[Disclosure: Millennial Media is a sponsor of the SiliconANGLE network, where I am Editor-In-Chief. Millennial Media did not sponsor this post, nor did they contribute to the information in this post in any way. –mrh]
Techcrunch’s Robin Wauters today wrote up a press release from mobile ad network InMobi talking about a new hire at the company. That in and of itself isn’t news, normally. That Techcrunch wouldn’t do research on a press release and write up as news what was written there isn’t news normally either.
What is news is that Techcrunch’s piece was framed in a way that was completely incorrect and potentially damaging to rival mobile ad network Millennial Media when even a cursory glance at the subject of the post’s LinkedIn profile would disprove the storyline the PR company was pitching.
Headline: InMobi Now Reaches 83 Million U.S. Consumers, Steals Millennial Media Exec
In its most high-profile hire, InMobi has tapped Peter Bassett, former SVP of Sales at one of its main rivals, Millennial Media, as its newly appointed Head of Sales for North America. Also joining InMobi from Millennial Media is David Smith, who will be heading up InMobi’s East Coast Sales.
Our own Saroj Kar and John Furrier earlier today were the first to make the catch on the story. Peter Bassett, according to his LinkedIn profile, hasn’t worked for Millennial Media since 2009 (and other sources we’ve spoken to say his actual leave date was in 2008).
I don’t know Peter, nor do I have any reason to doubt his credentials, but it’s obvious from his own record of work that he spent several months unemployed in between gigs at Millennial and the next job he held, Glam Media, and then several more months unemployed between his gig as VP of Platform Sales for Glam and Head of Sales for InMobi.
From the titles and employ dates alone, I glean at least two things: his career moves are lateral at best, and he’s not the hot commodity InMobi is making him out to be. He isn’t being scalped from the competition, as InMobi’s PR is inferring. He’s being picked up from the open market.
There’s nothing shameful in that for Peter, particularly in this economy. I, myself, have made many lateral shifts in my career history. Others may judge me for this, but I have pride in my work the companies I choose to work for.
What is shameful is Techcrunch’s lack of research on this PR puff piece, and the public relations company itself misrepresenting the facts.
Churnalism is absolutely nothing new.
Tom Foremski has written extensively here and at his blog Silicon Valley Watcher about the “bullying grip” of Techcrunch and the general pundit reliance on press releases. The problem is so bad in the new media reporting that he found and profiled a startup dedicated solely to finding instances of “churnalism,” where news content is essentially published “as is directly from PR firms and organizations.”
With simple color coded text — and it could be done in a subtle way — it would be easy for a reader to tell at a glance the origins of a specific news story and any relationships with the publisher. There would be no need to go to Churnalism.com, or elsewhere, to analyze the content of a story.
A color coded publishing format would show that information instantly. But publishers are unlikely to agree to such a scheme, probably for fear that it would show their readers how little original content is being produced. The mediasphere would be awash in red text.
Churnalism is geared towards British press, but if it analyzed the content of Techcrunch, it would indicate that 100% of Robin’s post was gleaned from the press release (no exaggeration; compare for yourself. Press Release, Robin’s Post on Techcrunch). It doesn’t even appear that a phone conversation with the PR agent occurred, let alone a Google or LinkedIn search to verify the data in the post (such as start and end dates, or independent reports that would refute InMobi’s claim of being the largest independent mobile ad network).
We contacted InMobi’s press team to get more specifics on the other executives mentioned in the press release, including David Smith. As of the time of this post, InMobi “would not release record of prior employment.” David Smith’s LinkedIn profile does show that he left Millennial directly for InMobi, but not recently (way back in February).
Press Agent Jill Ivey of IF Communications, the agent representing InMobi for this story, promised to “let us know” the specifics of David Smith “as soon as InMobi gets back to them.”
We contacted Millennial Media for comment, but they declined to comment. I probably wouldn’t comment on the PR antics of a competing mobile firm either, if it were me.
So is this a story about mobile or a story about journalism?
Here’s the bottom line: InMobi’s press releases are always chock full of hyperbole. MobileBeat published a story this morning hyping up questionable statistics about InMobi and the smartphone market in general, saying that ad requests for iOS top Android in Europe, which if true would fly in the face of almost all other analysis, including that of independent research firms like Nielsen (let alone other competitors in the mobile space).
Today’s very obvious PR snafu fail highlights the failure of tech punditry in highly technical niches, but it calls into question a lot of the reports and press that is sourced to InMobi. Clearly their press team have no compunctions about bending the truth, and the mobile pundits at even the largest blogs have no sense of the space to even know when the wool is being pulled over their eyes, even if they had the inclination to do more than re-write a press release.
But Churnalism is an industry-wide problem; what this really highlights is the need for InMobi to manufacture momentum. For months they’ve been parroting many of the same claims that Millennial Media made in years past (claims which, in contrast to InMobi, were verified by independent third party metrics organizations).
Now InMobi goes more overt with the momentum manufacturing and actually calls out Millennial in their press releases, falsely implying brain drain at their competitor.
Anything InMobi claims in the press from now on (up to and including details on their metrics and hiring practices) should be called into question and verified independently by self-respecting reporters (“churnalists” can, of course, keep hitting the “copy” and “paste” buttons).
Why Call Out InMobi and Techcrunch?
Editorial process and innovation is something we care about at SiliconANGLE. Our contributor Tom Foremski has done lots of fantastic work exploring the boundaries of New Media, and we ourselves pride our innovations like #theCube and realtime tech journalism.
Are we perfect? No, like any other journalistic outfit consisting of humans, we make mistakes. Newer writers getting accustomed to our narrow niches will occasionally mistake one company’s initiative for another as they wade through the buzzword bingo that most press releases consist of. Occasionally we’ll publish a story where we report, say, $23 million in venture capital was invested as opposed to $32 million.
Certainly these types of stories will have their consequences, but the type of errors we have created processes to prevent are the types of errors you see common at other organizations: the errors that come as a result of pageview journalism.
Pageview journalism rewards authors (monetarily) for sensationalism. In Robin’s post, he not only mentioned the brain drain, but highlighted it in the headline because it implies conflict (and conflict generates attention and pageviews). Because mobile ad monetization is a somewhat dry topic and probably not his area of expertise, he didn’t bother to research it. Because Robin is a great writer capable of making dry topics interesting, he was assigned the story.
Conversely, at SiliconANGLE, we don’t monetize by the pageview (for an explanation on how we and others like us do monetize, read my prior posts on the topic or watch this video). Our writers have little incentive to embellish the facts or outrightly ignore them like other organizations do. Our loyalty is to the truth, our audience, and our editorial worldviews.
It’s through this method we mitigate the damage to brands (and their customers) we talk about in our blog and broadcasts, and our growth curve shows that there is a growing respect for our model of coverage.
Update: From Jill Ivey at IF Communications: “David was in fact hired directly from Millennial earlier this year. Peter, on the other hand, worked at Glam Media between Millennial and InMobi, as the VP of Platform Sales and the COO for Sportgenic. His CV is here.”