What News Do You Really Trust? Cash for Coverage and Crypto Companies
What News Do You Really Trust? Cash for Coverage and Crypto Companies
As ICOs continue to become a popular way of raising funds, ethically questionable practices are being used to the spread the word on cryptocurrencies.
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As a tech journalist, I receive hundreds of press releases each week from both PR representatives and individual companies as well as messages on social media. Nothing unusual here. However, I am also regularly offered money to write about (or even simply mention) particular companies in articles. Most of these are from crypto companies or marketing teams working with them.
Several times a month I get an inquiry like this:
“(X company) helps companies get mentioned in articles on some of the top websites in the world. They are currently looking for writers/editors who can write and get articles published on high quality business/tech sites, like the site(s) mentioned in your profile. To make this more clear, this is a form of native advertising. Most of their clients are in the Fin/Tech industries (but not exclusively) and payment is per published article. Would you be interested in a collaboration?”
I have responded back a few times out of curiosity. The client has always been a crypto company. What does this say about integrity and journalistic ethics?
The Not So Secret Dirty Secret of How to Get Your ICO in the News
Like most people who do tech journalism, I also write for other clients, and I've done a bit of marketing work for a number of startups. Last year I was working with a cryptocurrency company in the final stages of their ICO. I assisted with writing their press release and sending it out to a range of web-based publications. I used to get emails offering the company paid placement in articles written by freelance journalists. Here's what they were offering (it's worth bearing in mind that at this time - November 24, 2017 - 1 ETH was worth about $460USD) :
Being the person that I am, I dug a bit deeper into what they were actually offering and was told"
"They are not press releases as they are to appear as organic news by a 3rd party. A featured article is as it sounds where the whole article is about your company and you can provide the scope and talking points. A mention, is where the writer will talk about various problems that exist in the world related to what your company is trying to solve. In the mention article, there will be 3–4 sentences where your company is portrayed as a solution to the problems presented in the article... The writers we work with are internal to each platform and set their own prices that we need to work with."
So, there's basically insiders on the publications getting paid not only by their editor but also a third party to write about particular crypto companies. Hardly ethical, and look, it's not a new practice of course (it's even currently an issue right now in China) but as we're facing an era of fighting fake news, this kind of thing is hardly helping the notion of an independent media.
Then There's the Crypto Press...
In the crypto press, everyone is either an expert or learning as they go. There are certainly some great publications and hard-working journalists. But there's also a rather curious practice where they practice their own form of cash for coverage.
$100 PR release $300 for a sponsored article (written by company)
$500 per article (articles are clearly stated as sponsored and in a separate section)
$500 per article (written by company)
$600 press release (previously $139 in September last year when they also offered to write about the company if I paid them) - clearly it's getting more profitable!
$799 per press release
$2499 per press release
Press Release Publication 0.8 BTC ($548,000 USD at the time of writing) Press Release Publication on regional versions 1.6 BTC.
April 9, 2018: Note- I just received an email from Coin Telegraph offering a sponsored article for a payment of 5BTC (that's about $35,000USD)
Is the Press Release the New Advertising?
I've read plenty of the crypto Press Releases and some are definitely better written than others. However, what happens when it's discovered that some of them are scams? Recoin (currently under fraud charges with the SEC) has their PR published by Bitcoinist. Centra is also under investigation by the SEC and had their PR published by Bitcoin.com, amongst many others. Of course, each company offers a disclaimer for the press releases, as notes:
"Crypto publishers running paid press releases for ICOs making demonstrably untrue claims (or recklessly exaggerated) are not only doing harm to the investors who are ripped off by these schemes, they are risking further harm to the entire industry by way of getting the industry blacklisted from broader media channels."
We need to consider what we want from our crypto press. Do we want material written by analysts and experts who could only get their knowledge through first-hand industry engagement? It's a relatively new industry, how do people acquire knowledge and expertise? Hopefully not by reading paid coverage. Then, there are journalists with chronic deadlines and minimal wages trying to find the time to trawl through 40-page whitepapers full of mathematical equations never even learned at school. How do we do critical analysis and considered thought in an industry that is not only running but sprinting, and journalists are drowning in the number of press releases they receive every day from crypto companies? It's easy to see why published Press Releases were seen as a way to make money.
What Needs to Change?
- Pay journalists and writers a living wage. Journalism is not the highest paid gig in the world unless you are in a full time waged position with benefits. I've been offered 5K to write about a particular company and while I was desperate for money at the time, I declined -Today, I’ve finally hit the sweet spot of having two fantastic freelance gigs that I love and keep me solvent. Most journos are freelancers struggling to make ends meet. Payment on publication is a particular pain point for many.
- Be transparent about cash for coverage. Instagram has been working on this for a number of months, and it was previously implemented by Facebook last year, surely other media platforms should follow suit?
What Can Readers Do?
- Uninstall ad blockers. Ads are a major way for online publications to make money. Rest assured, before long you’ll be personally getting paid to watch/click on ads anyway.
- Pay for subscriptions to get past the firewall.
- We’re in an era of clickbait. Share, comment, and retweet articles by journos and writers you like (there are even some dodgy publications who pay writers according to the number of likes and shares). Who knows, you might get someone's work in front of a better paying publication or mean they get better opportunities.
This is one of those articles I've been sitting on for a while. Last week I wrote about developer ethics. Today, I'm turning the gaze to my profession and pointing out that we also need to do better. The crypto community also needs to do better, this kind of behavior is hardly disruptive or revolutionary but simply a tired repeat of past unethical behavior between the media and those they cover. I'm not naive enough to think this behavior is limited to crypto - it's not - but it needs to be brought under the lens. It's time for a change.
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