A press release arrived yesterday with a headline that was clearly intended to stir the pot: “Audioholics Launches Controversial New Online Storefront”. According to the release, the controversial part of the announcement was that this new online store offers free extended warranties, free shipping, and lifetime technical support. Certainly, these features could be “controversial” for other online and brick-and-mortar retailers because they will be hard pressed to match these benefits.
But coming from a publication media background, I find the announcement controversial for an entirely different reason. The release touts the Audioholics Web site as a source for “no-nonsense product reviews“. How can a site with this goal manage the obvious conflict of interest involved in selling the products that they review? According to the release, “Audioholics will continue maintaining its unparalleled content integrity by keeping the day-to-day management of both business models completely separate.” That’s all well and good, but will they refuse to sell a product on the store side if the editorial side gives it a bad review? No matter which way they choose, it leaves the door open to questioning the motives of one or the other department.
When it comes to objective reporting, you cannot serve two masters. As a freelance reviewer, I always placed the reader first, even ahead of the magazine company that was paying me. And I learned early on that it’s not the conflict of interest that matters, it’s the appearance of a conflict of interest that matters. For example, there were many instances where an ad for a given product appeared directly across from a positive review that I wrote. Many readers immediately assumed that the review was bought and paid for by the manufacturer. (The fact is that the ad pages “closed” much later than the editorial, so the advertising department knew what the editorial content was going to be, and they were able to go out and sell the facing page for that issue.)
I wish Audioholics well with their new venture, but it will be up to their readers and buyers to determine just how controversial this project turns out to be.