MarketWatch columnist Bambi Franciso has been in the ethical spotlight recently due to her involvement with Vator.tv, which lets technology start-up post online “elevator pitch” videos. It was seen as a conflict of interest because Francisco’s job as a journalist requires her to be objective. The story, which MarketWatch rival CNet ran hard with, took on another twist after it was disclosed that Francisco’s boss, David Callaway, knew about Vator.tv, and had no problems with Francisco’s involvement. With so much attention on the issue, Francisco decided to leave MarketWatch so she can run Vator.tv full-time.
Although there’s plenty of ethical material to chew on, Francisco’s situation isn’t an isolated incident. Lots of journalists, particularly those covering the high-tech sector, get lured to the “dark side” after covering their beats for many years. Along the way, you build an extensive network and extensive knowledge of your area of coverage. And if you’ve got any entrepreneurial spirit, it’s not long before you look at the people you’re reporting on and start to think, “Hey, I could do that, too”. Of course, it helps that many of these people are making more money than you’d ever dream about, or they’re involved with companies with huge investment potential.
I can completely understand Francisco’s situation having twice jumped from journalism into a high-tech start-up. In 2000 – at the peak of the dot-com boom – I left the Globe & Mail to start Blanketware Corp. with Mark Walker and Rob Botman. It didn’t work as planned (the dot-com boom ended about month after we raised angel financing!) so I returned to journalism as a senior technology reporter with the National Post in late-2001.
Along the way, the Internet came roaring back to life and blogs started to emerged as a new medium. This led to a whole new world of opportunities: approaches from start-ups who wanted me to become an advisor, calls from headhunters, and an exciting move into the conference world with the launch of mesh. Somewhere along the way, the entrepreneurial bug hit me again so when Jeremy Wright and Rick Segal approached me about working for b5media Inc., it was a no-brainer.
Francisco’s biggest problem with Vator.tv is it’s difficult, if not impossible, to cover a beat and be part of it at the same time. No matter how ethical or objective you aim to be, the two worlds eventually blur. This means you have to make a choice, and I applaud her for jumping into the entrepreneurial world. For some journalists such as Om Malik, who created GigaOm, the move is relatively easy but for many others, leaving journalism can be an agonizing decision given the perks (access to smart people, etc.) involved.
Upate: Mashable says the coverage of Francisco’s ethical dilemma has given Vator.tv a huge marketing boost, while ValleyWag suggests the “meek” Francisco didn’t have the confidence to “quit cleanly” before she jumped into Vator.tv.
Update II: Great quote in a San Jose Mercury story from Jerry Ceppos, a former executive editor of the Mercury News and a fellow at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “It’s another reminder that journalists need to be just journalists. I’m afraid you can’t be a journalist and a business person.”