Of blogging, reviewing, endorsing, opportunity cost, and ethics

Scott Hanselman recently announced that he was doing to do a review of a product on his weblog, which isn't unusual; what is, for him, was that he was being paid to do the review, and a couple of readers of his weblog took issue with the fact that Scott was violating his own ethical blogging policies to do so. To wit:

Er.. that's not a review, that's dangerously close to payola.

Yeah, but in an earlier post you said you'd only post about software you felt passionate enough to post about.*

Sho' nuff. That's the essence of a blog; it's why they work.

I could maybe understand if they provided you a free copy of the software to review at your discretion, but directly _paying_ for a review is kinda strange IMO. It's definitely not wrong, and you had a nice disclaimer in there and all. But it ultimately undercuts the whole passion argument. "I'll only write about products that I think kick ass.. oh yeah, and products that someone pays me to write about."

I'll say the same thing to you that I say to my wife: I still love you, just a tiny bit less than I did yesterday. ;)

* as I recall, you made a big deal out of this specific point.

Scott later felt guilted enough into refusing payment for the review.

Frankly, I think Scott caved, and there was no reason for him to do so. Here's why:

  1. Scott's ethics and sense of ethical responsibility are so far above reproach, it's hard to believe we're having this conversation about him.
  2. There is a crucial difference between "reviewing", "endorsing" and "sponsoring", as I see it (though all of these terms are weaselly enough that we could easily spend a lot of time just in definitions and semantics). A "review" implies that the individual in question (Scott) will offer up a candid, no-holds-barred discussion of the product/tool/technology/whatever, with no implicit bias and no implicit agenda in performing the review. An "endorsement" means the individual has evaluated the product, and thinks that people should be using it if they're not already. Neither of these thus far implies payment for review or endorsement--for example, I endorse Java, and I endorse .NET. In fact, I endorse a whole bunch of books, too.
  3. That said, however, my time (as is Scott's) is a precious resource--I don't have a lot of it to give away. If a company wants me to do a review of their product, particularly if it's something I'm not going to pick up as part of my normal activities, then I want to justify the time--the time I spend working on the review is time I'm not spending on other paying work or writing. The economists call this "opportunity cost": what are you giving up in order to pursue a particular activity? In Scott's case, like mine, it's either paying work or else it's personal time with the family, neither of which I'm gong to sell cheaply.
For a company to pay me to do a review of a product is not unethical. For me to post that review of the product on my blog is not unethical (though a bit odd; quite frankly, I would think the company would want to look at it first, and if it's a positive one, I would think they'd want to post it on their site, not my blog).

Where I think Jeff Atwood (the commenter on Scott's blog) is concerned is that it's hard to tell if Scott's review was positive because of the fact he was being paid for the review, and there we have the crucial question, that of motivation. What was Scott's motiviation while he was writing the review? This is a question that only Scott can answer (and frankly, I think he did a damn good job of answering it when he turned down the fee), but for readers of Scott's weblog, the crucial question has to be, "Do you trust Scott to offer up a fair review even if he's getting paid for it?" For my money, I think yes, because Scott's one of those people who can only be described as "brutally honest". The idea that Scott would change what he says just because he's getting paid to review something just doesn't jibe with what I know of the guy.

Meanwhile, moral support for Scott has emerged, in the form of endorsements (yes, I use that word deliberately) of his character from Carl Franklin and Greg Hughes, and Mike Gunderloy points out that

The software review business is an ethical muddle - much more so on the printed magazine and major site level than in blogdom. Many people aren't aware of it, but print magazines generally approach software vendors with a pitch similar to this: "We'd like to review your product X in our upcoming issue. You'll need to send us a copy with a full license for our reviewer. We're sorry, but this has to be a full license, not a Not-For-Resale license. That's our firm editorial policy." The reason for this policy? Because the pay for writers for writing reviews stinks, and reselling products on eBay after the review is written is a nice little bit of extra income.

Pretty much everyone, big or little, accepts free licenses - sometimes full, sometimes NFR - of the product under review. I do it myself (and disclose it on my site). So you always have to take that into account; the reviewer didn't pay the $10,000 for that fancy product that he's raving about. Possibly his opinion would be different if the money were coming out of his own pocket.

All that said, I'm glad to see that Scott isn't taking money directly from product vendors. That crosses a traditional journalistic ethical line, and I'm enough of a traditional journalist to not want to cross that line.

I'll admit, I'd never engineered a license-for-resale deal just so I could turn it around on eBay (and, frankly, doing so with an Not-For-Resale copy is actually bluntly illegal) while I was editor at TheServerSide.NET, but I have frequently approached companies about receiving a free NFR license in order to evaluate their product and, if I like it, implicitly or explicitly endorsing it during presentations and classes. Fact is, that's a large part of what people pay me for: to help them navigate the muddy waters of the thousands of different products, tools, libraries, and/or technologies out there, and it's in a company's best interests for me to have their product handy when I'm asked a question in that space. (Speaking of which, I'm always amazed when companies don't pursue this in an aggressive manner--you don't believe in your product enough to give out free copies to influentials within the industry? Then get out of the business, because you're just going through the motions and will have your shorts handed to you by a company that does.) Does that make me unethical? Absolutely not--I'm pursuing exactly the avenues that people pay me for, to spend the time researching and investigating, so they don't have to.

I won't say that I've never written about a tool or technology that I didn't believe in--fact is, there were some slow months in the past couple of years, and I, like the proverbial young starlet, had to do some pieces that I hope don't come to light someday. That said, though, all of those pieces (and there were thankfully very few of them) I refused to sign my name to. Because, in the end, that's what Scott--and I--really sell. My name, Scott's name, there's an implicit trust from the people who respect us, that we won't attach our name to something cheaply. And folks, I can guarantee two things: I won't, and neither will Scott. And in the end, you either trust our word on that, or you probably don't care about our names to begin with. :-)