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Conflicts of Interest

Martin, the guy behind Blog Network Watch, has decided to call it quits after a week of blogging there. It’s not because it didn’t work (in fact he got a fair bit of attention) but because he saw potential conflict of interests. He writes:

‘I thought it would be a major conflict of interest for me to write about the industry (and you now me, when I write I usually go at it full on) when at the same time I have my eye on it for myself. As a journo I just would not feel comfortable with this.’

Conflicts of interest are something that I’ve had leveled at me here at ProBlogger (the most recent critique is in this thread) as I, in my writing about blogging for dollars, do talk about blog networks and mention both the networks I’m involved with as well as those of others (whom some would say are ‘the competition’ – not that I view them as this necessarily….but that’s another post).

I thought that rather than letting such conversations happen in the comment threads of posts on other topics (largely between anonymous comment makers) that it might be worth having an open and honest discussion here in a post all of it’s own. I’m not interested in us having a flame war on the topic – but rather would like to think that we can talk about it in an open and constructive manner.

I won’t write a new response to the criticism – but I will repost both the original comment/critique from ‘Mcintosh’ and my response below. I’d be interested in others thoughts.

Mcintosh wrote:

‘Darren, do you believe you should be writing about this seeing you yourself run a b/netork

and you seem to be using your site as a focus group for your own needs. the blog herald also b5, has a post sourcing from you every 2-3 posts? and vica versa

it’s like Bill Gates writing a fair review about OpenOffice

every b/network owner is now probably dreaming of the millions they’ll make and by yours and duncans posts youre probably creaming yourslves.

b/networks will neverwork ‘

I replied

Mcintosh – I don’t think I have any conflict of interest here.

I declare my interests – I try to blog as openly and honestly as I can about what I’m doing and what others are doing and I try to link not only to my own sites but others as freely as possible.

In fact I probably link to my own sites less often than I would naturally do at times.

ProBlogger is a blog about bloggers earning money – I think me writing about blog networks is part of that brief. I link to a variety of blog networks big and small – including some that some people would say are b5media’s competition.

This blog is also about what I learn from blogging – if you’re a regular reader of this site you’ll see that I regularly share what I learn from my different blogs. Yes this does give those blogs some publicity along the way but I would suggest to you that the costs involved in telling my secrets are also present. You’ll see me talk a bit about some of these in my Disclaimer.

In terms of Duncan – he and I linked to one another regularly well before we started doing business together. Again – since we started working together I think I’ve probably linked less to him. This is the first post I can see that i’ve linked to him in in 35 or so posts. How he chooses to link to me is his business.

The reason we do link to each other has more to do with an overlapping topic than anything else in the same way that I link regularly to other bloggers like Jen from Jensense.

In terms of b/networks ‘never working’ – I think you’ll find that there are a few blog network owners around who disagree with that – the Weblogs Inc guys being one of them :-)

Since writing this reply to McIntosh I’ve pondered his comments a little and would add the following:

I know for a fact that many blog network owners read this blog regularly – some leave comments publically – others prefer anonymity and correspond via email with me. I can’t break confidences but I know of at least two large blog networks who have significantly incresed their earnings by taking the advice/recommendations that I’ve written here. I’m yet to hear a criticism of my approach to blogging from any of these network owners – in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Having said all this – I understand where McIntosh is coming from and would be interested in others thoughts and suggestions.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Jon says:

    To me, holding bloggers to pure journalistic ethics seems rather silly. If you create a blog network and then leverage your current sites to promote it, well in business that’s called synergy and it often produces very good results. A large part of blogging seems to be navel gazing and it’s easy to get a bit caught up in that. Your b5media is a good business idea, why not use this site to promote it?
    I’ve been reading for a while now and I’ve always seen you bend over backwards to be fair, but even if you didn’t we’re not talking about CNN taking on-air shots at CNBC here, more like two guys in a bar arguing over which announcer has the whiter teeth :)

  2. Ray Roman says:

    Darren, I think your intent for linking to your own b/net is a key factor on whether I myself would construe it as a “conflict if interest”. Blatant self promotion is one thing, reinforcing your post by linking to someone who has an intelligent opinion or post on the same topic , whether they are part of your b/net or not, is another.

    Even when your intentions are honorable, and there is no reason to conclude otherwise, some will still interpret things differently. It’s all par for the course.

