San Francisco Mag, Conflicts and Yelp

Some months ago I was interviewed by a freelance writer doing a piece about Yelp for San Francisco, a local arts, fashion and lifestyle magazine that writes a fair amount about local restaurants. The interview was pretty normal and I expressed all the normal opinions I would express about the site.

Some months later I got a call from a fact checker who was verifying my quotes and statements prior to publication. Almost everything she read me was either inaccurate or out of context. I reiterated my views and she said she would convey them to her editor. (In fairness, I’m somewhat long-winded and this sort of thing occasionally happens when quotes and ideas get edited down. But the striking thing was that it was all pretty inaccurate.)

The article was published a few days ago and it was sent to me by someone and characterized as a “hit piece.” Then it was discovered that the writer has been a freelancer for several Yelp competitors (and the magazine is something of a competitor). I wasn’t going to write about this but two items have emerged that discuss the apparent “conflict of interest” between the magazine/writer and coverage of Yelp:

Having been a freelancer years ago myself I see the issue as somewhat more gray than black and white. The real question — and we’ll never know the answer — is: did the writer and/or the magazine go in with the idea of writing an unfavorable piece?

It’s not illegtimate for San Francisco to write such an article; SF is Yelp’s “home town” and its strongest market. Newspapers write about search engines, Craigslist, etc. with regularity. But the fact that the magazine may be see itself threatened financially by the shift to the Internet and food sites like Yelp in particular, combined with the hiring of someone who has a fairly recent history with direct Yelp competitor Zagat, creates a strong appearance of a conflict.

(Now this isn’t a Supreme Court nomination so it’s ultimately not a big deal — it’s just a single article.)

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7 Responses to “San Francisco Mag, Conflicts and Yelp”

  1. Bruce Kelley Says:

    Greg,
    We pitched Karen Solomon the story with a big question mark—is Yelp hype worthy?—because it’s of interest to our readers, as you point out. She no longer writes for Zagat, and had no reaction to Yelp when we pitched it to her. (She’s written for all the city’s sites so is quite agnostic.) She just reported the story we pitched her. The truth is, San Francisco magazine has so little involvement in the web that it just never occurs to me. We are in a different industry, with a perfectly successful print business model. So there’s been a lot of ruminating about motives that just don’t exist…ruminating allowed by us failing (a dumb oversight) to mention that Karen has written for every site in town. My question to you is: was the piece wrong in its analysis of Yelp’s business prospects? And did we ultimately mischaracterize your point of view?
    Bruce Kelley, editor in chief, San Francisco magazine

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks for the reply. The quotes/positions that were read to me by the fact checker were inaccurate or skewed in directions that I didn’t intend. I was surprised actually.

    For example, I said that some local businesses might be getting sufficient traffic/leads from Yelp, such that they wouldn’t need to advertise. However that was reflected back to me as a blanket statement suggesting that their ad model was unlikely to succeed.

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    In addition, this . . .

    “They have to reinvent the wheel in every new market they enter,” he says. “It’s going to be hard to replicate their Bay Area success.”

    Is a mischaracterization.

    I said that local sites in general, not just Yelp, have to replicate their individual market success to varying degrees in new markets. But I also said that Yelp would have some “brand equity” and momentum going into new markets given word of mouth and coverage.

    I said while this is a challenging proposition for all cityguides and local sites, I didn’t say or imply that they wouldn’t be able to replicate success in new markets.

    It seems to me there are no more stories left to write on yelp and so this was probably more of a “contrarian” angle and that my quotes were used as support for the notion that Yelp may not succeed elsewhere.

  4. Ellen K. Says:

    Hey if according to her online resume Karen works for SfStation.com currently (a direct Yelp competitor) and was working with Citysearch and Gayot at the same time she worked for Zagat… why do people keep spinning this like Zagat is behind the curtain? Last I checked, Citysearch and SFstation are true online Yelp competitors not a company that makes guidebooks with little online presence.

  5. Bruce Kelley Says:

    Greg, orry to leave you feeling mischaracterized, but as I read your comments and re-read the piece it seems like you are basically agreeing with what the piece says in paragraph after paragraph: that Yelp has great buzz but faces a challenging road ahead despite its strong brand and extensive media coverage. You are confirming your quote that “It’s going to be hard to replicate their Bay Area success.” And while you wish we also quoted you saying something like “….but Yelp is well positioned to do so….” the piece as a whole makes that point perfectly clear, even if it doesn’t attribute it to you. (The piece says: “Yelp’s growth appears to bear out its early hype. . . . it’s not unprecedented for a site that shows its Bay Area roots to prosper outside the region . . . . Yelp’s founders may someday make money. “)

    We were being contrarian by saying that Yelp’s glass can just as easily look half empty as half full. But it was not irresponsible reporting; in fact, in looking over a lot that’s been written about Yelp’s prospects, it seems like the most responsible piece that’s been written. And as for your 50 words of comment in the piece, all I can say is that that it’s almost impossible for a source to not feel short-shrifted in 50 words, even if the piece as a whole makes the same points. That’s short form magazine journalism for you.
    Bruce Kelley, editor in chief, San Francisco

  6. Greg Sterling Says:

    I rarely get into any kind of back and forth with publishers or writers. I’m very realistic and accepting of the circumstances in these situations. Being mischaracterized or misquoted is a frequent event and I don’t pay attention generally. The reason I comment at all is that others (ValleyWag) brought up the issue and the fact that I was struck that the remarks read to me were incorrect in tone or factually incorrect.

    I’m not trying to deny that Yelp has a challenge ahead. Clearly it does, as do all the sites in this category. But the site has had considerable success where others have had limited success.

  7. The Overnight Broadcast › Shocker: Professional reviewer doesn’t care for Yelp Says:

    [...] 1/31/08: Greg Sterling was interviewed for the article, said a follow-up call from a fact-checker found his words being [...]

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