Opinion

Felix Salmon

Junket of the day, Barcelona edition

By Felix Salmon
February 18, 2011

Victoria Barret reports on the nice little deal that Dan Frommer has going on in Barcelona: “Samsung was generous enough to sponsor our trip”, in the words of Frommer himself.

Barret is reasonably sympathetic, and likes the fact that Frommer inserts a disclaimer about how he’s “feeling pretty warm and fuzzy about Samsung right now” into every post from Barcelona:

Let’s be clear, here. Samsung is buying influence. If they didn’t think they were, why would they bother buying journalists’ airplane tickets and putting them up in hotels? (Frommer, I’m told, is not the only one being “sponsored”.) …

SAI’s business model simply doesn’t pay for flights and hotel stays. Frommer will bring insight from Barcelona back to New York. That’s good for everyone…

Frommer’s earlier posts on Samsung don’t stand out as fawning… He deserves credit for disclosure, too.

I’m not nearly as sanguine as Barret about all this. For one thing, this is editorial, not advertising. It’s conceivable Frommer would have written exactly the same thing had he not been “sponsored” by Samsung, but we’ll never know. And since he is being sponsored by Samsung, this now looks highly dubious:

barc.tiff

But it gets worse than that. For one thing, Frommer’s not just scrounging up whatever’s necessary to get him to the conference and report. He’s was flown over “in posh business class“, which almost certainly means posh hotels and expensive jamón iberico as well. Samsung is doing its utmost to buy his goodwill: why is he letting them get away with it?

On top of that, Samsung is loving the ubiquitous disclaimer — it provides fantastic free marketing for them in every post. Frommer might think he’s somehow neutralizing the junket by disclosing it; in fact he’s giving Samsung vast amounts of exactly what they want most.

Most tellingly of all, Samsung isn’t really “sponsoring” Frommer at all — especially not if, as seems logical and as Barret reports, other bloggers at the conference are getting the same deal and not disclosing it. Sponsorship involves a trade of some description: we give you money, you give us some kind of ad space or exposure. If Samsung is getting nothing explicit in return, then it must be getting something implicit instead.

Failure to disclose freebies like this is very bad; disclosing them, however, isn’t much better. So the best solution is to simply refuse to take them. But that’s hard for someone like Henry Blodget, the chap in charge of Business Insider, who writes:

Our policy is to take these opportunities case-by-case. If we think travel or an event partially paid for by a company will help us produce content that our readers love, we’ll be happy to consider it. If we think it will lead to us producing crap or fluff or be a waste of time, we won’t do it.

In this case, the Barcelona event is an excellent mobile conference, and I was confident Dan would produce great stuff while he was there. So we were happy to take Samsung up on its generous offer to airmail him over.

I think the honest conversation would go something like this:

Samsung: Henry, are you sending anybody to Barcelona this year?

Henry: No, we don’t have budget for that.

Samsung: Well, if you send someone, we’ll happily buy adspace alongside their content. Here’s a commitment for $10,000 if you do.

Henry: Thanks! We now have the money to send Dan to Barcelona on our own dime, and we’re more than happy for him to go over and generate the pageviews you’re buying ads against.

Samsung: You’re welcome.

That kind of thing is entirely kosher, and yet Samsung doesn’t seem to like to operate that way. The fact that they don’t — and TBI doesn’t — implies a certain sleaziness. It’s not a huge deal, but it does mark TBI as being a little more ethically flexible than most reputable media outlets.

(Cross-posted at CJR)

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Behavioral study after behavioral study indicates that humans routinely feel the need to reciprocate. We like things to be even. This applies to Congress people and bloggers equally and for them say they are not influenced is delusional.

Before retirement I worked at Big Pharma company and had ample opportunity to partake of ‘presents’. I found out in my first few months there that it was far easier to say Nothing Ever than to have to decide every time something was offered if it was graft or not.

Posted by pat30068 | Report as abusive
 

“it does mark TBI as being a little more ethically flexible than most reputable media outlets”

Felix, as a frequent TBI reader, I totally agree with this statement.

My impression of Blodget, based on his posts and the content he publishes, is that Henry has no moral compass, whatsoever. He’s a straw in the wind and most likely to adopt the views and opinions of whomever he last spoke with.

Frommer is an idiot, too. I don’t think anyone in the tech space takes his posts seriously.

IMO TBI has deteriorated from a good source of business news to a trashy gossip site in the past year. During the financial crisis it was good reading; these days, not so much.

Posted by dbsmith1 | Report as abusive
 

I think this is being a little bit holier than thou… The journo is now at the mobile conference reporting on all new products and new stuff, not just Samsung’s. Ok, they paid for it. And sure the disclosure is free ad for them. But I don’t think it’s a big deal. Plus in a world were media firms are often struggling to make money, whether companies pay for journalists to attend conferences or give that same amount in ad money hardly matters – at the end of the day, the media owners are in a catch 22. Like it or not, media owners are for-profit, so are companies – and the ones with the biggest ad/pr budgets are often able to “buy” coverage.
Seen the blog post about Ferrari’s PR practices? been going on for years, yet journos took it cause that was the only way they could drive new Ferraris…
I really think audiences are much more savvy that people give them credit for. In any case, this is just gadgets.

Posted by fxtrader14 | Report as abusive
 

Having cut what tech journalist teeth I have in an era when any hint at a conflict of interest was grounds for war, I understand where you’re coming from. However, times have changed, and cultures are different, especially when you’re talking about B2B media. I don’t think any of us truly know what the rules should be today.

I do know that the relationships between tech journalists and the companies they cover are different in other parts of the world. I’ve seen what seem to be pretty cozy relationships in Europe, but that doesn’t seem to imply an obligation for favorable reporting. Is that an acceptable model? I don’t know.

I’ve taken my share of press junkets, but having been on both sides of the divide (now in a tech marketing capacity at a software company), I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive
 

Henry Blodget is a fascinating example of how being catastrophically wrong is no drawback whatsoever, and how expertise in journalism is primarily confidence trick. What more could he have done to lose credibility?

Posted by BoringCommenter | Report as abusive
 

Felix, maybe you would feel more sympathetic if he were invited to a free fine wine tasting, then wrote a post about how pretentious it all was the next day?

Posted by rossjamesparker | Report as abusive
 

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