  3. Fly Girl says:

    As any attorney will tell you, conflicts of interest (or potential conflicts) run into problems when they are undisclosed.

    That said, Darren, I think your disclosure has been ful and above board. People know where there could be potential conflicts, and they are then free to interpret, credit, or discredit, what you post accordingly.

    Next. . . . .

  4. Anthony says:

    When you own a blog network people can perceive there is something for you to be gained by talking negatively or positively about a rival blog network. Very rarely in accusations of conflict of interest do they actually exist but there is a level of trust that exists between a writer and his/her readership and the said readership dislike they notion that the writer may have an agenda. It’s all about the perception of a conflict. From a lot of study of media over the years I can tell you that the conflict of interest tag will always be leveled against you in situation like it was in the Gawker post. Rightly or wrongly it happens to regular journos and media personalities in the offline world every day. Unfortunately IMO you’ll just have to get used to it as a blogger.

  5. Bob says:

    I wouldn’t worry about it, Darren. The information you provide here is valuable. I think that any regular reader of this blog would know of your other interests, and filter that into their judgment of what you write. For me, based on my reading of your various blogs, I believe you to be honest and open, whether that would help or hurt your other interests. For those who feel you discredited by b5 (and I think that would be very few people), they will either unsubscribe or stop reading. That is their loss. The vast majority of your readers will stay, and your numbers will grow. And, those who do read your blog will be the richer for it.

    Keep doing what you are doing, and blow off the negative remarks.

  6. Thanks for letting the world know of my one week blog ;-)

    Basically, I see it this way: the way I write is fairly opinionated, sometimes it’s harsh and maybe I write before I think. So with my interest in blog networks going from talking about them to possibily being involved in one I thought I better stop with BlogNetworkWatch – I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing both – but that’s just me.

    Darren writes 99% of the times in a fair and constructive manner so it might be a little different for him. He doesn’t go for the cheap shot or posts simply for controversy.

    But can I be the Devil’s Advocate here and say that the way I see it there can appear to be a conflict-of-interest at times. Remember, it’s the perception that counts – even though the reality could be much different.

    As long time readers here, we all know of Darren’s many hats – we know he co-owns b5media and has plans to build it into something huge… but what about the newbie? Think of the guy who knows nothing of you, reading about say the troubles at Instablogs or the failure of Webby Media etc., – in my mind they are your competition … or when you link to one of b5′s blogs within a post and don’t mention it’s one of yours. This can leave you open to conflict-of-interest

    And Darren, of course you won’t hear criticism – you have to understand that the position you are in is very powerful. You have a very high trust and credibitlity factor – people listen to you. That’s why you get a lot of “me too” type of comments. I guess that’s the benefit (or burden) of being a big name.

  7. Stuart says:

    Darren – as I’ve said to you before, don’t let the fatherless flakes grind you down.

    You are taking your time to teach all who read here about blogging so why shouldn’t you link to your other blogs and to your network?

    That isn’t a conflict of interest – that’s just common sense, good business practice and for the rest of us it’s a cost of getting your good advice and help.

    Damn … some of these people who attack you and proclaim conflict of interests need to get in touch with reality.

    A conflict of interest would be if you ran this site and didn’t use it to promote your network and didn’t use it to point out what you see as the genuine failings in some of those other networks.

    All this touchie- feelie crap that some of your critics come up with about conflicts of interest absolutely crack me up.

    This is the real world people – get with the plan or continue to make cab fare. The choice is yours but don’t waste your time criticising someone like Darren because you’re just making yourselves look dumb.

  8. Cary says:

    Darren,

    Some might consider this naieve, but the way I see it, “conflict of interest” has absolutely no relevance in this context. ProBlogger is a blog about making money…it’s one man’s opinion…and for as long as I’ve been reading it, I’ve never seen you claim it to be anything else. Unless you are explicitly selling your blog as “News,” as in you’re trying to act as an online journalist, you have no responsibility to be completely objective…heck, that’s why I specifically label my blog as “commentary.” I blog to express my opinion, and let’s face it, you’re entire readership is here to get your valuable opinion. They aren’t here to get news.

    Unless you claim to be unobjective, conflict of interest is a non-issue.

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. duncan says:

    I’d note as Darren writes that I was linking to Darren on the Blog Herald well before I ended up going into business with him and probably do less so now. I only link when I think something is of particular interest to my readers, and I can say that there is no agreement or alterior motive otherwise in terms of the links. I link to a lot of people, if Darren has particularly good content on a given day I’m going to link to it, plain and simple, whether Im in busniess with him or not.

