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An old British IT hack speaks out!

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a new medium, although new things always have their critics. But rapid, radical change will often shake up the status quo, and not always in a good way. File sharing has scared the living daylights out of the music, film and TV industries, with draconian knee-jerk consequences. It’s a historical thing – in the early days of UK radio broadcasting, the newspapers stopped the new medium from carrying news until 7pm, fearing it would spoil their market otherwise.

But the Web has a much more profound implication for journalism. In We the Media Dan Gillmor gushes with excitement about the potential of blogging to democratise news reportage. And it is indeed very exciting. However, giving everyone the chance to become journalists could potentially have a very negative effect on the quality of information available.

Before all you Web-evangelising readers get your hackles up, I should explain a few things. I come from a print journalism background. I’ve been writing about the IT industry for over a decade, and spent five years editing the UK’s number one-selling computing monthly, PC Pro. So you’re immediately going to look at the sorry state of IT print publications, mostly thanks to the Web, and make the assumption that I’m a bitter old hack itching to have a go at the young lions who have caused monthly IT magazines to halve in circulation, and forced many to close.

But you’d be wrong. I’m not arguing that the Web is ruining the quality of writing or the ability to find a good story. I actually believe there is more chance of a meritocracy on the Web, where good writing and clever scoops can prevail over corporate interest and politics – because readers have more chance of deciding directly which stories make quality journalism.

Although I might bite my own head off if I read another over-excited article about the "wisdom of crowds" (Surely they’re teaching James Surowiecki in kindergarten now?), it is pretty common sense that the more people there are trying to do something, the more chance it has of happening. It’s just the million monkeys and typewriters cliché all over again.

There’s a much more dangerous threat from online journalism, however. As DailyTech showed rather convincingly a few months ago there are some pretty well established websites out there which will go to much greater lengths to win advertising than print ever would have when I was a magazine editor. Whilst print titles have become increasingly desperate in the last few years as advertising revenue drops through the floor, and their standards might well be slipping too, this still doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s a crisis which could destroy the whole idea of truthful product review journalism.

Let’s look at all this from the varying perspectives of the major parties concerned, starting with the advertisers. If you’re an IT company with X amount of money to spend on promotion, and a website with a few million readers is offering not only to run your banner ads for a given fee, but to publish a certain number of articles as well, that sounds like a great deal. If another website will give you favourable coverage for merely sending a product in and subtly forgetting to ask for it back, why bother advertising at all?

This is all brilliant for an advertiser –- you can use your money to influence the market, and get coverage for your products so they sell better than those of companies with less money to spend. The IT company will be happy, and the website will be happy as it wins ad revenue away from other more scrupulous sites -- and print magazines too.

The websites in question don’t see this as unethical at all, in large part because their first job in journalism was on their own website. Here is the argument given to explain how they don’t quite see the line between editorial and advertising -- and this is quoted virtually word for word from one website editor I’ve discussed this with in the past:

"You’re sent two products, and you only have time to review one. Surely it makes sense to review the one from the advertiser who supports your website financially, rather than the one which doesn’t?"

Sounds quite reasonable, right? Well, it makes some commercial sense. But it’s already well on the way down a slippery slope away from editorial content you can trust. If you’re going to do your readers a proper service, you really should review both products, and not be afraid to publish even if the non-advertiser’s product is better. That is your job as a journalist.

Anything else is morally reprehensible on a number of levels. From a journalist’s perspective, having to write articles because of the deal a salesperson has made, rather than because the topic is newsworthy and of interest to the audience, is at its very best a reversal of the way things have traditionally been in journalism. The articles are quite likely to be boring for the reader, too.

At its worst, though, this arrangement is a complete enslavement of the truth to the corporate purse and industrial interests. Sure, you can say that you will still print the truth, whether it annoys the advertisers or not. But how is that really going to work if the advertiser was sold editorial coverage as part of their advertising deal? The advertiser is definitely not going to pay their bills if the articles they were promised turn out to be against them. So, in reality, there will be pressure on the journalist to pull their punches, rather than report things as they are and provide the audience with an unbiased article.

From a reader’s perspective, the situation is even worse. You won’t be able to trust that the products, which you are being told are the best, aren’t just those from the company which paid the website for the most coverage. Why should you trust anything these websites say? And, unfortunately, if enough websites have this attitude, how will you know which ones to trust, if any at all? You might become entirely disillusioned with the Web.

