The Pay-to-Play Controversy

Dave Winer started an important conversation about the increasingly common practice by event producers who “sell” their keynote-presentation slots to paying sponsors. Marc Canter weighed in as well. This is a gnarly problem that even affects us here at The Conversations Network in two ways.

We like to think of ourselves as the NPR of podcasting. (Okay, so may be NPR is the NPR of podcasting, but you get the idea.) Contrary to how some event producers see us, we’re not a publishing service for hire. We’re a magazine, if you prefer, with our own editorial controls. We select the conferences to cover, they don’t select us. In our written contract with the event producers, we have the right to select which sessions we’ll publish based on editorial or audio-quality criteria. We frequently skip presentations that don’t meet our standards. We like to think we take the high road on this, including not publishing sessions that are nothing more than corporate pitches.

It’s a challenge, however. First, as Marc points out, some valuable conferences such as Supernova and ETech exist solely to introduce new technologies. Should we not publish them because of this? Where does one draw the line between presenting new technologies as opposed to vendor pitches? I’ve tried all sorts of guidelines such as not allowing CEOs or VPs or Marketing, but that doesn’t work when the company is a one-person startup. At the end of the day, it comes down to old-fashioned editorial judgment. Is the value of the content high enough to justify publishing it? As a proxy for the listener, would we rather hear the presentation or would we be offended by its commercial nature? The sponsors with the deep pockets and who sponsor these events are often those with the least newsworthy developments to report, but that’s not always the case. We rarely get complaints when we include a presentation from some tiny Web 2.0 startup. But if a large public company has a major announcement, we’re much more likely to take flak. One could say, of course, that the big guy has all sorts of ways to get the message out, whereas the little guy does not. But is vendor size alone (or at all) a reasonable criterion? Probably not. We can’t merely eliminate all vendors since most of the greatest minds work for someone. And don’t academic authors also have something to sell? Sure they do. It’s a tough call.

And that brings us to the second and (for us) more difficult problem. As we expand The Conversations Network to include additional channels, we’re dependent upon many of these same corporate sponsors to pay the bills. We’re facing the same challenges that our event-producer partners face. What should we do when company XYZ sponsors both an event and The Conversations Network channel that publishes that event? If we don’t publish the XYZ CEO’s keynote, XYZ will be pissed, but that’s a risk we have to take, and we need to make it abundantly clear to XYZ that sponsorship is not a quid pro quo that we’ll necessarily include the CEO’s session. We might take some intermediate position. One option I’ve used only once is to publish all of the sessions from an event, but only to highlight (on the home page, for example) those that meet our editorial criteria. In other cases, we’ve opted to not publish the sessions at all.

The key for The Conversations Network is that as a non-profit we exist for the listeners and the public. We have no sharholders. It’s one rare case in which being a non-profit makes some of the decisions simpler. We still need the sponsorships and underwriters, but it’s somewhat easier to draw that line in the sand. Now the question is how successful we’ll be at not crossing our own line. It’s a question I imagine we’ll ask ourselves frequently and on an on-going basis.

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