On tech journalism shills: a freelancer's view from the bottom
Hey there, good catch! I didn't even notice that it looked like an affiliate link when I added it. I was asked to add a link to the trial version (which, frankly, I probably would have done without anyone asking me, because it's just nice to do when you're writing about someone's product) and this was the link I was handed. The link itself is as follows:
The official explanation by one of our commercial guys is as follows:
"The link in question just goes off to their trial download. It has google analytics code appended to the URL so they can track, via GA, our readers who end up downloading said trial.
In order that we could also track this, I ran the URL through Reglinkz to output something we can track. However, this type of link won't get caught by ad-blockers etc"
That suits me, I hope it makes sense to you. To address the "shill" issue more directly: what I wrote about GFI's Languard I wrote because I felt it was accurate. I was asked to review the product and I did so as truthfully and honestly as I was able.
Dissecting the issue
Your question, however, raises a valid concern and we should dissect it to its fullest extent. Let's not take the fellow's word on this, but let's use some examination of the evidence and whatever personal experiences I can bring to bear to really examine the situation.
The link itself contains references to The Register. I was asked by The Register to do the review. I think it's safe to conclude that the on-premises side of GFI asked for a review of the product as part of an advertising campaign, and that the link provided me for the trial version is a means by which the GFI folks track which clicks came from the El Reg article.
For obvious reasons - writers of articles need to be kept separate from the messy details of where the money comes from in order to maintain objectivity - I'm no expert in the how and why of El Reg getting paid for things. Still, I very seriously doubt that The Register would have an actual "affiliate link" style arrangement with GFI on this. I just don't see that model having long term business viability for an entity the size of The Register.
Let me be, 100% clear on this, however: I absolutely have not and will not write nice things about a company because I get paid for it. I think you'll find this true of all El Reg writers.
One of the reasons I choose to write for The Register is that I get to write whatever I want. Companies pay The Register for advertising, yes. That's a fact of life in this industry. But the editors here will absolutely go to the mattresses for my right to say what I want.
A great example of this is my writing about Microsoft. Microsoft periodically comes in and runs a campaign about Office 365, Azure, Windows Server or so forth. They phone up El Reg and say something like "we would like 5 reviews of Office 365 to be published over the course of the next 2 months and each will focus on a different major feature."
My editor will then come to me and ask me to come up with topics that meet this request while still delivering useful technical content to our readership. We'll come up with a list of 7-10 possible review topics to cover the 5 reviews they want, they'll pick amongst them and I'll get hooked up with whatever resources I need to be able to do the review.
If you have read anything I've ever written about Microsoft you'll know that "Trevor saying nice things" is not something they can purchase.
A company paying The Register> money can get The Register to commission a review of their product. A company paying The Register money cannot and will not get that reviewer to write nice things.
If I have a really good idea for an article I can pitch it as a feature. Here I have to duke it out with every other freelancer wanting to write a piece about $topic. In addition to the above, I get to write a fixed number of blogs/reviews/podcasts per month (currently 6 per month) in which I get to pick the topic.
As concepts, these are important. If you are an advertiser trying to "shape the message" by "buying reviews" then you're going to have all sorts of problems. Journalists are prickly bastards. We would probably use our "pick your topic" articles to decry such shenanigans.
If you have followed me as a writer you'll know that I have never shied away from using my little digital soapbox to express my opinion.
I am – as one example – a VMware vExpert, a designation which I got mostly because I "evangelise" virtualisation. Being a vExpert conveys various interesting advantages and unlocks doors that otherwise I would never even know existed. Despite this, I have called VMware on their crap – both here on The Reigster and over at SearchVMware. I have talked about the stuff I see going on within the community and the company that aren't the shiny, happy world they portray.
Indeed, even with my commercial writing clients I don't write fluff, I focus on finding the truth and talking about it. I won't take a client I don't think has a good product that can benefit sysadmins and I never try to obfuscate or inflate the benefits of their product when I create content for them.
I can't speak for other writers. I never went to journalist school or took political science. I don't have an MBA or any time spent doing sales. People hire me because I tell the truth. It doesn't always make me friends – lots of people don't like the truth – but it is all I know. I'm a lazy sort by nature and trying to keep up a tangled web of lies is too much effort for me to expend for any reason.
The price of a man
I'm not unrealistic about the world. I have a price. My price is eight figures. Meet this price and I'll say whatever you want me to say. This price is way – way – beyond what anyone has ever offered me. I'm just not important enough for someone to have tried to buy me yet.
It's easy to level accusations of "shill." I've done it myself when I think so lowly of the other party that I honestly believe they could be bought for a half-eaten hamburger. We all know the guy who bought an computer product or service that was far more expensive than the competition just because he got a fancy lunch. Why not assume that journalists are as easy to buy?
The truth lies in the profession itself. If The Register were to become known for being "purchasable" then it would simply cease to exist. The readership would dry up and the value of advertising on the site would evaporate immediately thereafter.
The same is true for me, personally, as a journalist. If I have any "value" in this profession it is because I am known for being a hardass that truly and honestly believes in El Reg's motto: biting the hand that feeds IT. Companies seek me out to do reviews because they believe that if they can get a good review out of me people will believe it. If I accept a payoff then I lose my livelihood.
Fear and loathing in Silicon Valley
Consider Chris Mellor. I know for a fact that there are several hundred storage PR and marketing people who live in mortal terror of that man. When I started to write the odd piece about storage for The Register they all popped out of a portal desiring to woo me because they hoped (in vain, I might add) that I would be less blunt.
Mellor has earned a reputation for being fierce that, quite frankly, I envy. He tells the truth as he sees it. It is journalists like him that are why I have been a reader and fan of The Register for over a decade.
I get far more of a thrill out of talking about the elephant in the room than I ever will get out of some bit of techno-gadgetry. I don't need Yet Another 4-bay NAS. I don't need Yet Another NFR Software License. I have a pretty cool testlab already, and I am absolutely transparent about where I got my gear.
To be perfectly honest, I personally haven't wanted for shiny computer widgets for home use in over a decade (long before I started writing for El Reg) and I am only rarely interested in any of the new stuff that I see hit the tradeshow floors. I write about this stuff, I even practice this stuff professionally, but my life's ambition is not the accumulation of techno-tat. I want to write a science fiction trilogy. The gizmo of the week isn't going to make that happen any sooner.
If you honestly think that The Register is peopled by shills then I invite you to do some digging on your own. Talk to PR people. Ask them. They will tell you the same tales as I have told you above, but with more four-letter words and a lot of repressed bitterness. We do not make their lives easy.
I hope that the above explains the world of writing for The Register as seen from the world of a freelancer such as me. With any luck, I've helped explain a little of "how we writers get paid" and how the absolute wall between the monies paid and the writers is maintained by the editors. Thanks for your time, and I hope you choose to keep on reading El Reg.
This, incidentally, is where my "purchase price" comes in. I will say anything you want me to say if and only if you pay me enough money to say it such that I never ever have to worry about money again and retire the next day.