This is the crisis journalism currently faces, and it needs to be rooted out. Right now, some advertisers are regularly favouring websites which sell editorial along with advertising. Why wouldn’t they? They get more for their money. But in the long run this is selling the product-buying public down the river.

When reading information from the Web, it’s very easy to treat it as a level playing field, because you can’t always tell if one very well-coded website is actually run by a clever 19-year-old in his bedroom, whilst another more clunky one is the result of a respected publisher which hasn’t quite got grips with Web technology yet. And the 19-year-old really could be doing more thorough testing and writing better articles than the lumbering old publishing company.

Nevertheless you, as web readers, need to be aware of what could be going on behind the scenes, and if a website looks fishy, make sure word gets around. Post on forums, blog it, make your own YouTube video. But this linking of editorial and advertising must be nipped in the bud before it’s too late. Otherwise, this fantastic democratic Web medium will actually be a puppet of the company with the biggest bucks, and you won’t be able to trust anything you read at all.

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Good read
By Ringold on 10/31/2007 4:27:55 PM , Rating: 2
You might become entirely disillusioned with the Web.

Sort of like.. CNN, Fox, etc.

Definitely an intereting read. I think your suggestion at the end has been occuring in the enthusiast community for quite a while; friends don't let friends rely on reviews from THG, for example. On the other hand, HardOCP throws itself on its sword with regularity to maintain its vision of quality reviews while other sites, such as BitTech, abandon [H]'s methods as being too expensive. If not for community forums I'd of actually been under the mistaken impression THG is anything other than a shill.

Your point about a website also brings to mind the fact that some of the best PSU reviews and custom-made coolers come from sites that are straight out of 1999, minus the rotating "Under Construction" gif.

The only bad part about it is that one has to pay fairly good attention to community forums to keep abreast of the prevailing opinions of various sites quality.. which I for one no longer have time to do. That's at least partly why I come here, hoping such important information is reported.

If I had any other complaint about web journalism it may be anonymity. If a journalist went out of their way to misrepresent, or lie, I'd hope they got blackballed from employment at reputable publications. On the great "democratic" intarweb, such people can simply change or hide their identity. This goes back to the CNN & Fox reference; one can't particularly trust any of them, but internet sources I trust even less -- at least until I get to know them, but that in itself isn't cheap in terms of time.

RE: Good read
By caboosemoose on 10/31/2007 5:57:34 PM , Rating: 2
HardOCP throws itself on its sword with regularity to maintain its vision of quality reviews while other sites, such as BitTech, abandon [H]'s methods as being too expensive.

Sometimes one sees a statement so unfounded it makes one's piss boil. This is one of them. I happen to know the present and past editors of Bit-Tech and they are both among the most decent web journalist on the planet, period.

Where on earth do you get the idea that Bit-Tech is bent?

There is some dodgy shit going on and one UK site in particular is extremely, but it begins with an H and it certainly ain't Bit-tech.

As for HardOCP, I don't know Kyle and I won't comment on his ethics other than to say he clearly has a lumbering ego that he struggles to contain.

RE: Good read
By James Holden on 10/31/2007 6:09:51 PM , Rating: 2
It hard to say. I sort of respect Kyle for attempting to change the methodology, but his testing is way too subjective. Coupled with the fact that the conclusions almost never line up with the actual results, I have trouble championing his cause.

BitTech has done a good job of balancing quantity and quality. I think TechReport is still the best site out there right now, but they dont review enough to dethrone AnandTech.

RE: Good read
By caboosemoose on 10/31/2007 6:36:02 PM , Rating: 3
I wasn't talking about outright review quality - though I happen to think some of HardOCPs testing methods are pure lunacy. I was reacting to what appeared to be an inference that Bit-tech has questionable ethics.

However, I agree that Tech Report is excellent. Anand isnt too bad, but they do cock it up a fair bit and they also harbour some pretty obvious biases.

RE: Good read
By Ringold on 10/31/2007 8:23:54 PM , Rating: 3
Oh, chill the hell out. What did I say? I said they stopped doing those types of reviews because it was too expensive.

October 21, 2005, they adopt the [H]ardOCP method.

Now, I seem to recall originally there having been another column explaining why they abandoned it in full, though all I can find now are these links:

Translation: We can't afford to spend the time necessary to create on our own those type of benchmarks.

As some people said there, that's fine! This debate has raged through the enthusiast community already; there is room for both types, as they both tell you something about the hardware.

