Expecting ethical behavior from TechCrunch is like expecting your adopted chimpanzee to not eat your face—unfair to you, unfair to the chimp. Yet, impressively, even after years of sleaze, the Silicon Valley blog of record is still finding new ways to create conflicts of interest.
Earlier this month, TechCrunch's hair-bobbed Pangloss Josh Constine wrote the latest in his long series of articles about how everything is going to be all right* (*if you work at a startup). For years, apps that rely on tracking and transmitting your location have floundered because users think they're creepy. But that's about to change because of a buzzphrase:
Ambient proximity lets you know if a friend is near enough to meet up with, yet without the creepiness of seeing their every move on a map. That balance could finally make location sharing appealing to the masses.
Assuming you buy the snake oil, "ambient proximity" isn't just good news for those in the location-tracking app business, it's good news for Josh Constine. Because Josh Constine is in the location-tracking app business. Constine tucks in the following disclosure:
I advise a college friend's stealth social location-sharing startup codenamed 'Signal' that is based in San Francisco. This advising role has been cleared with AOL and TechCrunch's editors.
In startup speak, an advisory role is just as real as anything else. Constine isn't just admitting that he's in the employ of a startup, while simultaneously covering startups; he's writing about the exact category of startup in which he works. This is a baseball writer working as an agent on the side.
I asked Constine about his exact role at "Signal" and how the startup would be compensating him. He replied only that "details with the startup aren't finalized." His editor, Alexia Tsotsis, added the following:
Per our TC conflicts of interest policy you're allowed to advise startups, for equity, as well as hold public company shares if you disclose the conflict. While Josh is not receiving compensation of any form just yet, he is cleared through Aol legal if he'd like to receive equity.
This is how we handle this editorially, per our internal policy:
"You have a financial stake in a private company or startup we cover:
DO NOT directly cover that company on TechCrunch, or seek to influence other writers' coverage. Covering immediate competitors should be avoided, but if unavoidable, conflicts should be disclosed in the post. Also disclose any conflicts of this nature in CrunchBase.
You CAN cover the sector generally as long as doing so does not significantly benefit the company *and* if you are transparent about the conflict in the post and in CrunchBase. Your integrity is more valuable than money."
When I asked Tsotsis what AOL—which owns TechCrunch—thought about this, she said "it's not clear whether [AOL's ethical policy] blanket applies to us." I asked if I could read TechCrunch's ethics policy in its entirety, and she said "no." AOL didn't reply to me at all.
TechCrunch—along with many other tech publications—treats the disclosure like a magical fetish object with fixing properties beyond anyone's understanding: A cross to ward off the ethics vampires. Or, better, a Hail Mary to absolve its murmurer of sin. But writing a disclosure doesn't really fix anything, especially in the reading-challenged world of Silicon Valley. Constine is still free to write about startups at the most prominent startup-centric publication in the world while simultaneously working for one. People still read TechCrunch and take it seriously.
It's rotten. TechCrunch treats its readers like suckers, and maybe they are. But tech writing is about more than just Constine's creepy positivity: It's about lots of money, and actual jobs, and the future of the most exciting part of our economy. Just because TechCrunch doesn't seem to take its integrity seriously doesn't mean you shouldn't demand better. Your audience shouldn't be Josh Constine's lemonade stand.