How big tech companies keep journalists under their thumbs

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David Weidner, a 15 year veteran reporter on the Wall Street beat, recently wrote an interesting article about the time he spent reporting on some of the world’s biggest companies and financial institutions.

He notes that much has changed and a lot hasn’t in his time among America’s financial elite. Presumably to mark each of his years covering the financial services sector he came up with 15 “takeaways.”

The one that caught my eye was number three:

Too cozy for comfort: It’s less of a problem since the financial crisis, but the business media are still too cozy with the powerful on Wall Street to do their jobs correctly.

The media still fawned over Wall Street stars such as Jamie Dimon at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (US:JPM); Eliot Spitzer, former New York governor and attorney general, and Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns. Why? They all dished tips or dirt on their rivals. Access journalism still dominates the landscape, and you — the reader — suffer for it.

Access journalism is alive and well in Silicon Valley and although it is wielded in different ways, it is how large companies make sure the press corps is relatively friendly and rarely critical. At least that’s my observation from 25 years on the Silicon Valley beat.

When I refer to “access journalism” I’m not referring to the product journalism that most tech news sites practice: the tedious rewriting of product press releases and spec sheets. I’m talking about having access to the top CEOs and executives of Silicon Valley’s largest companies, the top VCs, the hottest startups, invitations to private “media roundtables,” etc.

Why is this important? Well, if you are working at a leading news organization, such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, BusinessWeek, Reuters, etc, and your editors ask you why “we didn’t get that interview” with Mark Zuckerberg, or say the new Yahoo! CEO? And if that answer is because the company in question wouldn’t grant you access, you could be in serious trouble in your job.

Reporters work hard to get access to top people, and companies like to see that for a number of good reasons, such as it shows that they understand their business and there’s less time needed to educate the reporter about important issues, especially when they make their top people available.

For example, when I worked at the Financial Times, IBM was part of my beat but it took several years before I could get time with Sam Palmisano, the CEO. I interviewed the heads of all of IBM’s seven huge business groups before I got a chance to meet with the top executive. And that’s the way it should be because I got to know IBM’s complex business really well, and could ask questions that mattered.

But when companies seek to punish reporters that they disagree with, by shutting them out, removing their access, then that’s a different matter. And it’s rarely a good move.

I remember when Hewlett-Packard banned CNET reporters during the contentious period of the Compaq merger, they would not return their calls. Well, that backfired because the reporters still published stories but HP had no input.

Google’s Eric Schmidt banned a reporter for writing about where Mr Schmidt lived (he had Googled the information.)

I’ve been banned, at least temporarily, by large and small companies, while at the FT, and while at SVW.

These days a ban might take the modern form of being blocked on Twitter or Facebook. I was blocked on Twitter by a Twitter top exec during the period when it was seeking tax exceptions from San Francisco while its execs publicly bragged about all the social good they were enabling around the world; Yahoo! took away my access during the time of its collaboration with Chinese police authorities, which led to the arrest and ten-year hard labour sentence for a Chinese journalist because he leaked a press release.

More recently, Chris Sacca, a prominent VC investor based in Truckee, California, called me a derogatory name, “Troll” and blocked me from his Twitter feed because I asked him questions about one of his Tweets.

[I was certainly "trawling" for a possible story, and I sympathise that not everyone is comfortable being questioned -- especially within the fawning world of startups and angels, where the levels of idolatry would test the best of us. But asking questions is what reporters do best.]

And while “access” is important it generally doesn’t provide the best reporting.

A great example is Jon Stewart, presenter of “The Daily Show.” He can call a news story the way he and his editorial team sees it, he doesn’t have to worry about being barred from the next White House press conference, or not getting that special interview that his editors want.

Similarly, Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has been an outstanding reporter covering Wall Street, primarily because he doesn’t have to worry about preserving his “access” to top execs.

Blocking publications, or journalists, is best done in secret because there are few things more interesting to a reporter, it’s like catnip, they will sniff around and around, and they’ll usually find something.

Very few reporters have the luxury of disregarding a potential loss of top access — their jobs depend on it. This is why “access journalism” is a massive Achilles’ Heel for tech jounralists, and companies exploit it to the max.

Controlling access is an insidious form of corruption because there’s no money trail and it’s extremely difficult to spot. The good news is that there are fewer reporters to corrupt. The bad news is that there are fewer reporters.

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  • David

    You are still watching the wrong places. When Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft, non of the established journalists would have given them the time of day. “Computer geeks, bah! they will never do anything” would have been the retort. No doubt it was the same when Jobs and Wozniak started Apple and when Page and Brin started Google. All that established journalists are capable of doing is watching the established big names and dismissing the new start-ups. However, the future is with the unknown start-ups who are still working out of a garage and being dismissed by established media journalists as nobodies.

  • Pingback: Great articles roundup: Content marketing, social forums, access journalism, liars, and startup tribes | Francis MoranFrancis Moran

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