Rather than immediately jumping into the controversy over the rightness or wrongness of Microsoft’s offer of a free Vista-loaded laptop to dozens of bloggers, I decided to watch from the sidelines for awhile to gather my thoughts. (Disclosure: I’m one of those bloggers who was given a Ferrari laptop by Microsoft. My employer, b5media, plans to give it away as part of a contest).
The Vista issue is fascinating on a number of different levels. One, it puts the spotlight on whether bloggers need to be editorially “pure” like journalists so the content they produce is seen as objective. It’s an interesting concept as blogging evolves into a mainstream medium read by people looking for information and insight. As Joel (on Software) Spolsky argues, trust is a key consideration for many bloggers who wants their posts to be seen as credible and authentic.
Perhaps what the Vista issue does is continue the fragmentation of the blogosphere. There will be bloggers who will write and behave like journalists – and expect to be treated as such by companies, PR firms, conference organizers, etc. There will be bloggers who have little interest in being treated as a journalist because it’s not a job, and they get paid little or nothing to write their blogs so how’s a freebie here and there really going to matter. Then, there’s the Pay-Per-Post crowd.
Truth be told, no one is really, really pure – not even journalists, particularly high-tech reporters who operate in a PR-happy world of product trials, demos and evaluations (and this comes from a decade as a high-tech newspaper reporter). I would hazard to guess, for example, the majority of Microsoft XP CDs sent to journalists in 2001 were never returned to Microsoft even though we’re talking about $350 to $500 product. In general, I would strongly suggest the majority of hardware/software sent to reporters is never returned, and everyone carries on their merry, objective way.
And what about when a source takes a reporter out for an expensive lunch, or a PR firm invites a group of journalists to a concert or sports event, or a company takes a reporter(s) on a junket/conference and picks up the flight and accommodation expenses? Where do you draw the line on accepting freebies? It’s a very tricky game.
That said, Microsoft’s offer – albeit generous – strikes me as over the top given we’re talking about a $2200 product. It’s awful tempting to keep something so shiny and new but to me it doesn’t seem quite right (maybe this comes from nearly 20 years as a journalist). If I were Microsoft, I would have asked for the laptops back and donated them to charity, or asked the bloggers to donate them to the charity of their choice after three months.
For more thoughts, check out Internet News, Deep Jive Interests, ex-Microsoft employee Robert Scoble, who thinks Microsoft is doing something awesome, Web Worker Daily, and BL Ochman, who provides a snapshot of the controversy.