Today, BREAKER published a story regarding a lapse in journalistic ethics amongst prominent coin journals. Troubled by the number of unsolicited emails he received offering money for media coverage, BREAKER contributor Corin Faife decided to see how other crypto journals responded to such requests.
After setting up a fake email account under the name Nikolay Kostarev, he then emailed 28 coin journals through their "contact" or "advertise" links to inquire about advertising rates. If the website replied with price information, he asked how much it would cost for an article "to not be marked as 'sponsored.'" In other words, he wanted to know if something written by a company could pose as an article.
The results may not surprise you. Twelve of the 28 outlets said they'd publish the content without identifying it as sponsored. Another two "hinted at being willing to do so under certain conditions, but did not ultimately confirm it."
The 12 caught with their hands in the cookie jar, according to BREAKER's investigation, included NewsBTC, Bitcoinist, Cryptovest, AMB Crypto, and Blokt.
Cointelegraph didn't cover itself in glory either: "Instead of discouraging 'Nikolay' from seeking to pay for coverage, a member of the business team was happy to point us towards some sites in the Cointelegraph Media Group that did."
For the skeptical, Faife has included screenshots. The article, which includes responses from several of the named outlets, is worth reading in its entirety.
The High Horse
It should go without saying that ETHNews doesn't do this. In fact, we don't do advertising or sponsored content at all. However, given that some other outlets are now just removing the term "sponsored" from pieces, I suppose you're going to have to take my word for it. For someone who aspires to do true journalism, that is the most frustrating part of this news: We're now less likely to be taken seriously, regardless of the quality of our work.
I recognize the emails Faife is referring to. I get them every day. When I first started as managing editor at ETHNews back in April, I tried to respond to them. (I have since stopped bothering, as it is too time-consuming.) I'd typically copy our advertising policy directly from the site:
"ETHNews is an independent publication. We are a non-monetizing media outlet—our site does not publish any form of advertising, including sponsored content, and we do not accept payment in exchange for publishing content. Our content submission page is for suggestions and sharing of newsworthy and relevant information. The replication of such content is at the discretion of our media and editorial team."
But this too was sometimes misunderstood. I once received a follow-up to these exact words, asking, "Did you mean that we can submit a press release for free?"
The answer to this is yes. You can tell us anything you want, and we won't charge you for it. Hooray!
But it doesn't mean that we're going to write about it. And we're definitely not going to copy-paste it. Our default is to stay away from ICOs and unproven actors, even if that means missing out on a potentially cool story. My inbox is littered with press releases from companies claiming to be the next big thing in blockchain. Ninety-nine percent go into my junk folder. We just want to cover the news.
That's not to say I don't have regrets. In trying to determine what exactly the news is, I have published some articles that, in retrospect, I probably should have passed on because they came off as too "market-y." But not because somebody paid me to. Not because someone submitted guest content (which we don't run). Because I made the wrong call.
Accepting money for publication is an obvious no-no. It's a low bar to clear. And as Faife makes clear in his piece, it's the bar he was focused on. But there are other ethical issues to navigate in cryptojournalism. One of these is media passes. My second week on the job, a PR manager emailed me about forming a media partnership for a big event in Los Angeles.
I responded that we weren't interested in sponsoring the event, but I inquired about getting media passes. He said he could give me two free passes on the condition that we publish the event's press releases and guarantee coverage. I told him it was a no go, but he was persistent:
"More than happy to give you 1 press pass, with a guarantee that something will be written mentioning the event! But it'd be great if we can get some form of PR from your end."
PR. Public relations. There's the rub. Crypto journalists, or journalists in general, are often expected to do PR as a means of getting a story. (To be clear, this isn't the standard. ETHNews has sent reporters to, for example, the New York and San Francisco Blockchain Weeks without ever being asked to publicize their events.) We can say no – and we do – but we tend to get future invitations lost in the mail afterwards. That's fine by me. Instead of demanding coverage, conference organizers should worry about putting together speakers and presentations that deserve to be covered.
But it demonstrates that even within the upstart world of blockchain, there are still some that are trying to be gatekeepers. And those gatekeepers are involved in media as well.
The Blockchain Companies
Further out, there are new boundaries being formed, with the establishment of media outlets by groups with a stake in blockchain projects.
CoinDesk was acquired by Digital Currency Group. Decrypt Media is funded by ConsenSys. BREAKER is owned by SingularDTV. And ETHNews is a division of Blockchains Management Inc, the parent company of Blockchains, LLC. None of these businesses are media companies, like The New York Times Company or WarnerMedia; all are involved in blockchain projects. Though each outlet asserts editorial independence, it's natural for readers to be skeptical and ask their own questions about what these confluences mean.
I have questions, too, as do the people whom ETHNews currently relies upon for funding. When I asked the CEO of Blockchains, LLC, Jeffrey Berns, about this, he told me: "Our plan is to roll ETHNews into a 501(c)(3) or a nonprofit foundation and have it completely separated from Blockchains, LLC. The space needs a truly independent voice."
I agree with that assertion, which is not to say that every crypto journal needs to make a similar move. Independence and accuracy can exist without nonprofit status. But it does remind me that independence, like that other buzzword in the blockchain space, "decentralization," isn't black and white. Rather, it exists along a spectrum.
As managing editor, I want readers to trust ETHNews. To earn that trust, it's my responsibility to put up newsworthy articles day in and day out. But we, and other crypto journalists, face a myriad of challenges. We must first try to separate out the meaty stories from the spam. We must juggle the need for access with the bravery to portray things accurately. And we must act outside the realm of the blockchain space even as we operate within it. I believe ETHNews does an admirable job of this. I hope you do too, and I invite you to continue reading us.