Kara, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thanks, Marty. Good to be chatting with you today.
I know that you have referenced the Dow Jones Code of Conduct in your ethics statement, but you’ve gone much further by providing some very candid details of your personal life.
Yes, I do use the Dow Jones Code of Conduct framework, and link to it my ethics statement on our site.
Can you tell me why you thought this was important? Do you think it is especially relevant to share so much in your role as a very influential commentator in the technology arena you cover?
Well a couple things. I think I share what’s appropriate. I don’t think I am over sharing, you know, like my personal music habits or something like that, so I think I share what’s appropriate. And if there is a big glaring issue I have of a possible conflict of interest such as Megan’s job at Google, I had actually covered the company before she went there, very heavily. I knew it really well before it became more prominent. Another example is AOL. Even though I had written two books on AOL some people were saying that I had a conflict.
For example, Megan, years before she and I had met, had an investment from AOL in the company she was CEO of, PlanetOut. There is nothing I can do about that investment years before, but I can explain it so readers have a chance to understand. Now it had nothing to do with me. We weren’t involved when the investment was made but it existed so I always felt that it was really important to just give people as much information as possible. I was highly qualified to write about AOL because I had written two books about them. I am the natural choice to comment on AOL so I just feel like that like we said if the media is suspect just lay it on the line and tell people. That doesn’t mean you should opt out of coverage. They should know so they can make their own judgments as to whether I am being too soft on them or too hard. We treat the readers like they are intelligent and give them all information. It doesn’t matter to me that Megan works at Google. I’m quite tough on Google compared to other reporters. That doesn’t matter to me but what matters is that they know the situation, and that they don’t feel that they don’t have full knowledge. When they do, they can do what they want, they can comment on it. It shows respect for readers that you give them full disclosure of whatever different conflicts that are relevant or irrelevant conflicts but you have to tell them everything.
I also think we provide full disclosure in a humorous way. Walt gets asked if he get freebies from companies and he explains that he doesn’t. Why not just explain it. This is how it works so there are no questions about how it works versus wondering if Walt gets free things from Sony. Well he doesn’t. This is what he does. I think it just removes questions if you explain it up front. We are also open to answering more questions if they have them but most people, because we do such full disclosure, don’t have any more questions and we sort of cover everything, and at the same time there’s so much transparency on the web or there could be there’s an opportunity for us to do intelligent disclosure.
We think it’s really important that the reader is fully informed even if they don’t think it’s a big deal. They just think then there’s no cause for them to have any questions about our reporting and if they do they can respond in the proper place and we respond back. And so I didn’t think it was too much personal information. The journal has rules about stock purchasing so we tell you what stocks we have. The journal doesn’t require reporters to tell their readers, it just tells them they can’t own them. But we’ve gone a step further. We’re like OK this is what we own, this is what we don’t own, this is what we make investment decisions on, and this is what we don’t do. And it just seems to work better that way.
The kind of letters I get from readers are astonishing, all of which are supportive. I have not gotten one that’s been negative. And they like it; they can’t believe it that we are being so honest with them. We do the same thing with cookie disclosures you know when you come to the site for the first time there is a yellow box and you can’t read anything until you click it that says this is what cookies are and there are cookies on this site and this is what they do and if you’d like to click here to remove the cookies. And this is just a service that removes all cookies from your computer. This is an opt out kind of thing so we say we have cookies on this site and this is what they do. We explain what they do and then if people don’t care then they just click and go on. If they want to we give them the ability to remove them. Again that gives them choice, that gives them choice for what they want to do or not want to do. We give them awareness and that’s one of our biggest strengths. Disclosure is everything. And also, access to us via email is important. If you go to a lot of reporter websites you can’t find the reporter’s email. You get a box that you can reach them through, an official box or something like that, but you often never get their actual email. That’s another thing. What the hell are you doing? You often don’t get the actual email of the person you’re trying to reach and that’s another annoyance you know what I mean like what the hell? Like why can’t you reach the person?
Yes, I’ve experienced that and not only is it frustrating at times, it degrades the sense of reputation and trust.
Yeah, and also you know we also are very active on Twitter so there are so many ways you can contact us. You can contact us through Twitter and our email. There are plenty of ways to reach us and then we also have comments posted, feedback, and it just gives them an ability to be heard easily.
Information consumers are relying on a variety of cues out there when determining reputation. What sorts of cues do you look for when you are trying to establish a level of reputation for an individual? I assume you are looking beyond things like number of followers and Klout scores. Are you looking for the same things that you put out there?
It really has to do with the quality of the information they are providing. The accuracy, and the insights I get from it. I don’t care how many followers I have. I have followers because I was on the Twitter most whatever list. Hopefully people follow me because I do accurate reporting that is fair and witty and interesting. We don’t make story choices based on the comments and number of followers or traffic at all. We don’t ignore SEO and stuff like that. There’s no reason not to do basic things that will help your story get read, but our goal is to write reports that are first and that are accurate and fair. And it should be funny. We like to be funny.
I think a sense of humor and a sense of irreverence if you will at times is extremely important in what you do because it maintains the personality of the writer, even if at times it sounds more like opinion.
I don’t let my reporters just mouth off the way they do on other sites, I just don’t allow it. We do back up our writing with a lot of facts. If they’re going to make an assertion they have to have serious reporting on it. You know we have two things. One, I always couldn’t stand when I was looking at various newspapers that reporters knew a whole lot more that they never said they kept from readers. They tell their friends or they tell each other and then in a story I would call it the to be sure quote. Take Yahoo, for example. Their revenues and their growth have declined precipitously according to their recent quarterly earnings. Sure not everybody agrees that Yahoo’s in trouble, but they had to put in some general quotes from some analysts that supports the other side. Now we don’t do that crap, that’s ridiculous.
