Corporate media loves whining about bloggers. Back in April it published some hilarious nonsense about the sinister purposes of food bloggers. This time, courtesy of another amusingly disingenuous article, commercial media tells the public that food bloggers are freeloading ethical vacuums (in other words just like ‘professional’ journalists) and that, rather conveniently if counter-intuitively, only commercial media can be trusted to tell the public how to think.
I’ve argued before that when bloggers sell out audiences stop reading, or at least believing what they read. The article describes a naff fake PR generated event, to which some food bloggers were invited, which was held to encourage bloggers to spew forth vacuous endorsements of some commonly available product. How utterly banal.
The media supply chain is increasingly fragmented and discontinuous. Publishers who commission freelancers can no longer verify whether products mentioned in the content have been paid for or supplied as free samples, and cannot know what other incentives (bribes) the journalists have received. Disclosure is inconsistent and transparency is never guaranteed.
Every exchange contains a conflict of interest. In this post I will dissect the article and expose the hidden conflicts of interest implicit in the food industry economy that the article ignores and protects.
In this environment, the terms blog and blogger have no meaning. There are commercial and non-commercial online publications. There are commercial content creators (journalists and bloggers) and non-commercial content creators (bloggers). There are no longer any other, more significant, differences between publications and content creators.
Producers (food brands, wineries, restaurants) mostly don’t understand media, and they’ve always relied on marketing and public relations agencies (brainless leaches) to advise them. Agencies charge producers lots of money to get attention for their clients from commercial media (corporations represented by greedy individual journalists).
Journalists exploit their positions of influence by selling their ability to share their opinions to the highest bidder. Journalists no longer write what they think audiences want to read. Everything they write is advertorial or infomercial. They don’t have any pretensions to objectivity or to creating content that readers would want to buy.
This is one of the reasons why commercial media is failing. Magazine and newspaper sales and subscriptions are failing. Print advertising is failing. Consumers value and trust commercial media so little that they mostly refuse to pay for it.
Enter the blog. At first the voice of internet early adopters, geeks and other (mostly) non-commercial publishers, blogs are now mainstream, commonplace and increasingly commercial. They are read by many consumers. Blog content is free, and audiences don’t have to make much commitment to it to begin consuming it. They can browse blogs without making an economic or intellectual decision about its validity.
Like professional journalists before them, some bloggers exploit their positions of influence to obtain as many freebies as they can. They receive free travel, accommodation, meals, products and invitations to (increasingly meaningless and artificial) events like the one discussed above.
I have nothing but contempt for the most commercial of hobbyist food bloggers. They do the same thing as freelance journalists but for less money. Many of them don’t seem to understand the extent of their exploitation and the content they produce is so banal it can only be given away – no one would ever pay for it. Professional freelance journalists who use a blog to promote their skills and services are different in this regard. They know the value of their work.
Conflict of interest 1
The author of the article criticises food bloggers and warns readers against trusting their recommendations without questioning their (sinister) agendas. Food bloggers are the new freelance journalists and competitors for the attention of free gifts and attention from PR agencies. Journalists (like the author) are significantly challenged by the existence of food bloggers.
Conflict of interest 2
The author quotes a PR consultant, who implies that all food bloggers are the same and who dismisses their integrity by saying her dog could write a blog. She would probably struggle to achieve as much. PR consultants are becoming increasingly irrelevant as large corporations with in-house communications teams can now engage with the new freelance journalists (bloggers) directly without the help of PR agencies.
Conflict of interest 3
The author then quotes a professional food critic, who also criticises food bloggers, incorrectly says they’re all the same, that they’re all being paid in kind and that none write as an unpaid hobby. Food and wine critics are rapidly losing their newspaper and magazine columns and are now competing with other freelance journalists and bloggers for article commissions and audiences.
Conflict of interest 4
We return to the PR princess, who accuses bloggers of not being transparent about disclosing commissioned advertorial content. What hypocrisy. This is the most dishonest and disingenuous part of the article, because this content is commissioned by PR agencies. They don’t uniformly encourage disclosure and arguably prefer to manipulate naive bloggers, who are less aware of ethical concepts like transparency and disclosure, into not disclosing because posts without disclosure appear more authentic to naive audiences.
Conflict of interest 5
The PR princess complains about the Google search rank of some food blogs as if their ranks are the result of some nefarious conspiracy. While Google may rank sites published using its Blogger platform highly, when food blogs outrank newspaper articles it is because they are more linked to and hence more relevant. The public has voted in favour of blogs. This also says something about the mediocre SEO abilities of commercial publishers like News Ltd and Fairfax.
PR agencies are annoyed because they can charge companies more to place content in commercial media like newspapers and their websites than blogs, yet blogs (which they earn less money from) get found more easily by audiences. The popularity of blogs therefore indirectly diminishes the earnings of PR agencies.
PR princesses like to control the flow of information, but the internet frees access to content and encourages audiences to find and consume more content. Each individual content item becomes less prominent and less influential as a result. The old command and control PR industry doesn’t like the new information democracy because it dilutes the prominence of their approved content and exposes it to unapproved competition.
Conflict of interest 6
Finally, the author quotes a chef who criticises food bloggers for not being like professional food critics. Many restaurant reviewers are well known and, while they may nominally pay for a meal, they are effectively bribed by all the peripheral freebies and VIP invites they receive. They rarely write strongly negative reviews lest they lose their place on the VIP list.
The chef dismisses bloggers for not asking lots of technical questions. What evidence is there that readers want to read lots of technical information? By not reproducing dry, dull, professional content, some food blogs provide an attractive alternative to readers who appreciate their honesty and diversity.
Blogs, at least when they began, existed to communicate more intimately and effectively with audiences than traditional media. Non-commercial food bloggers are not interested in bolstering the egos of chefs. When they review restaurants they try to communicate what average diners experience, not VIPs.
Once again, the idea of controlling bloggers is raised. The chef complains that no protocols are in place to limit what bloggers write. Increasingly there are protocols – the narrow prescriptive commissions from PR agencies provide detailed expectations about what and when to publish.
PR agencies and their clients don’t like (or understand) the fact that not all bloggers can be controlled. Perhaps some players in the corrupt Australian media economy look enviously at how bloggers are silenced in Russia. They can’t grasp the idea that there is more to society than the economy. Ideas exist without dollars attached to them.
What the chef is really saying is that the restaurant industry can’t cope with the fact that some non-commercial bloggers write to promote the values and interests of consumers rather than the values and interests of the restaurant industry.
With livelihoods threatened by fundamental changes in the media economy, it is obvious why all its participants work primarily to protect their place in the system rather than providing a service to audiences and consumers.
This is the cause of the many conflicts of interest in the media supply chain and consequently the reason why audiences value non-commercial blogs – because they are the only publications that communicate to them with honesty and with integrity. The challenge for non-commercial bloggers is to maintain their integrity.