I think that Sullivan thinks that the DealBook conference, far from being a smart way of monetizing the NYT brand, was meant to be some kind of public grilling: a live Meet The Press for the Wall Street set. Such an event would certainly be interesting, although it’s hard to see why any potential interviewee would say yes to such a format: while politicians have to be out in front of the public, CEOs do not. And in any case, it’s far from certain that anybody would actually get more value out of watching hard questions than they currently do out of watching relative softballs. Last year, for instance, I moderated a panel where I asked a pretty tough question of NYSE CEO Duncan Niederauer; he got a bit flustered and angry, but didn’t really say much of substance, and I can’t say that the audience was particularly well served by that question.
Sullivan’s next beef is even less comprehensible:
More than anything, DealBook is one of those creatures of 21st-century journalism - as much about “brand” as anything else.
Sullivan never explains how this distinguishes 21st-century journalism from 20th-century journalism or even 19th-century journalism; it seems to me that journalism has always been about building brands, and probably always will be. But Sullivan, with her creatures and her scare quotes, clearly thinks there’s something newfangled and distasteful going on here: I would love to see a future post where she explains exactly what that might be. In this post, she just counts logos, which tells us exactly nothing about anything. But she did worry about the fact that the conference was sponsored:
Such sponsorships are another creature of 21st-century newspapering, eroding the sharp line between advertising and editorial content.
Huh? This I just don’t get at all. The editorial content surrounding the conference was clear: there was a DealBook newspaper supplement, and a live blog, and I daresay there might even be a separate article or two somewhere on the NYT website. But all of that content had exactly the same line between editorial and advertising that any other NYT editorial content has. Yes, some of the ads were for BlackBerry, which sponsored the conference and I’m sure got a big package deal. But I don’t see BlackBerry infesting the editorial content anywhere; the BlackBerry product demonstration, for instance, didn’t even get a mention in the live blog.
I suspect that what Sullivan is implying here is that the conference itself is editorial content, and that since Blackberry was on stage during the conference, that makes it seem editorially-endorsed, somehow. That’s a stretch: it’s exactly the same adjacency tactic which drives the age-old model of having advertisements in the newspaper. When the BlackBerry presentation is introduced by the Chief Advertising Officer of nytimes.com, it’s pretty clear which side of the editorial/advertising divide it lies.
Sullivan wraps up her complaints — the things she says “can’t help but make me a little queasy” — thusly:
Given the lunchtime rollout of a new Blackberry device, the overall friendly questioning of prominent newsmakers, the reception afterward - featuring wine, hors d’oeuvres and the incessant rubbing of journalistic and corporate elbows — the word “adversarial” did not come to mind. Nor did the word “watchdog.”
The fact is that Sullivan could pick any NYT story at random, and the chances that she would consider it “adversarial”, or performing any kind of “watchdog” role, would be very low indeed. There are always some stories which fall into that category, of course, but very few. On the front page of the website right now, for instance, is an assiduously-reported piece by Annie Lowrey, one of the presenters at the DealBook conference, headlined “High-Tech Factories Built to Be Engines of Innovation”. There’s not a hint of the adversarial or the watchdog about it, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable, and I’m sure that Sullivan doesn’t feel queasy when she reads it. So why is she holding the DealBook conference to a different standard?
And is Sullivan really going to complain about the fact that a conference, where some attendees paid $1,500 apiece, dared to feature wine and hors d’oeuvres at its reception? Journalists rub elbows with this crowd every day — that’s their job — and it’s utterly commonplace for there to be some kind of wine and food in the vicinity.