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Are Tech Conferences Distorting the Business News?

Does friendship affect Journalism? Last month I noticed Dave Winer’s tweet about so-called access journalism:


The emphasis there is mine. I care about journalism, was a journalist for years, have a grad degree in that subject, but I had to guess what access journalism is. And that note about  crossing lines and things forbidden by unwritten rules was irresistible. So I clicked the link. This is from Dave’s piece:

In an earlier life, as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I was good at the access game. I traded ideas and news with reporters, and in return they wrote nice things about me and my product. I’m sure many of them actually liked our products, but the reason they looked at them, or even heard of them, was this exchange of favors.

That’s true. I was there back then, consulting, writing software, and making ends meet by writing for business and computer magazines, and, more than once, interviewing Dave Winer. He wrote some ground breaking software and was combination of entrepreneur and pundit, a great interview. 

But I’m not so sure about his next point:

When you don’t do this, they pretty much ignore you, or worse. I’ve had a fair number of very negative jobs done on me by the press after I gave up the favor-doing. … The people who control access to users through the press play a dirty nasty game. And many of them have business cards that say they’re journalists.

So that, I guessed, was what he’s calling access journalism. And that, for the record, is an issue that started about 100 years before the Internet or social media. Although we didn’t use the phrase access journalism, the friendship relationship between journalist and source was a big issue even back in 1971 when I was in grad school in Journalism and started working with a wire service. And furthermore, it was also a big deal in the late 60s when my generation of college students took on the world, we mistrusted major media as part of the so-called military industrial complex. Big business, major media, oh my. My generation assumed what Dave calls access journalism was the norm, not the exception. 

And honestly, the years that I was full-time journalist in the 1970s, covering business and economy of Mexico for Business Week, I depended on relationships with business and political leaders to keep me on top of the information flow. Access was vital. I couldn’t have done the job without it. 

And time marched on. so now there’s social media, and a new kind of amplified friendship. And the rise of celebrity as power. Are these different issues, or the same thing Is it a different set of issues? These changes certainly make access to sources easier. I had just the phone, and mainly the phone to the receptionist or secretary as gatekeeper. 

Dave’s picture of the dark side of this doesn’t match my memory of those days exactly. Still, I went on to read both of the pieces he links to: First, Margaret Sullivan’s New York Times column questioning the Times’ own Dealbook conference, which featured, she says:

Big Wall Street names, flashy graphics, edgy Global Chill music, weighty discussions of economic challenges, a few good laughs and even some news tidbits. 

But didn’t include: 

A great deal of distance between sources and those who cover them — something traditionally thought to be a bedrock journalistic idea.

Dave also included Felix Salmon’s answer to that, in his column for Reuters:

Sullivan thinks that the conference debases the NYT’s editorial independence: given that you can’t run a conference without boldface names, she says, “the Times’s indebtedness to these sources lurks in the shadows”. To which I would say: quite the opposite. When you’re running a conference and your sources are right out there, in the open, on stage with you, that’s the limelight, not the shadows. The shadows is what we’re given the other 364 days of the year, when innumerable stories are written on the basis of off-the-record conversations with these exact same sources.

I think it’s an interesting debate. I see two sides, and I’m glad Dave covered both sides, by linking to them. What do you think? Is this an issue we should worry about? 

(Image: istockphoto.com)

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