Where the hell did I say they are "bent"? Where? That's right. I didn't. I happen, in fact, to agree with you that it's a decent site.

All I simply said was that the [H] crew throws its self on its sword and absorbs any cost it can to supply what it feels are the best, most relevant benchmarks it can. It's cost them dearly at times -- such as not backing down from a certain lawsuit from those Phantom console folk or their valiant effort, possibly the only major one on the internet, to provide regular full system reviews of prebuilt machines (which ended up losing them, if I recall, tens of thousands of dollars). Kyle is also, perhaps due to that glorious ego you noted, is happy to absorb a public firestorm if he thinks he's doing the right thing. Whether or not you like their benchmarks or not, I don't see how their commitment is in question.

Just so I don't have to say it again: I do not question Bit-Tech's credibility. Those are words you put in my mouth. er, keyboard.

RE: Good read
By caboosemoose on 11/1/2007 6:00:49 PM , Rating: 1
Chill the hell out yourself poontang!

The context of this article and the discussion attached to it is pretty clear - journalistic ethics. If you were not bringing that into question with regard to Bit-Tech I fail to see why you even brought them up. Unless of course your post was consciously and willfully tangential.

And if [H] is so bloody fantastic, what the rubbery fuck happened with the Quad-FX review? Eh? That particular article hardly screams unbiased, squeaky-clean journalism.

Please show me one sentence on Bit-tech that comes close to being as ludicrous as that entire review.

RE: Good read
By Ringold on 11/1/2007 11:43:43 PM , Rating: 2
Oh, stop trolling already.

I for one see commitment to perceived quality of benchmarks as being of critical importance in terms of ethics in the hardware community; I'd like to see you suggest otherwise! Given that the vast majority of the enthusiast community was up in arms over IQ tricks in drivers inserted to try to game canned benchmarks not all that long ago I think you'd have a hard time suggesting otherwise. Benchmarking is the very crux of all hardware reviews. What else do such websites exist for? Discussion of how pretty the reviewers faces look on a freshly lapped IHS?

As for their Quad-FX review..

Quite simply put, the AMD 4X4 system is using two times the power to achieve comparable multithreaded results.

On the multitasking side, it is hard for us to see real world benefits of a Quad FX system when compared to an Intel Core 2 Quad.

The Core 2 Extreme X6800 with its superior core clock speeds cleans up all of our gaming benchmarks , with the QX6700 and FX-74 a ways behind.

What is even more disturbing is the power consumption of our Quad FX at idle. At idle it pulled more than 2X the amount of power needed for our Intel QX6700 system. The Quad FX was using 400 watts at idle! This alone is a enough to kill any but the best “550w” power supplies over time.

Examining performance per watt, AMD’s Quad FX with FX-74 processors is an utter failure compared to an of Intel’s quad-core QX6700 systems.

There is just no way to classify the AMD Quad FX as anything but expensive.

If you are wanting to buy a quad-core machine now with no regards to upgrading to an octo-core platform later, you would be remiss to not invest in the Intel QX6700.The QX6700 is cheaper, uses much less power, and will give you marginally better performance.

The Quad FX ain’t your momma’s PC.

Nice shot at manufacturing controvery. He states the respect that the system was due given its performance, but clearly states repeatedly is pathetic value to the consumer, save perhaps for AMD-only fans.

I find your FUD, frankly, pathetic and wholly unsubstantiated. If you want to spread FUD I'm sure you can mix in quite well at Huffington Post or some far right-wing blog worried about guns and gays.

You did, however, miss an opportunity to lambast Scott Unzickker's rather biased assault on not just Vista but the enthusiast community at large. Of course, you probably know you wouldn't get much traction there, since even Kyle threw him under the bus.

And of course, still probably don't want to talk about this very much either:

$150,000 is no small sum of treasure spent just to stand by ones guns when Kyle called a duck a duck. He probably could of recanted and got on with life instead of allowing [H] to wither from inattention but he took the high road.

This will be my last post responding to your.. I'll be undiplomatic, as is my style, and call them lies. You'd of had better luck defending THG, since I really did question their ethics (as have many).

Feel free to have the last flame.

RE: Good read
By caboosemoose on 11/3/2007 8:19:32 AM , Rating: 2
Feel free to have the last flame.

No thanks, Kyle. I'll leave you to insult your own readers on your own forum, as seems to be an occasional hobby of yours. An occupational hazard of what appears to be a dangerously swollen ego (which of course explains the Infinium Labs escapade, too), I presume.

