Sarah Lacy is having a rough month. The founder of tech blog PandoDaily and perennial Valleywag target first ignited criticism with inflammatory comments about labor unions in the wake of a Bay Area transportation strike. Then she had to deny allegations that Pando had burned through millions of dollars in cash and was on the brink of shutting down. Now she's involved in a bitter feud with a Santa Monica–based start-up called BeachMint over a PandoDaily story about problems at the company that BeachMint contends is completely false.
I won't rehash the Pando-versus-BeachMint fight — a summary can be found here, if you're interested — but the episode brings up a more interesting (to me) question: What should the purpose of a tech blog be, anyway?
There has long been a war between those who write for and read tech blogs (by "tech blogs," I'm referring to a group of publications epitomized by, but not limited to, TechCrunch and PandoDaily) and those who think these blogs are fundamentally compromised and do a terrible job of covering the tech industry in a neutral, objective way. This latter group tends to be composed of people who wish tech blogs contained more criticism — more takedowns of charlatans and frauds, more reports of industry gossip and George Packer–style think-pieces about Silicon Valley's more pernicious influences. They want Silicon Valley to be covered as if it were Wall Street, or Capitol Hill. And they look at tech blogs, see the funding announcements and uncritical stories that dominate, and conclude that they're terrible, conflict-ridden, sycophantic echo chambers.
Alexia Tsotsis, the editor of TechCrunch, thinks the tech-blog war is an East Coast–West Coast thing. But it's really a debate about journalistic ethics and how reporters are supposed to approach their subjects — whether as colleagues or adversaries. For tech-blog haters, seeing a reporter who covers start-ups refer to the tech scene in the first-person plural, as both Lacy and Tsotsis have done recently, is worrisome and damning. It's as bad as it would be to see the Times' national security correspondent say "we" when referring to the CIA.
For years, tech blogs got away with participatory coverage. These days, though, it's becoming unfashionable to be too cozy. And so, as they get called out for being too close to Silicon Valley, tech blogs have begun trying to prove their oppositional bona fides. As Lacy likes to point out to critics, Pando has published a takedown of Uber and some tough criticism of FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg's political foray. Likewise, TechCrunch is typically self-aware enough to acknowledge the problems with the current tech-journalism complex, even if it still participates in it.
Here's a proposal that could save both sides of this fight a lot of grief: Instead of trying to shame tech blogs into covering Silicon Valley more critically, let's stop holding them to the standards of traditional journalism and start thinking of them instead as trade publications.
In trade publications, readers don't expect searing takedowns or accountability for powerful figures. They expect news about prominent industry leaders, new and notable companies, relevant trends in the industry, and maybe a page or two of job announcements. A trade publication cheering on the industry it covers isn't a bad thing; it's the publication's entire raison d'être. It would be odd if Air Line Pilot ran a feature called "The 100 Worst Pilots in America" or if Garden Trade Specialist spent an entire issue calling gardening a piddling waste of time. And it would be equally odd if, say, the Columbia Journalism Review criticized Candy Industry Magazine for conflicts of interest with lollipop producers. Aggressive, adversarial journalism is simply not what trade publications are built for. And few people expect it from them.
When trade publications try oppositional coverage, the gains are often minimal. The BeachMint flap is a perfect example. Pando's reporter, Michael Carney, got six sources to tell him that BeachMint was circling the drain. But he apparently never called the founders of the company itself, and now the company is mounting an aggressive countercampaign against him and Pando as a whole. Having run the BeachMint story, and having had such an outcry result from it, will no doubt damage Pando's relationship with other start-ups, which may in turn cause its day-to-day flow of scoops to suffer, and readers to lose out on news they would otherwise have gotten. It's a bad outcome for everyone, except maybe Lanny Davis.
TechCrunch and PandoDaily have the resources to be amazing trade publications. They've got the reporters, the sources, the conferences, and the industry credibility to be the go-to source for anyone in Silicon Valley who wants a sympathetic outlet to distribute news to the tech community. (There's a reason Sean Parker didn't give his mega-essay to the Times.) But their success is largely dependent on getting people in the tech industry to pick up the phone, which is why achieving perfect balance is nearly impossible. Too much cheerleading, and you lose mainstream credibility; too much watchdogging, and you take yourself outside the industry's circle of trust.
There's no shame in being a trade publication. Positive, insider-y tech coverage shouldn't be the whole of tech journalism, but it can be part of it, especially now that more outlets are giving Silicon Valley the oppositional treatment it deserves. And if tech blogs like TechCrunch and Pando want to harness their strengths, they should embrace their insider status, focus on out-scooping each other on industry news, and leave the takedowns to others. They might miss some juicy stories, but it's better than coltishly trying to both please their readers and satisfy the bloodlust of Silicon Valley's critics.