(For those of you who missed it yesterday (re: living in a spider hole), Arrington made the call to run hacked Twitter documents under the ethics maxim that “if it lands in our inbox, we consider it fair game.” The day before, he had run a couple photos of tech blogger Robert Scoble at some party in London.)
I don’t know if Arrington’s stirring of the pot will really result in anything significant—I don’t think TechCrunch is going to fall off the map traffic-wise—and I don’t really care. For all the controversy this has stirred up, TechCrunch still has its legions of followers (and admittedly, I’m not dropping it from my RSS feed just yet), which makes it impervious, to a degree. But for smaller, more delicate news sites, this whole fiasco should serve as a lesson to tread lightly with your community.
In the old days, Old Media was relatively comfortable, whether they knew it or not. Metro daily newspapers had maybe one or two legitimate competitors in a given city and they had people who were loyal to their brands (similarly, TV and radio had a handful of competition and their own following). The world (and word) moved relatively slow, so PR wasn’t a huge concern.
Well flash forward to 2009. Now, anything you say is broadcast around the world at the speed of light, the minute you say it. Anyone can publish anything for free and broadcast their material to just as many people as mainstream media reaches. Consequently, legitimacy is no longer determined by who you are (The New York Times, for example), but by what your reputation is. And your reputation is whatever public opinion decides it is. If you’re Michael Arrington and some guy thinks you’re a “dick,” no big deal—he’s had worse. But if you’re, say, a neighborhood news site or blog and that’s the public consensus: big problem.
Forget the term “dick,” because that’s just an example. What I’m getting at is that you need to be aware, now more than ever, that your reporting has ramifications on your community and consequently, back onto you. You need to manage, be aware of and cultivate your reputation just as much as you need to get the scoop on the latest big story (often the two go hand-in-hand).
Like I said, I don’t have any plans to dump TechCrunch from my list of tech news sources and I’m sure no one cares. But I am reading their material with a more skeptical eye today than I was a week ago. If it gets to the point where I feel the need to check everything they say against Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, etc. … why keep reading them?