For example, if we know Yahoo’s revenues declined and it’s a freaking traffic accident let’s be honest you know what I mean? There’s no need to pretend that it’s not. I don’t want to just say Yahoo’s a big mess. We’ll have proof that there’s a big mess but we don’t mind saying it because it’s true and we don’t need an analyst to tell us what we can analyze ourselves. I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I know yahoo better than anybody. And I actually talk to the executives, I talk to their customers, I talk to their employees. I am in a very good position to make a comment on Yahoo’s situation.
Do you find at times also that they turn the tables and come to you for counsel and advice as well at times?
Yes, some people do. In fact for AOL they wanted a bunch of reporters’ thoughts on the Huffington Post merger. We’ve done a lot of reporting on the merger so we just gave them our thoughts on what we felt was going on there.
The mechanics of reputation is evolving in the whole social arena. It seems like peer group influence, being able to use peer reputation, such as in Quora, is helping individuals define the value of the information that folks are putting out there. Is the move away from influence as an indicator of reputation a move in a positive direction?
It’s interesting. I don’t use Quora that much to be honest with you but the reason it does work is because people’s names are attached to it. I see why people would be anonymous sometimes but it just discounts the information they share on the internet. If people do get voted up and down based on the quality of what they’re saying, I kind of like that. It’s the same thing I’m doing. Time magazine did a piece on the 140 best Twitter feeds and I said I wanted to be number 140. But I’m never going to be number 1. So I did a humorous post on that. But one of the things, one of the quotes about me, was something along the lines of when Kara Swisher reports a rumor it usually turns out to be true. But I don’t report a rumor. I report things I know to be true. They may not have happened yet but they are happening, they are about to happen. So I think reputation is based on quality even though there is all this noise in the blogosphere and the fog is thick. Our reputation is based on the quality of our work. People will seek that out because of all this ridiculous noise out there. Our strength is that we do really good work. When we report something it is no accident that we are accurate. If we make a mistake we tell people. We are very quick to disclose errors. It’s very prominent, but we don’t have to because we spend a lot of time before making sure the cake is baked correctly.
For those people who are contributing out there and who are trying to build a following based upon the quality and the insight in their work, do you think they should consider the notion that they do need a full-blown ethics statement like you’ve provided?
I don’t know why they wouldn’t. I don’t know what the problem is. There’s so much space on the internet so let the people decide to read it or not. I always joke we are trying to numb people into submission because of the length of it. Everyone has conflicts of interest, I don’t know why you can’t just say it and then people can judge you. Like when people say I’m soft on Google because of Megan. The fact of the matter is, show me where because I can show you 27 instances out of 28 where I’m tough on Google. So where I called them thugs or I called them monopolists. Tell me what’s positive what I’m writing? So I am able then, if they start to do that I can show them proof. Here’s a link where I called them thugs, here’s a link saying the government should investigate them. I don’t believe that’s helping Meg’s career somehow, you know what I mean? I think that’s probably not helping Meg’s career. I don’t think that’s the idea. I don’t care but I certainly don’t think it’s helping her career, my writing.
Early on I put my email at the bottom of the stories and people, especially reporters, would ask me why I want to hear from readers? Like well, I don’t know, I think they’re kind of smart. You know, it was interesting. They didn’t want engagement with readers at all.
I know that in the mix of analysts, journalists, and vendors, especially in the technology space, the lines sometimes get blurred a bit. I follow so many analysts via their corporate sites, blogs, Twitter, and the like, and at times it seems as if they are always on the vendor sponsored party bus. What should the analyst community be thinking about, knowing that their audience is watching this trend?
Well that’s good though don’t you think? At least they are keeping you informed about what they are doing. I don’t necessarily think that it’s not worthy to read as long as I know where they’re coming from you know. As long as their work is accurate, the reader will usually understand that mingling is just part of the job. People pretending that they’re above the fray are ridiculous in this age or in any age really. We think is important is to engage with the reader. Sometimes if we engage with them they expect us to say thank you for your comment, and then drop it. We’re like no, you’re wrong. That’s a shock to some of them. If they want to engage with me guess what if it’s stupid I’m going to tell you it’s stupid. That fascinates me about the whole thing because some don’t like to enter into a conversation. It’s a two way discussion as far as I’m concerned. And they don’t like that from me sometimes, but too bad, if they want a discussion they’re going to get a discussion. You know sometimes people just like to mouth off. They don’t really want to take responsibility for what they say. So we like to make them take responsibility.
So what do you think about as this whole phenomenon moves forward? You and others at All Things Digital are highly interactive, and you’ve put your reputation markers out there for everyone to see. What do you think a new trust model might look like in this age of the virtual community?
I think you have to be available to answer questions as much as you can. You can’t spend your whole life answering questions because you get a lot, but I think the most successful people who have the best reputation are available to answer questions and have a relationship going on with their audience. They have some kind of back and forth. I think they lay it on the line in terms of disclosure of whom they are and where they are coming from. I think they have to be prepared to defend what they’ve written. It doesn’t stop with the initial post and they have to keep going and I think that’s hard for reporters who are long used to writing something and then it’s done. But there has to be dialogue between you and the reader long beyond your first initial post. I mean interestingly, when Bill Keller went on his rant about Arianna Huffington, he learned this the hard way. Arianna knows how to do this very well, you know, It was like catnip to her. She took the ball and ran with it and now she has ten columns worth of stuff so I think that it is really important to be prepared that the story doesn’t end when you say it does. It’s a discussion versus a one way conversation, and that’s something that’s really hard for a lot of mainstream journalists.