the audit

Business Insider’s Barcelona Junket

February 18, 2011

Victoria Barret reports on the nice little deal that Dan Frommer has going on in Barcelona: “Samsung was generous enough to sponsor our trip”, in the words of Frommer himself.

Barret is reasonably sympathetic, and likes the fact that Frommer inserts a disclaimer about how he’s “feeling pretty warm and fuzzy about Samsung right now” into every post from Barcelona:

Let’s be clear, here. Samsung is buying influence. If they didn’t think they were, why would they bother buying journalists’ airplane tickets and putting them up in hotels? (Frommer, I’m told, is not the only one being “sponsored”.)…

SAI’s business model simply doesn’t pay for flights and hotel stays. Frommer will bring insight from Barcelona back to New York. That’s good for everyone…

Frommer’s earlier posts on Samsung don’t stand out as fawning… He deserves credit for disclosure, too.

I’m not nearly as sanguine as Barret about all this. For one thing, this is editorial, not advertising. It’s conceivable Frommer would have written exactly the same thing had he not been “sponsored” by Samsung, but we’ll never know. And since he is being sponsored by Samsung, this now looks highly dubious:

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But it gets worse than that. For one thing, Frommer’s not just scrounging up whatever’s necessary to get him to the conference and report. He’s was flown over “in posh business class,” which almost certainly means posh hotels and expensive jamón iberico as well. Samsung is doing its utmost to buy his goodwill: why is he letting them get away with it?

On top of that, Samsung is loving the ubiquitous disclaimer — it provides fantastic free marketing for them in every post. Frommer might think he’s somehow neutralizing the junket by disclosing it; in fact he’s giving Samsung vast amounts of exactly what they want most.

Most tellingly of all, Samsung isn’t really “sponsoring” Frommer at all — especially not if, as seems logical and as Barret reports, other bloggers at the conference are getting the same deal and not disclosing it. Sponsorship involves a trade of some description: we give you money, you give us some kind of ad space or exposure. If Samsung is getting nothing explicit in return, then it must be getting something implicit instead.

Failure to disclose freebies like this is very bad; disclosing them, however, isn’t much better. So the best solution is to simply refuse to take them. But that’s hard for someone like Henry Blodget, the chap in charge of Business Insider, who writes:

Our policy is to take these opportunities case-by-case. If we think travel or an event partially paid for by a company will help us produce content that our readers love, we’ll be happy to consider it. If we think it will lead to us producing crap or fluff or be a waste of time, we won’t do it.

In this case, the Barcelona event is an excellent mobile conference, and I was confident Dan would produce great stuff while he was there. So we were happy to take Samsung up on its generous offer to airmail him over.

I think the honest conversation would go something like this:

Samsung: Henry, are you sending anybody to Barcelona this year?

Henry: No, we don’t have budget for that.

Samsung: Well, if you send someone, we’ll happily buy adspace alongside their content. Here’s a commitment for $10,000 if you do.

Henry: Thanks! We now have the money to send Dan to Barcelona on our own dime, and we’re more than happy for him to go over and generate the pageviews you’re buying ads against.

Samsung: You’re welcome.

That kind of thing is entirely kosher, and yet Samsung doesn’t seem to like to operate that way. The fact that they don’t — and TBI doesn’t — implies a certain sleaziness. It’s not a huge deal, but it does mark TBI as being a little more ethically flexible than most reputable media outlets.

(This post is cross-posted at

Felix Salmon is a financial writer, editor, and podcaster. A former finance blogger for Reuters and Condé Nast Portfolio, his work can be found at publications including Slate and Wired, as well as his own Substack newsletter.