I remember quite vividly when editorial salaries began to climb from the cellar at the beginning of the dot-com boom. All of a sudden reporters could afford to buy houses, or collect more furniture than could be moved from one hovel to another in a single trip using an old VW microbus. And just as suddenly old guard media was quipping “reporters making $100,000 a year? They must be on the take.”
I heard that phrase a lot in the Nineties and it always rankled me. And then my boss, Chris Shipley of Demo fame, came up with a reply I remember to this day: “When I became a reporter, I don’t remember taking a vow of poverty.”
She didn’t and I sure as hell didn’t, although I worked for several decades in positions where I was lucky if my yearly salary was the same number as my age. But I, like most professional reporters, didn’t complain much – I was happy doing something few people ever got a chance to do. And over a three-decade-plus career I had the opportunity to interview three US presidents and to get beyond perfunctory questions. I also got to meet and interview captains of industry and some of the people who were making technological history. By the twilight of my career I was on a first-name basis with a couple of those people.
One memory of my career is wearing the proverbial hair shirt. You know, the one that marks a starving writer or an up-from-the ranks editor or producer. I never once prostituted my byline or sold my soul to get a story. The reason is quite simple: I came up in an era when reporters, editors and others were held to a strict code of conduct. Violate that code and you were out on your ass. No warning, just called into an editor’s office, told to pack your stuff and get your butt out of the newsroom. I saw it happen several times over the years and firm code of conduct began to shape my career.
I logged on to the Wall Street Journal’s AllthingsD.com site this afternoon and was amazed and happy to see that Walt Mossberg, Kara Swisher and their stable of writers had publicly posted “ethics statements”, as well as what fiduciary or other relationships they had in the “real” world.
I believe strongly in such disclosure statements. You, as a reader, have every right to know if I’m writing objectively, or have a hidden agenda. For example: when I write about the Demo show I always include a statement that I was once a producer working on that or other related events, and its associated editorial products. When I write reviews of mobile technology, I always add the disclosure that in the 1990’s I was an unpaid member of IBM’s Mobile Advisory Council, and also discussed trends in mobile computing with Palm Computing, Hewlett Packard and Toshiba.
My readers benefited from my involvement with those activities, and my editors understood that concept. The simple truth is that as a result of a keen interest in the underlying technologies associated with my beat assignment, I developed a n unparalleled sense of what directions new technologies would take. I turned that knowledge into stories that helped paint road maps for my audience. I also always disclosed the source of my information.
But something happened to me recently that made the hair on the back of my neck go straight up. I was logged on to a site where a reporter writing about a show referred to events such as Demo as “payola”. The reporter used the word in quotes, and presented it as a claim made by someone who was involved in producing an event that will directly compete with Demo.
Lordy, was I annoyed. Nowhere in the story did the reporter disclose that her site was materially involved in the event. So I jumped on my lawn mower, cut an acre’s worth of grass, and then sat down and dropped the chap who runs that site a note. He admitted he was a “partner” in the event. I then informed him that the only compensation I ever received while I worked at Demo was from the parent organization that owns the show, IDG. Things calmed down, but I’ve been thinking about the exchange all week.
Mr. Mossberg’s and Ms. Swisher’s decision to post their ethics code is great. It means I can take off my hair shirt for a while. I just wish everyone would take his or her responsibilities as seriously.
You as a reader have every right to know what my standards are. You also have the right to question what I write.
To add fuel to my little conflagration, two of the people involved in the forthcoming conference declined to do private (one-on-one) interviews with a San Francisco-based technology magazine, telling the writer they would provide answers to written questions (including those posted in the reporter’s blog) in their own blogs, for the sake of open conversations. Never mind that the magazine was providing a high visibility forum that transcended the world of blogs.
If I had been the reporter involved in that exchange, I would have reported every single word of the three-way exchange and disclosed the relationships the two principles had. It’s a simple concept; it’s called objective journalism and full disclosure. And for high and mighty industry celebs, the view from the dirt looking up at the tall horse can be quite inspirational. And that applies equally to reporters, editors, and producers as well as the subject of their stories.
And that’s how I see it as I shrug off my hair shirt and get ready for bed --Jim Forbes, 04/26/2007.
(Editor’s note: as a result of my first post on the above referenced incident, A Google query on “How long doe it take to mow an acre?” was directed to my site. The answer is: with my mower deck set at four-inches and ‘Bambi Deere,” my itty bitty green tractor running at 2/3’s throttle in 3rd gear, it takes about 25 minutes to cut my one-acre lawn
Now I can go to bed, smiling. I knew I could find a bright ending for this piece—jmf)