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.)