Joystiq’s Vladmir Cole on Conflicts of Interest

In May of this year, Joystiq co-managing editor Vladmir Cole went from posting multiple times a day to not posting at all, with nary a word of goodbye to the blog’s readership. Last week, he returned to Joystiq posting with equally little explanation, until today.

Cole, a student at U. Penn’s Wharton School of Business, spent the summer as an intern for Microsoft’s games group, “learning all about the business of casual games,” as he puts it. Cole went into hiatus during the internship because he felt it presented a conflict of interest, which Joystiq prohibits. “Now that my internship’s over, I’m happy and eager to return to the blog world while I finish off my MBA,” he explained. “Just to keep a good wall between my summer experience and this whole blog thing, you’ll probably find me steering clear of certain topics that I know a little bit too much about.”

Interviewing Cole about this situation presents a bit of a conflict of interest for me, as I recently started writing for Joystiq as a freelance blogger. I learned about Cole’s hiatus in the middle of the summer, before I was entertaining any job offers from Joystiq. Before today, I didn’t know the specifics of where Cole was working, just that it was a video game company on the west coast that presented a conflict of interest. I kept Cole’s situation a secret until now as a professional courtesy and under the understanding that he would reveal the details of the situation once the hiatus was complete.

The following is an instant messenger conversation with Cole about his hiatus and how it will affect his blogging at Joystiq.

Kyle Orland: So, I guess my first question is, why disclose this now? Why not months ago, when you started your hiatus?

Vladmir Cole: I actually wanted to, but ran out of time between E3 and the start of my internship. I was in Europe from E3 until the start of my internship (actually arrived in Seattle on a plane from Italy at 3 a.m. the morning my internship was to start), and never got around to putting up a post.

KO: Then why not shortly afterwards?

VC: Shortly after the internship started?

KO: yeah

VC: I didn’t want to make a single post on Joystiq after the internship started. That would have triggered a paycheck from AOL to me.

KO: When did your internship finish?

VC: Tuesday (Aug 22)

KO: So you made two posts on Joystiq after the internship was finished but before the disclosure post went up?

VC: Correct.

KO: Why the gap?

VC: I don’t see that gap as a huge issue. What I think is a bigger issue is that most bloggers (self included) are inherently conflicted. Almost nobody says, “blogging is my career” (because it generally doesn’t pay enough). From the first moment that I started at Joystiq, blogging’s always been a way to stay educated on an industry I eventually intended to work in. I’d say that all non-career bloggers have that sort of inherent conflict built into their relationship.

There are very few truly “clean” games journalists. I think Stephen Totilo (MTV) and Chris Grant (AOL / Joystiq) are exceptions to the rule. They’re truly paid to write about games. Most others have some other motive, even if it’s just the desire to brag to friends about attending E3.

KO: So you see Joystiq as a springboard into the industry?

VC: “Springboard” isn’t the right term. I see writing as an essential part of educating myself about an industry. Public writing is even better, because readers keep me on my toes. Joystiq readers come from all walks of life, and often come from the games industry itself. If I screwed up, they let me know, often using some pretty strong language. I love that .

KO: You said you think almost all game journalists are inherently conflicted? Can you expand on that?

VC: Well, it’s necessary to distinguish between people who are paid to be full time journalists (Chris Grant, Stephen Totilo, Chris Morris) and those who are writing about games without getting paid enough to make a living off of it.

Examples of conflict:

Example 1: The blogger who gets paid peanuts but who uses his access to the games industry to improve his social standing among a group of friends. He loves the junkets, the E3s, the TGSs. He’s not going to do anything to piss off a company (including panning one of their products) because he wants this good thing, this access, to continue indefinitely.

Example 2: “Fanboys” (for lack of a nicer term) who start blogs simply to gain access to trade shows such as E3. They’ve got no interest in journalistic ethics. They run from booth to booth and for them it’s all about the schwag.

Example 3: (We’ve seen many, many examples of this type in the applications that we receive, by the way.) Those who blog because they think it’ll be a neat way for them to score review gear or games. They just want a free supply of game stuff, and are incentivized to write favorable reviews so that the PR reps they work with will keep the flow of free stuff coming.

KO: But professionals are above these conflicts?

VC: No — unfortunately. As a reporter at Bloomberg, I got extensive training on eliminating conflicts of interest. I wasn’t allowed to own stock in the companies I was writing about (or if I did, to I had to disclose such conflict). Too many games journalists are in this for the free stuff — the access, the parties — in short, the benefits that fall to them as individuals, rather than the opportunity to serve readers.

KO: And you’d include yourself in that group?

VC: I have always been uncomfortable with my conflict of interest. It’s why I never pitched the NYT or Wired with my stories, though I’m sure I could have been published there had I worked at it. It’s why I took on the task of writing the “Xbox 360 Annoyances” string of posts that had Xbox partisans blasting me what they saw as Sony-loving, Nintendo-hugging bias.

I forced myself to keep my own coverage balanced whenever possible, and I’m certain that if you were to conduct a full review of the body of stuff I’ve personally written, you’d find a good balance in my coverage.

KO: In your disclosure post, you said you’d be “steering clear of certain topics that I know a little too much about.” Does this mean all Microsoft news? Specific posts that relate directly to your internship?

VC: It means anything where I don’t feel I can be as objective as possible as a result of my experience. While I write for Joystiq, I’m trying to serve (entertain, educate, enlighten) the Joystiq reader. If my knowledge about or feelings on a topic interfere with my ability to write, I’d rather pass on that topic.

KO: In addition to direct posting, you also have managerial duties that affect the general editorial direction of the site. Do you think your experience at Microsoft will have an effect on this part of your job?

VC: I’ve always taken the approach that what Joystiq wants to do is hire people who can write well and who know how to find the right angles in a story. I leave it to individual writers about whether something should be covered, and what the angle should be. In a more hands-on editorial environment, editors assign writers topics to write on, sometimes pre-selecting the angle. I think that the hands-off approach is less problematic because the individual gets to choose what to write about, and I get to set a quality bar.

KO: You say in you disclosure post that getting paid by a company that you are currently covering is not allowed. What’s the difference if it’s a company you were recently paid by, or a company you are about to be paid by?

VC: I think being on two contracts, under two bosses is a bigger conflict. If a person is paid by two companies, he’s made promises to serve both. In most cases, he ends up serving neither quite as well as he would have were he working for just one of them.

KO: Do you think you’ll go back to work in the industry once you graduate?

VC: 100% certain.

KO: Is Microsoft a potential employer?

VC: Sure. As is Sony, Nintendo, Activision, THQ, EA, and any number of smaller companies. This is the classic example I mention above. Students intending to go to work in the industry are inherently conflicted and are problematic from a classic journalism view.

KO: Do you plan to make note of your experience working for Microsoft when you write posts about them?

VC: I like how Steve Rubel discloses his relationship with companies that Edelman currently works for. He notes current conflicts at the bottom of his blog posts.

The question is whether past experience is the conflict, or whether my general status as a job seeker in the industry is the conflict. If it’s past history, then we should all be linking to our resumes and giving a full history of which consoles we own and which we refuse to own.

KO: And if it’s general job seeker status?

VC: It’s a conflict, so yeah.

I actually like the idea of a profile for each Joystiq blogger that lists potential conflicts he/she might have. And if someone’s in it for the free games and industry events, list that too. =)

KO: So when can we expect to see such conflict profiles on Joystiq?

VC: We just dreamed of it right here, but I don’t see why we can’t get started on that this week. It’d be a blogging first, wouldn’t it?

KO: I think so. I guess this interview would go in mine =)

VC: hehe

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