    I’d note also that if you look at my Blog Network coverage recently you’ll see a lot more stories on other blog networks than you would have seen on b5media. Indeed perhaps I need to post more on it :-)

    Conflict of interest? maybe, its something I’ve considered, but I don’t see any reason to change, its worked well for 3 years. Indeed if we want to talk money it would be far more profitable for me to stop writing the Blog Herald and do something else with the time, because at the end of the day blogging terms don’t pay a lot and if I was doing a different topic with the same zeal I’d be a 6 figure blogger like Darren. Its important to note, a bit like Darren with Problogger, that writing about blogs is really about a passion as opposed to business, so I’d suggest that if profit was the only motive than the conflict of interest would be there. Its not.

  10. Mike Sigers says:

    As the owner one of those small unnoticed blog networks, I can honestly say that I’ve never felt like you have crossed over into conflict of interest territory.

    C of I only comes into play when part of the info is kept secret. If I’ve been reading right, you are divulging secrets here, sharing them with the world.

  11. Athomemama says:

    Darren,

    The reason I keep coming back is because what you do is what your write about. If you weren’t involved in making money blogging, this blog wouldnt’ be popular, but you’ll still get the people who complain you ::gasp:: make money on this blog (though I remember you saying it was a pittance).

    If you had a blog network and didn’t blog about it on your professional blogger site, that’d be dumb. JMO

  12. If all the sites are part of the same business (legal entity) there’s no reason why they shouldn’t promote each other. If they are standalone businesses (limited or public companies) then there may be regulations preventing cross-subsidization of one form or another. If a blogger is also a director of a separate company which runs a blog network, strictly speaking any promotional efforts by the blogger could be interpreted by a tax jurisdiction as advertising, and therefore subject to taxation.

    However, given the complexity of the internet, it’s unlikely that any authority would go into such detail unless the offender was a mega-player in the Microsoft league. Much activity on the internet is probably illegal, or subject to tax, on a strict interpretation. But…life’s too short, and it’s the legislators’ fault in the first place for creating the uninterpretable complexity.

  13. Brent says:

    My reply to Mcintosh would have been:

    if Bill Gates wrote a review about OpenOffice I would like to read it.

    Personally I don’t think it goes much past that.

  14. HART says:

    I find it odd that this topic touches you so much to elaborate .. on the ANONYMOUS single post by Mcintosh …

    Did I miss anything? I don’t think so. Everybody here knows what’s going on. Darren helps bloggers earn money. Darren is partner in a blog network b5media. Darren has his own network of blogs, most listed at the bottom of every page. So far .. action speaks louder than words .. or anonymous rantings.

    I’m with Fly Girl…. ‘next’ :-)

    However, Something good did come out of this post.. I now have learned of another blog network .. of Mike! That cat pause looks interesting for starters…

  15. theaardvark says:

    It strikes me that Professional Blogging is still a fairly immature industry. By co-operating together professional bloggers have much to gain by raising the profile of the industry and drawing in new money.

    In such an environment, in-fighting between bloggers should be minimal and concerns such as conflicts of interest of scant importance – your site is of benefit to all and if you should happen to profit from it who cares?

    However, as the industry matures and “new” money dries up professional bloggers will start to compete for a greater share of the existing income. It’s at this point that a conflict of interest will be seen as more important if it gives you an unfair advantage.

    Having read your site for a while it would appear that your business ethos is to keep things sufficiently transparent to avoid any serious allegations that you gain an unfair advantage.

  16. BJ says:

    I agree with FlyGirl – conflict of interest issues arise when vested interests are kept hidden. You’ve been pretty open about everything in your blogging business, and it would be difficult to justify any “conflict of interest” charges.

    As for the linking between you and Duncan, I have to ask: how can anyone blog about the pro blogging world and not link to your posts? To not link would be to do a disservice to readers.

  17. Rich Miller says:

    As background, I was a full-time newspaper journalist for 20 years before I moved online and started blogging. In my training, the issue with conflicts of interest was always that the reader is not fully informed about relationships and biases that can influence a writer’s perspective. The problem is the assumption that the journalist is an “objective” observer and thus brings a balanced third-party perspective to the table, which is generally seen as more trustworthy than information conveyed by advocates, spokespersons or advertisers.

