The Walled-off Journal

Eye-witnessing a “journalist” cooking the books . . .

An article today in the Wall Street Journal illustrates how narrow-mindedly the press sees the world that has ended the market for newspaper-sized printing presses:

Every renaissance has the same problem. Just when people are beginning to get it that the earth orbits the sun, along comes some priest whose back story depends on the old model. I had a  pleasant ride up to Harvard on Monday with David Isenberg, except for the call from the Wall Street Journal reporter who wanted to hear about his role as an advisor to FON.

I didn’t pay much attention at first to a pleasant-sounding call about FON, but noticed David’s tone of voice changing as he asked, “Why do you keep asking about that? Like I said before, I blogged it because I blog things I’m involved in.” That’s when I realized that he was talking to a reporter and that he was enduring the journalistic dance that everyone does who’s close to a story that grabs their pressing attention. The real story is not often the one they want to print, so they go with the one they like. 

That’s what justifies my comparison with a priest. Reporters are rarely scientists, open-mindedly seeking an interesting truth. Instead they’re true believers, convinced that every story is hiding some juicy tidbit. What’s exciting about FON is that it could be disruptive if a few million DSL & cable subscribers started to trade bandwidth with each other in a, literally, open-air marketplace. It’s news to individuals and it’s sure as hell news to big telecoms and their executives. So it’s surely news to the Wall Street Journal’s readers.

Things went downhill from there, fast. David attempted to explain – patiently I thought – that FON’s Martin Varsavsky is the most open CEO he’s ever worked with and that the advisory board was under no obligation to blog the launch. In fact, he explained, the only mention about blogging had been pre-launch, when he’d asked them not to mention anything.

But it seemed to be for naught. Clearly the intention of this prospector on the other end of the line was to find some hook for her story. And it must have been frustrating for the poor dear that, like most things in life, there was no dramatic, conspiratorial hook purpose-built to build – or keep – circulation. (Doc‘s wife maintains that conspiracy theories are usually wrong, since they presume competence).

Chickens Roosting

And sure enough, the story appears today, Rebecca Buckman’s Blog Buzz on High-Tech Start-Ups Causes Some Static. Notice what is “news” in this story and what is by-the-by:

Most of the nine members of FON’s U.S. advisory board, including former newspaper journalist Dan Gillmor, technology author David Weinberger and Internet-law expert Wendy Seltzer, wrote about FON on their blogs late Sunday. That was right after FON founder Martin Varsavsky revealed on his own blog that the closely held company had raised $21.7 million in funding from Google, Skype and others, declaring it “a dream come true.”

Messrs. Gillmor and Weinberger disclosed on their blogs that they are advisers to Madrid-based FON and also said they may receive compensation for their services. But Ms. Seltzer and other advisory-board members who talked up FON’s prospects online didn’t mention they might be paid by the company, though they did note they were FON advisers . . .

The avalanche of blogging about FON, much of it from people now tied to the four-month-old company, highlights the rising influence of blogs in shaping opinions about tech start-ups, particularly in Silicon Valley. It also reveals the possible conflicts of interest such complicated relationships can dredge up.

It continues pretty much as you’d expect. The form of disclosures of each blogger’s status was inconsistent. Apparently they <backstoryTag>didn’t conform to the WSJ’s rigid protocols</backstoryTag>. The innuendo suggests that a secret cabal of insiders had laced their unsupervised blogs with improper enthusiasms, surely designed to hoodwink the public about the importance of this startup, never mind the Google and Skype investments. How many of her readers would bother to find Wendy Seltzer’s lead paragraph last Sunday, wording judged inadequate to this self-appointed priestess of disclosure?

Martin Varsavsky has just blogged about FON’s partnership with Google , Skype, Sequoia Capital, and Index Ventures as investors. FON is a startup, of which I’m on the board of advisors, that aims to put wireless internet everywhere by linking sharing and commercial installations.

Nor was it news that CEO Varsarvsky’s blogged on Monday that FON had grown to 9,000 members, compared to 25,000 for the largest wifi hotspot networks, adding:

. . . thank our American advisory board for all the tough yet constructive criticism, to thank the blogosphere whose comments both positive and negative help us be a better company, and to thank all of those who became foneros and believe that a global, unified wifi signal can be of great benefit to all.

I’m no reporter, so I know nothing about journalistic standards, but I know she had 2-1/2 days to research this puppy. Did she bother to follow Wendy’s link or go to fon.com and discover that the first nav link – “What’s FON?” At What’s FON, did she bother to click on the first substantive link – no scrolling required – that says, “Find out who is the team making FON possible worldwide.” Did she notice that all these furtive capitalists are named and described and pictured there – as prominently as FON’s executives?

Lemme step back for a second. 

  1. Imagine you’re an internationally respected thought leader and blogger who believes, devoutly, that we need to make broadband available as widely as possible. 
  2. The country you love, formerly a leader in all things technical, has broadband stuck at a 3rd world competency by telecom firms who employ more lawyers than engineers. 
  3. You’re invited to help conceive a novel peer-to-peer broadband distribution system with International leadership.
  4. Amazingly, within 90 days, the vision is validated by investments from Google and Skype.
  5. The company launches, and you’re probably pleased to see your picture and bio displayed prominently on the company’s Who We Are page.
  6. You blog the announcement, having stated in your own language that y
    ou have an advisory relationship with the company.
  7. The angle the Wall Street Journal comes up with is that you are involved in an unfair flogging of the concept and that the language of your disclosure doesn’t conform to their liturgy.

Perhaps the assumption is that the Wall Street Journal’s readers are so unsophisticated that they will become confused when seeing a person’s name associated with a company. They’re sure to assume that no one has a financial interest in a company they’re admiring.

If this level of reporting concerns you, you can write to Rebecca Buckman at the email address prominently displayed at the bottom of her article. But why would you bother?


DISCLOSURE: I AM ONE OF THE FIRST 3,000 PEOPLE TO QUALIFY FOR THE DEEPLY DISCOUNTED FON ROUTER. THE 25 BUCKS I’LL SAVE HAS PROMPTED ME TO WRITE THIS DEFENSE OF THE COMPANY’S ADVISERS, MOST OF WHOM I KNOW PERSONALLY.

1:43:11 PM    

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