Turning Down TechCrunch

If journalism can’t be open, what can?

Gittip is a weekly gift exchange. We launched about a year ago, and we currently have about 1,000 weekly active users exchanging about $3,000 per week on the platform.

I’ve been trying to dial it to eleven with Gittip in terms of how open and transparent a company can be. According to our definition of an open company, we share as much as possible, charge as little as possible, and don’t directly pay ourselves (Gittip is funded on Gittip). Our code is open source, we look for open partners, and, increasingly, I’ve been asking people who want to Skype if instead we can have an open call that we live-stream and post to YouTube.

My commitment to this last practice, open calls, was put to the test today when, in the midst of two open calls, I received an email from a journalist at TechCrunch, picking up on a conversation we started last month about doing an interview. TechCrunch is, of course, a leading publication for the start-up scene and the wider tech industry, and a story on TechCrunch is something of a coveted rite of passage for new tech companies. Jareau Wade from Balanced Payments had mentioned my name in response to an inquiry from a contact of his at TechCrunch about “some of Balanced’s more interesting partners” (thanks Jareau!). This TechCrunch journalist and I played email tag for a bit, finally reconnecting today and arranging to have a call tomorrow. Here’s how it went:

Me: How about 11:00 California time tomorrow (Tuesday) or Wednesday?
Are you up for a Google Hangout that we live-stream and post to YouTube? I like to do calls that way in the interest of openness. :-)
TC: Tomorrow at 11:00 PT is fine, and google or skype is fine, but don’t like the idea of it being recorded or posted to youtube.
Me: Hey man, I really appreciate your interest, and obviously I appreciate that TechCrunch is a major industry publication and it’d be great to get a story in there. However, I’m trying to run Gittip as openly as possible, and I’m becoming increasingly attached to the idea of not having private calls if I can help it. I just finished up an open call, in fact, and you will see in the first 60 seconds that I’m wrestling with how to respond to you here:
As I mention there, I haven’t really done any interviews with journalists yet, and I need to get off on the right foot and establish a habit and a pattern of only doing open calls if I can.
If you’re not comfortable with streaming/posting the call, I will totally understand. In the future I’ll be sure to let journalists know up front about my open call policy. :-)
Let me know one way or another …
TC: Yeh, good luck with that.

My ideas on when to agree to private calls and when to insist on openness are still very much in formation. I like to have a face-to-face call with new contributors to Gittip, for example, and there I’m willing to have that first call in private if the person isn’t comfortable doing it openly. With journalists I’m much more comfortable requesting openness. They’re writing for the public record, and it benefits readers and keeps us both honest to have the raw material on record as well.

Update: One emerging theme (here, here, here) is that journalism depends for its value on “the scoop.” Could we have agreed on an embargo of the raw interview video until the piece was published? Perhaps.

How would publishing a raw interview threaten a journalist’s scoop? I think it’s important here to see the distinction between “open” and “recognized.” A raw hour-long YouTube video is going to get no traffic compared to a published article. The interaction is open, but it has no chance of reaching the public consciousness in that form, so the scoop isn’t directly threatened by an open interview. If anything, pre-publishing the raw interview builds anticipation among true fans, who are then more likely to spread the word when the story is published.

What about the risk that another journalist will get the scoop? Imagine TechCrunch interviews me, and then AllThingsD finds the raw video and writes the story first. Is that the real threat that’s being felt? If so, I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. To me, that looks like it exposes journalism as a zero-sum game, and I don’t play zero-sum games, if I can help it. In my worldview, having multiple journalists conducting interviews and having multiple journalists writing stories based on those interviews is an overall win for readers and for humanity.

“But the money!” I hear you cry. To which I reply: Let’s get some win-win journalists funded on Gittip. The anonymous funding model should mean there is no conflict of interest, and journalists are then rewarded by readers for their story-telling and curation skills rather than by advertisers for their traffic-hoarding skills.