March 17, 2008

Did ReadBurner Acquisition Cause Conflict of Interest for Mashable?

On Friday, I was excited to announce that Alexander Marktl's excellent shared links aggregator and ranking site, ReadBurner, had been resurrected, following its acquisition by Adam Ostrow of Mashable, Drew Olanoff, and Eric Kerr. But given the social link aggregation space is a growing one with multiple entrants, including RSSMeme, Feedheads, LinkRiver, Shared Reader and others, some were concerned that Mashable's involvement in the deal would spell bias in their coverage, essentially compromising their editorial independence.

So rather than guess at what might happen going forward, I asked Mashable myself, sending an e-mail to Adam Ostrow, reporter Mark Hopkins, and Pete Cashmore. I specifically asked: "How do you think readers or competitors to ReadBurner could be assured that there's no funny stuff?" and "Is Adam now off the case for link aggregators?"

Unsurprisingly, the Mashable team had considered the potential for assumed bias prior to announcing the acquisition, and Ostrow said he was specifically hesitant to post the news on Mashable, "given how much I despise the conflicts of interest that some others engage in," he said. Ostrow also said that he was in fact going to remove himself from commenting on direct competitors, like RSSMeme and LinkRiver, and doesn't expect to be blogging on Mashable about ReadBurner much in the future.

In the event that there is announcement-worthy news on ReadBurner, Ostrow anticipates passing the news to Hopkins (or another Mashable reporter) and letting them determine its impact.

He adds, "As someone that sorts through hundreds of BS press releases on a daily basis, I think I'll have a pretty good idea of what's newsworthy and what's not, and limit myself to announcing stuff only when we have something cool to show off."

Hopkins also mentioned that with the ReadBurner acquisition, the Mashable team is especially sensitive to not overhype the announcement, and also to extend coverage to others in the space. A good example of this was Friday's story on RSSMeme's new widget, which Mark said was posted partly "to show we weren't going to play unfairly." He adds, "There is usually a ceiling to how high a certain niche can grow, but ReadBurner and RSSMeme both are nowhere near that ceiling in terms of users or traffic. These types of stories of this class of startup always generate a lot of interest and traffic for us, and if it builds interest in the genre, that's also good business for Adam."

Despite the fact it might be good business for Ostrow and his new ReadBurner team, Mashable, on its face, looks to be doing the right thing in addressing potential claims of bias. They anticipate some activities need to be "slightly adjusted to avoid an appearance of impopriety," Hopkins said.

The involvement of a blogger/journalist like Ostrow in a business transaction like the ReadBurner acquisition is unusual, but one I believe was born out of belief in a new technology trend, and love of ReadBurner specifically, one I wish I personally could have taken on, to be honest, if only I had the budget, and the technical know-how. While others in this space may potentially question Mashable's bias here, I'm not all that concerned, and we will have to watch and see their future coverage to see if they display transparency and objectivity.

Of course... I'm always willing to break stories here if folks are worried... What do you think? Was a line crossed, and have Mashable's comments assured you that everything will be on the up and up?