Tech hacks should admit taking corporate coin, but don't start a witch hunt
One man's shill is another man's fellow fanboi
Sysadmin blog Judge Alsup has required Google and Oracle to divulge a list of their paid shills - the bloggers and journos they've paid to comment on their copyright court showdown. This sets a major precedent, the consequences of which could echo throughout tech journalism. While there is a lot of blitting in the back buffers over this, I can't help but feel a lot like an outsider looking in.
The heart of the matter is the question: "Who is a paid shill?" Depending on how extreme your viewpoint is, the answer could include anyone who makes money via advertising. Reality is a lot more complicated than that. Unfortunately, it matters to every single person working in IT.
Our industry has a dedicated tech press that is quite unlike anything surrounding any other industry. We push the barriers of communications by virtue of knowing about - and understanding - new communications methods first. Anyone with an opinion and 10 minutes can toss up a blog; a few hours a day of schmoozing on social networks and suddenly you're being quoted as an "expert" by traditional media worldwide.
Play the game right, and major corporations start falling all over themselves to retain you. Your job description can end up being everything from blogger to lobbyist, with sweet consulting contracts tossed into the mix.
Florian Müller is frequently trotted out as the poster boy for "looks a heck of a lot like a paid shill to me". He provides an interesting case study. On the one hand, he has a legitimately impressive CV. At this point in my writing career, he has a lot more tech writing under his belt than I can claim. He's also done consulting work for both Oracle and Microsoft; that's at least an order of magnitude above my SME pay grade.
The flip side of the coin is that when you combine his financial links to Oracle and Microsoft with his persistent dogging of Google's Android, many not-a-good-look-o-meters start spiking into the red. At the very least, everything he's ever written about mobile phone operating system Android ought to come with a nice line along the lines of "full disclosure: I have done consulting work for Microsoft", that maker of mobile phone operating systems... To be fair, Müller has been more than forthcoming on the subject of his associations with both Oracle and Microsoft as well as various financial institutions.
What about all the other tech bloggers, journalists and columnists for magazines I read every day? My personal situation as a tech blogger is as close to the polar opposite of Müller's as one can get while still being paid to write, so it serves as a great place to start looking at the problem. Unless I specifically pay attention to the advertisements on my articles after they have been posted, I have no idea which company is paying for my little corner of the internet. Vulture Central abstracts such nasty details away from me so that I can write freely.
Likewise, if I have a particular topic I want to talk about - but which won't fit in the space allotted for a regular sysadmin blog - I can pitch the features editor. I have no idea where the money comes from to pay for those articles, and I prefer it that way.
Every so often the editors approach me with a topic; a new product has come out and $vendor is out doing the tech journo circuit trying to get deep dives done. As a sysadmin, that's my niche: I can take the product, toss it in the lab and see what makes it tick. My "instructions" consist of a topic and a product name. It is up to me to do the research, set the tone and write the article. I feel that this approach is more than acceptable: journalistic integrity is carefully preserved.
What about those that sit between the disconnected extremes of rookie tech journos like myself and those who know how to truly play the game? As I am slowly noticed by PR agencies, it is a question I am forced to face ... and one that is changing how I view tech journalism.
Getting the job done right
I have traditionally built a lab for as many pieces of software or hardware that I write about as possible. Where it isn't feasible to get my hands on the actual kit, I try to interview someone who was involved in actually building it, as well as poring over whitepapers and casting an eye over available "literature" (aka official propaganda).
In most cases I don't get demo gear, though that is (thankfully) starting to change. To cite a pair of examples: it's easy to review Microsoft software. Between trial versions and TechNet, I can build a full lab for next to nothing. If VMware wants me to do a deep dive on their latest and greatest, I will require some licences.
Who you know helps determine your "beat" and your "beat" determines who you know. As the owner of a Synology DS411j, I can tell you everything you want to know about their consumer gear. Unfortunately, I can tell you absolutely nothing about their upper-tier stuff because I have never gotten my grubby mitts on any of it. I don't expect to receive any presents in the post either.
Zooming out to look at the broader established tech press: imagine what the public "message" would be for Windows 8 if Microsoft hadn't given the tech press a bunch of Samsung Build tablets. While I have played with Windows 8 on a tablet, I haven't used it day in and day out on a tablet. So when I wrote about the product, I wrote my experience. That experience was based on day-to-day traditional keyboard-and-mouse, desktop oriented usage and it was awful.
At the one and only junket I have ever been invited to, one of those lucky journalists pulled out his Build tablet in front of a crowd of other hacks and analysts and sold about 50 copies of Windows 8 for Microsoft on the spot. This Build-tablet-enabled journo was not evangelising the product, he was answering a simple question: "How does it work on a tablet?" Those with the fondleslab in hand write more about the tablet side of the OS. They write about - and discuss in person - their experiences; they got a free toy that they use every day, but that does not make them shills.
That said, I need a means of gauging the level of dependency of the writer upon the sponsor in question. I will take with a bag of salt the writings of a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert working as a Cisco consultant writing a blog sponsored by Cisco trash talking OpenFlow. The blogger with multiple sponsors who discusses pros and cons of multiple products openly is someone whose wisdom I am more likely to heed.
There is no perfectly unbiased source. Source aggregation and - where possible - hands-on testing is still vital for all of us who work in IT. The decisions we make today and the products we choose will affect the companies we serve for years to come. Judge Alsup's decision has emphasised the importance of critical thinking; but we should be very carefully with throwing around accusations of astroturfing or shilldom.
Overuse of these terms degrades the importance and seriousness of these accusations. More importantly: if we begin to discount anyone who gets paid to write, we are throwing away some of the most knowledgeable and experienced journalists, analysts and subject matter experts in our industry. Individuals who in most cases are emphatically not shills. ®