and popular writers and columnists in order to sell their product. Wow, 2009 thinking is right up there.

      On the larger topic, I agree with the great slogan above – “If you’re not transparent, you’re just another infomercial.”

      There’s a difference between doing a bit of due diligence on a company that has a cheque outstretched, and actually providing an unbiased look at three good choices. I get the feeling some bloggers feel virtuous if they are managing to meet the lowest standards of media and this post doesn’t change my guess.

      • Dara
        Dara says:

        JJ- “Wow, 2009 thinking is right up there.”

        So what year are you thinking in?

        I don’t know if you work in the writing industry, but very often, newspapers and media outlets hire based on what the editors/publishers view as good writing/investigating (internally not externally). It makes sense, but it’s not as objective as a really popular blogger who is self-made or survives merely on the popularity with readers. I’m not saying PT is necessarily a fit with all or most media/papers, but she is provocative sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad or useless way.

        I’m thinking that blogs/hits/etc., is the beginning of an actual metric to value a writer’s star power, columnists are probably the only ones that also have something like this in traditional media. It’s like all the teams want the ones who score touchdowns. Yet, in traditional media it’s difficult to measure a writer objectively. They may be an expert, but a horrid writer of prose. They may be a great writer, but a horrible investigator/details person.

        I’m just curious if writer’s found a way to make a name for themselves (like bloggers do) and papers started picking up on this, if it would help…i.e. you pick up a certain paper because they’ve got the writing equivalent of LeBron James on their team…very few pick up a paper or magazine today because of the writers. Of course, this might not help at all, maybe no one ever does or ever will care about the writer.

  4. le
    le says:

    Hi there P – I don’t mind who pays you … I am just glad you get paid – go link yourself to the max – if the content is worth reading I will still read on – cheers le

  5. Lee
    Lee says:

    “Readers should not care about the business dealings of the writers or their publishers”.

    This mentality does not surprise me at all coming from you. I for one, care about the interests of those people or companies that get my money or endorsement.

    Why would I contribute to the professional or monetary success of a person or corporation that supports ideology that turns a blind eye to human rights violations? Why would I want to help build the career of an individual who is affiliated with companies that practice testing on animals, or who opposes gay marriages? With that being said, why do you think that writers and publishers are exempt from being held accountable socially?

    Your argument is about justifying ruthless behavior at any cost as long as you profit from it. As a consumer of material goods and of the written word I have every right to be privy to the special interests of those who provide me those needs/services.

    It’s important for people to be well informed before lending their support to any person or cause. It’s about being socially responsible – something that you are not.

  6. Ty
    Ty says:

    I disagree. What you purport to be is a public relations specialist, not a journalist. And saying a post is good based upon how many comments it received is as arbitrary and pathetic as me saying a photo I post to Flickr is good based upon the number of views/comments/favorites it received.

  7. Jeff | MBA Admission Essay
    Jeff | MBA Admission Essay says:

    I’m sorry but I disagree.

    When a blogger is getting paid to write about something, then there’s pressure to say what the sponsor wants the blogger to say. If the blogger writes something negative, the blogger gains a reputation for writing ‘bad reviews’ and there will be less and less sponsors lining up to pay the blogger. UNLESS… and this is a big exception, the blog is primarily an honest review site and not just a positive “review mill” out to merely “upsell” its readers to sponsors.

    I do get your point regarding bad content vs. conflict of interest–the blogger’s loyalty is to the people that made his/her blog what it is: the blog’s readers. Prioritizing high quality content is great and everything but isn’t the INTEGRITY of the content a form of content QUALITY as well?

    Also, doesn’t it BETRAY the readers of a blog if their loyalty to the blog was repaid by a mere shilling for dollars?

    Newspapers have very very STRONG anti-conflict of interest standards. Remember the Armstrong Williams case? I strongly believe that the same standard should apply to the blogosphere.

  8. Zack
    Zack says:

    Everyone has a pet theory on why newspapers are dying. My Fido: newspapers got lazy by running too many AP wire stories, firing too many writers and reporters, all while using less original content. What good is a Wisconsin newspaper vs. the LA times if both have 80% of the same undifferentiated wire feeds? With cable internet, you cannot justify this business model.

    God made men unequal, Samuel Colt made men equal.

    God made men unequal, Samuel Colt made men equal, and the Internet made men and women equal ;)

    • Pamela
      Pamela says:

      Zack, I like your comment about the Internet. Re your theory, which I also agree, there is very little original content. Also, any articles in newspapers that are not AP are usually disguised infomercials. Readers see through that.

      • Dara
        Dara says:

        And where do we find the most original content? On the Internet…blogs maybe? Is there anyway traditional media can capitalize on this?

  9. OZ
    OZ says:

    I think conflict of interest CAN apply to blogs, so I disagree with you in that respect.

    However, I do agree with you that readers don’t really care about that, what they care about is reading a good post relevant to them! Why should I care about how much you got paid for a post, I’m more concerned about myself and what I can get out of my time surfing. Good post btw.

    Strategic Online Marketing Blog

  10. Christian Wood
    Christian Wood says:

    “Readers should just want the post to be useful and interesting and all the other things you want from any post.”

    As a reader I want unbiased and transparent opinion.

  11. Vnezmez
    Vnezmez says:

    As a writer, looking at both sides of the coin, at this point in time I lean toward mentioning sponsorship/affiliation with the company if any, keeping it short and sweet. I would stay away from any article which demands for glorifying a particular product that I’m not fond of, even if I’m paid for it.

  12. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I have been reading this blog for a while and I have always wondered who you were taking money from.