RE: Good read
By TwistyKat on 11/1/2007 11:33:48 AM , Rating: 2
I think Kyle is a jerk and I stopped reading his site years ago.

RE: Good read
By Tim Smalley on 11/1/2007 7:55:46 AM , Rating: 2
On the other hand, HardOCP throws itself on its sword with regularity to maintain its vision of quality reviews while other sites, such as BitTech, abandon [H]'s methods as being too expensive.

Hey Ringold,

Just for the record, we abandoned it (to my pain) because of my change in role. When I used to test graphics cards manually, it'd take me out of action for a week at a time and I cannot afford to do that now that I am Editor of bit-tech, because I have to run the site, even though I would love to continue doing so. It was not a financial decision, it was a decision of whether I wanted to continue writing graphics reviews, or whether I wanted to palm it off to someone else.

Of course, the easy answer would be to employ someone else to write those reviews - or at least do the testing for them - but I really wanted to continue writing the reviews and I felt that by doing a massive amount of testing anyway (some automated, some still manual at various resolutions, AA/AF settings), I'd still portray the same information, just in a slightly different way. :-)


RE: Good read
By Ringold on 11/1/2007 12:47:53 PM , Rating: 2
Thanks, Tim, for the response. That's all I was really saying in recognition that it eats mountains of time. Kyle has Brent Justice, Mark Warner and Matthew Krysiak all doing reviews, so of course they can throw gobs of time at it. I never doubted the integrity of Bit-Tech, I'm sure it's just as strong as [H]'s and others, and not sure where my random detractor got that idea from. I don't even really mean to take too much away from the method you and everyone else use, I just merely used it as a device to point out [H]'s willingness to absorb whatever cost to stick by its guns, whatever it feels its guns are.

I regret really bringing it up, probably reveals my nearly decade long [H] fandom (and my resulting confidence in them) and unnecessarily opens the benchmarking debate.. Both methods clearly give information about the product. If that weren't so, Brent wouldn't bother with apples-to-apples.

Bit-Tech, Tech Report, SPCR, Anandtech, all solid places. I recommend 'em all to everybody, all with different strengths.

RE: Good read
By caboosemoose on 11/3/2007 8:26:49 AM , Rating: 2
I never doubted the integrity of Bit-Tech, I'm sure it's just as strong as [H]'s and others, and not sure where my random detractor got that idea from.

Because you made a negative comment about Bit-Tech in a discussion thread concerning journalistic ethics. Is it really so hard to see?

I too am sorry if I weighed in too heavily. But context matters and I didn't think it was fair comment.

RE: Good read
By James Morris on 11/2/2007 8:31:32 AM , Rating: 2
I know what you mean about Fox. That documentary from a few years back - Outfoxed - really showed how much they are puppets of the GOP.

RE: Good read
By Ringold on 11/2/2007 3:09:46 PM , Rating: 2
It would seem the only outlet that isn't rabidly partisan would be.. *drum roll* PBS!

Not that PBS is immune, they pulled something over political pressure not long ago, but this was an interesting study:

I've never actually watched PBS' evening news, so can't vouch for them, but I'll have to watch and see what it's like.

When it came to tone, however, the NewsHour upheld its pattern found in other research for more neutral coverage than other media.[2] More than two-thirds of NewsHour stories were neutral towards the primary figure, regardless of party.

It also wasn't a surprise, but the lack of coverage of issues was pretty clear. What's an election if not issues? Better ratings to talk about how Guliani's kids hate him, I suppose, rather than the merits of obscure tax policy. Sad, though.

RE: Good read
By KristopherKubicki on 11/2/2007 3:18:59 PM , Rating: 1
The bias in PBS's Frontline is so overbearing that it's too hard to watch sometimes. Since the P in PBS stands for public, their coverage always goes to the highest bidder -- the station has no other way to support itself.

That being said, shows like Frontline, Nature and Nova are brilliantly produced and directed -- Edward Norton narrating the history of non-native species and their impacts on the environment? Totally brilliant!

However, they just don't really give a full depiction of what's going on.

RE: Good read
By Ringold on 11/2/2007 5:44:34 PM , Rating: 2
It referred to NewsHour in the study; I assume that's different?

I'll save myself time and not bother with Frontline then. If Frontline is so bad, though, makes one wonder if bias doesn't spill in to the others.

"I want people to see my movies in the best formats possible. For [Paramount] to deny people who have Blu-ray sucks!" -- Movie Director Michael Bay
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