How To Blog With Integrity

Aug 10 2009

or

Why The Media’s As Guilty as The Bloggers, and Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Either

casey(Some of the people and organizations covered in this piece have contacted me with responses. I have complied and published them in a separate post.)

Back in 2005, when I started Cyclocosm, I actively avoided using the term “blog”. I used it in the <title> tag for anyone Googling for cycling blogs, but in written correspondence and in speech, I referred to it as a “cycling news website”.

Back then, the mainstream media was all about bashing bloggers. Over a decade after the advent of AOL, it had just dawned on the soon-to-be-endangered ranks of legitimate newsmen that the Internet allowed anyone with a simple technical skillset to publish material. Not only that, but it was instantly available to a near-infinite number of readers—and the technical bar for publication was getting lower by the day.

In response, these few jealous guardians of informational chastity did what they’ve always done: channeled their Victorian revulsion into a few well-placed editorials. As backward-facing and obviously wrong as these pieces were, I didn’t want to be typecast as just another web-based blabbermouth, even if I was (and to large extent, still am). So I highlighted the strengths of being an independent voice—and do to this very day.

Sometime between then and now, a very small number of mainstream blogs became highly-visible, and many of them—egged on by ranks of rabid PR mavens, struggling to justify their existence and unload promotional products—rushed to monetize that readership. But for some reason, it wasn’t until “mommy blogging” that people starting noticing this monetization had completely gutted the reliability of blog reviews; once again, blogs became suspect.

But the “problem” isn’t with blogs—it’s with advertisers. Less than two weeks after starting Cyclocosm, I tore into Bicycling for the very thing that is just becoming a “crisis” in the blogosphere: giving high marks to the people who pay you for ad space. Bicycling isn’t the only offender and is far from the worst (Pez), but with a few exceptions (film, literature), “bad reviews”—in blogs or traditional publications—simply don’t exist outside Consumer Reports.

For the most part, this conflict of interest between reviewer and review reader is necessary. Softball reviews bring traffic, which brings revenue, which lets publications create more interesting and worthwhile features. And that’s not a bad thing; despite the near-endless barrage of cheap shots taken against it, the intelligence of the average reader is quite good at counterbalancing this cartel between manufacturers and publishers. To wit:

the first 6 months of 2009 our referred revenue from cyclingnews.com…has decreased by 40%. During the same period our velonews.com referred revenue has increased by 50%. Mind you, we always run the same ads simultaneously on these two sites… [Competitive Cyclist]

I reported a very long time ago that Cyclingews was dead. Future—who bought CN to run it into the ground—hoped to redirect traffic to BikeRadar.com. Take a look at its landing page from this morning:
home-landing

Oh—well, there’s always the Road-specific tab, right?
road-landing

Now look at VeloNews‘ landing page:
velonews-home

The lesson here is that you can only debase yourself so far before the masses give up and go somewhere else. If things like Blog with Integrity and PR Blackout were truly necessary—and not a prop to restore the believability of certain blogs after some obviously suspect reviews—people would have flocked with ovine mindlessness to the new CN, and to BikeRadar. That’s pretty clearly not what happened.

There’s a market for people’s time and eyeballs just as surely as there’s a market for their income, and in both respects, consumers are looking for bargains. If a publication—blog, magazine, news show or [fill in the blank]—can’t come up with reliable, quality content, it will be buried by its competitors as surely as any other company out there.

(Some of the people and organizations covered in this piece have contacted me with responses. I have complied and published them in a separate post.)

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8 Responses to “How To Blog With Integrity”

  1. Jason August 11, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    You web-based blabbermouth.

    Seriously: I’m not sure if the “pay for content” delivery model will work (not just in cycling, questions remain for all types of content, WSJ.com aside) however it will create a sturdy wall to prevent the advertising-based compromises that you note above.

  2. Mellow Velo August 11, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    I’m glad you discussed this. I just started writing product reviews for Women’s Cycling Magazine. So far, because the magazine is brand new, I’m not getting paid and the companies sending me free product aren’t sponsors of the publication (yet…).

    I went to a journalism school that placed a huge emphasis on ethics, so I couldn’t care less who sent me what for free. If it sucks, it sucks. Even though I’m not the best, most informed cyclist in the world, I think my traditional journalism background is why the magazine’s editor asked me to do reviews.

    I’ve long hated the reviews in Bicycling and the print version of VeloNews. They’re little more than expensive shopping lists and artistic (ad-like) photo shoots. I recently recieved a high-end jersey that was lauded in several magazines as THE jersey for women, with never more than three or four sentences written about it. IMHO, it’s not worth its price tag at all. I’d be pissed if I had spent my own money on it b/c of the magazines, only to discover its no better than my old faithful jerseys that were half the price.

    I do fear the future. What happens when advertisers realize that the clothing reviewer in Women’s Cycling Magazine is going to point out every noteworthy flaw in their products? So far, I get quite a bit of space to write reviews, though I have yet to see how they’re going to be edited. I have to teach myself how to give the straight dope in a small space (evident by this comment, being concise is not my forte).

    All this to say, it’s writers like you who are going to keep me honest. As a blogger (I have to use the term, as I provide almost not useful info on my own blog, just an exercise in storytelling), I’d be ashamed if I started pumping out mini-paragraphs that pleased our advertisers.

  3. Frankielof August 11, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    Bravo! I can’t remember exactly how I found your site several months ago, but I wish I had a long time ago. I like the honest information and I enjoy the fresh perspective on racing. Keep up the good work.

  4. Tommy August 11, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    Great article. I’ve always wished that magazines like Bicycling would test bikes only if they were “blacked out” for the testers—-I’ve always wondered if a certain bike got a better review because of its heritage of great bikes, and not based on what this new model or version does versus its immediate competitors. Add to that any advertising revenue that the magazine gets from certain bike manufacturers, and I’m always hesitant to believe what they write.

    Maybe I just suspect the conspiracy…….yes, the government has covered up 9/11, alien visitations, and much more!!! I’m NOT paranoid…..

    Tommy

  5. joran August 11, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    Cosmo, do you think cycling web/print magazines are better or worse in this regard than computing publications? Generally speaking, that is…

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