    Thus, the real issue is disclosure. If your readers assume your perspective is that of a balanced observer with no financial stake in the issue, it would be wrong to maintain financial relationships with artcile subjects and not disclose them. If your readers know that you’re a financial partner (as was the case with Darren and b5), they can consider that in any positive commentary you may offer.

    FWIW, I think the notion of objectivity is no longer useful. Accuracy, balance and fairness are better metrics for good journalism. Journalists have never been truly objective.

  18. Matt says:

    Well, I will admit to only skimming most of the posts above, except the first one from Jon. I skimmed the rest only because I think he hit it on the head and that there is very little left to say (in fact, most of the skimming I did seems to suggest that everyone echoed and/or elaborated on his basic point). Good post, Jon!

  19. lyndon says:

    There are very few places on the web that I can trust and this happens to be one of them. Take any position and there will be someone to take the opposite position. At the end of the day how many people are actually saying this is a problem

  20. Dan says:

    darren, i think you are giving an honest first hand account of how you have built up blogs. this inevitably links to your own blogs. i think to be able to have the first hand account in honesty like you do, its neccessary to write about what you do.

    what helps us helps you.

  21. Vix says:

    So what have you been hiding from us Darren? That you’re really a seven figure blogger? ;) All jest aside, I echo Fly Girl’s thoughts that it’s a conflict of interest if you’re hiding something.

    And from what I’ve seen over the past few months you’ve been nothing but upfront about who you are and what you do. It’s not as though all your posts are about YOUR network’s blogs and you give good advice. So carry on with what you’re doing – you’re obviously doing something right!

  22. Darren Rowse says:

    hehe – 7 figures :-)

    thanks for all the comments people. Was expecting a bit more angst on this one – but appreciate people’s comments about ProBlogger so far.

  23. Matt says:

    I don’t think that any of us are professional journalists – nor do I really want to be.

    That said I think it’s important that we disclose product and network affiliations openly when it’s appropriate to do so.

    We purchased Blog Network Watch from Martin and will be continuing the work that he began – this gets a bit interesting because we do run some other blogs as well. This post reminds me that we need a very clear disclaimer posted on our site to make sure that our ownership and conflicts are clear.

    Matt

  24. Blog Bloke says:

    Do the Blog Networks offer any real value to the blogosphere? (I’m speaking about the blogosphere in general here — not just the networks). You tell me

  25. Darren Rowse says:

    I’m not completely sure I see the relevance of the question to this particular post – but it is a good question and one I’ve considered over the last couple of years in different ways (although not quite in these terms).

    It’s a big question and one that I guess could be answered from many perspectives.

    A few thoughts come to mind – forgive me if this is jumbled but my mind is fried!

    The first thing I thought of is that I’m not sure it’s really a blog networks role to offer value to the ‘blogosphere’ as such – my own approach with blog networks is to provide value for blog readers, bloggers who write the blogs, advertisers who wish to highlight their products and services on them and through the blend of that to myself and my partners as owners. It is a business so by definition we want to make it profitable – but the only way of doing that is to find a model that offers value to all of the contributers. This doesn’t just happen but over time – getting the balance right takes time.

    Having said that and thinking about the different elements – I wouldn’t say that blog networks are for everyone. I’ve written numerous times about it from a number of perspectives including talking some of the reasons why some bloggers wouldn’t want to join a blog network.

    As I say to bloggers who ask me about joining – our model is great for some bloggers but there are others who would do better in other networks or by going it alone. Like anything in life, it’s about looking carefully at the pros and cons and making a smart decision after weighing it all up.

    Anyway – not sure all that makes complete sense – getting late here and I’ve been running around all day preparing for a trip. Happy to add more if I’ve not answered the question right.

  26. Blog Bloke says:

    Thanks Darren, and I apologize if I’m off topic here. My brains are fried most of the time ;-).

    Anyhow, I guess you know where I stand on this. I have no problem with making money for bloggers. But my question was to what benefit do the blog networks give to the blogosphere outside of the inner network circle? I’m not certain if I can come up with anything tangible. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts about it.

    You will also have to excuse me but I am a mediator by profession and I’m always looking for the win/win proposition. If the networks want to be seen as viable and not just self-serving, I think they need to figure out how give back to the blogosphere as well.

    That’s my two cents worth anyhow.

    Cheers,

    …BB