    I am a little shocked by your position on conflict-of-interest disclosure. It does not seem well thought out. Your examples, as pointed out several times here, are not relevant.

    As boring as it may be, I would much rather read something serious and honest than a fluff piece. I guess the question is, what kind of blog are you? Honest, serious, and a little boring, or fluffy, fun, paid advertising?

    If you can really get behind the people who pay you, you should not have a problem telling us about it. If they’re really good, it won’t matter to us that they paid you.

    • Dara
      Dara says:

      This is an excellent point, Rachel. I’m really afraid many commenters on this post aren’t being honest with themselves about why they visit P’s blog. I understand, as one person stated why they read Consumer Reports b/c they take no advertising revenue or free product samples, but does anyone really come read P’s blog for the same reason they read Consumer Reports magazine?

      This blog for me is mostly entertainment (a guilty pleasure like picking up a People mag or something), b/c PT shocks me, but tries to remain professional enough to not quite be the Howard Stern of blogdom. And every once in a while, she’s throws me a gem. A thought or idea I’ve never seen in a certain way, something provocative for me to think about. I read her blog b/c she precisely does not think like I do (and she’s a pretty good writer).

  13. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    Sure readers want good content, but how do they tell good content from PR fodder without objectivity. By not disclosing you’re paid to write a review for a site/product, you taint the quality of your review. I guess from now on, I’ll consider anything you write as being sponsored directly by the person/product/site you’re writing about unless you say you’re writing pro-gratis. That way I’ll be able to more appropriately accept/reject your views.

  14. Phil
    Phil says:

    Ouch…just watched the 20/20 clip. PT, you displayed perfectly why cottling Gen Y’ers is a bad thing. Your employees looked like a bunch of snot nose 20 something kids. Let them come work for me for a few months and see how much they like the real world. I’m sorry, but listing salaries is a bad thing. Doing it in front of everyone to shame someone into taking a pay cut is cowardly.

    I’ve been in management awhile, and can tell you from experience, public shaming is not good. The first thing it does is let the employees know there boss doesn’t have a back bone. The second is that it lets everyone know you will not have any privacy. The third thing it does is gives people something to ponder all day instead of focusing on the job at hand. You are supposed to be putting your efforts towards your job, and this will encourage people to worry about their coworkers too much. If you know John makes $60k and you only make $45k, odds are you will be watching their every move to make sure they are doing more work than you or work that is more intensive than yours. You have already created an unsafe and potentially hostile work environment by announcing salaries and shaming someone into a paycut, so you can expect the workplace to be overcompetitive, but more than likely petty in the end.

    Bad form indeed PT. Instead of trying to be hip and innovative, you should go to some real managing seminars so you really know how to run a company. Oh how the internet has made kings and queens of peasants.

  15. Dave
    Dave says:

    “Why is anyone concerned that I tell you who is paying me when I write about something?” How about because we need that information to help us decide how credible your information is? So when you talked about PayScale, maybe because you were taking money from them, you “forgot” to mention some of their competitors who also might have some good ideas. Maybe you only mentioned the good points you saw about PayScale, but neglected to mention the problems you found with their model? I find them to be somewhat limited, but that’s because I work in a very small, specialized niche, and their tool can’t quite figure out where to slot me. Unfortunately, since I can’t see behind their curtains, I don’t really know who they are comparing me to. I just know that many of the terms and entries I use aren’t in their system, so I have to add them. If I have to add my tools and my discipline and my job title, then I think it is safe to assume that they aren’t comparing me to true peers. Given that, just how good are the numbers they give me?

    Did you ever happen to read Consumer Reports? They say: “We are a non-profit organization that is supported by the subscriptions to our web site and magazine. To maintain our independence, we do not accept any outside advertising and any free test samples.” So, when they write a review for a product, I don’t have to wonder if I can trust their judgment. With you taking money from those you write about, how do I trust you more than an infomercial?

  16. Yvette @ Capsule
    Yvette @ Capsule says:

    Great post – you’re articulating something that often isn’t acknowledged and I agree with you completely. As long as the content’s good, the readers will be happy. The idea of undisclosed sponsorship made me a little uncomfortable til I came across this post. Thanks!

  17. Aussie writer
    Aussie writer says:

    So disappointing, Penelope. Your argument for not disclosing is self-serving and flawed. I refer you to the cash for comments scandal in Australia. This is exactly the situation you are trying to defend. It was reported worldwide and destroyed the careers of some high-profile people. The presenters in this case were on radio, but the medium is irrelevant. They took money to say positive things about their sponsors and DID NOT DISCLOSE. They, like you, tried all sorts of weasel ways to defend their position (including arguing they were not ‘journalists’ but ‘entertainers’, and therefore did not have to abide by a code of ethics). Penelope, it is your choice not to disclose but it has DESTROYED your credibility.
    To read about the cash for comments scandal, just google it, and it’s also in wikipedia.
    PS And by the way, don’t tell me (as a reader) what I ”should” want.

  18. Mike
    Mike says:

    I got jacked on paypal by some jerkwad hiding behind a mobile account. Asswipe was speechless when I got her contact info and made a house call lol!

    Phone Search

  19. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    Sorry, I don’t but your argument. Let’s say you are pumping one product line to death in your hair care “blog” AND getting compensation from the company. On top of this, you are soliciting donations from “members” to “help keep the site going” You admit that the company is sponsoring your blog, but you don’t explain the exact nature of your relationship. The “blog” is now one, big commercial for that product line. IMO, the blogger instantly loses credibility (as well as my donation) because it is now a commercial website, NOT a blog.

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