There are worse places to be than where I’m camped out this week – Portugal (again, and I feel blessed to be back), where this time I’ll get to spend some time in Reguengos de Monsaraz, Lisbon, as well as getting back to the insanely gorgeous Douro and the lovely city of Porto.
The reason I’m back in this diverse winemaking region is that I’m being hired by a (rather large) Portuguese wine producer – well, technically I’m being hired by their PR agency – to pen posts for their U.S. blog. That blog (of course) will have no affiliation with 1WineDude.com apart from the guy writing the articles (me) and is going to be hosted separately. I actually don’t even have a log-in for the site yet, but the Portuguese approach things in a manner that is… well… let’s just a bit more laid back than what we Type-A, anal-retentive, uptight East Coasters are used to seeing.
Since I’ve been totally transparent since day one on this blog, and within the Going Pro series of articles in particular, I wanted to give you all the skinny on this gig of mine.
Let’s start by telling you that for the duration of my contract with said producer, there are two aspects of the contract that I hold as supremely important in governing how this deal is gonna go down:
- I’m not allowed to enter into any similar contracts with any other Portuguese wine producers (makes sense, but let’s just say there isn’t exactly a long line of Portuguese-speaking PR types knocking down my door), and
- The producer has agreed not to be mentioned in any context whatsoever (name, reference to wines, etc.) on 1WineDude.com (or my facebook and twitter accounts) for the duration of the contract.
That last condition was mine, and it serves as the “firewall” between what I’ll be doing specifically for their blog and the independent coverage of wine that I provide here…
Why am I doing this? Because the money is good and it’s an example of how people making a name for themselves in the world of on-line media can get exposed to opportunities they never would have envisioned or pursued on their own; there’s opportunity to learn a sh*tload about the Portuguese wine scene and up my global wine IQ; and it can be done as a completely separate endeavor to 1WineDude.com, keeping the necessary distance between them to ensure that 1WD content remains independent.
Will there be nay-sayers tossing out the “sell-out!” tag in my direction as a result of this? Probably, but I’m not sure the arguments would stand up to logical scrutiny (if I thought they would, I wouldn’t even be taking this gig!) and so I’m willing to take that risk. If there’s a conflict of interest there then it’s going to be so subliminal that I’d need a pricey therapist to help me identify it!
In fact, I have mixed feelings about the exclusion condition tat I added to the contract, because these people make some very good wine; in a way it sucks that I can’t share those recommendations with you here in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it seemed to me the safest way to approach it and so that’s why I added the contractual condition – and since it’s signed then that’s how things gotta be. It should go without saying, but I probably need to emphasize this anyway: my contract for this gig has no bearing on 1WineDude.com whatsoever – so you’ll be getting the same poorly-edited, shot-carelessly-from-the-hip, dime-store philosophizing wine coverage here that you’ve come to expect, with no editorial influence from ANY wine producers.
And so you won’t really be hearing any more about the gig here apart from occasional references in the context of my Going Pro series (i.e., if it turns out the gig totally sucks then you’ll get to read about the experience here in all of its sordid detail, apart from mentioning the producer’s name… until the contract term expires, that is!). I don’t anticipate anything like that happening, however – they (along with the PR agency) seem to have their act together so I might have to write fiction about how they made me sleep in scorpion-infested tents just to make it interesting. We’ll see.
This post has been… let’s politely call introspective so as not to hurt my feelings… BUT because I can’t help but to be transparent I wanted to make sure that you heard all of this here first, rather than stumbling upon something I wrote on a producer’s blog and thought “uhm… WTF?!??” As always, I welcome your thoughts (unless they’re about your digestion or personal hygiene issues)!
30 thoughts on “Going Pro: Workin’ For The Man (In Portugal)”
As a reader, I really appreciate you being forthright here. Like you said, being open about it upfront really helps your credibility, whereas if someone had discovered it independantly, you might have some 'splanin to do. Anyway, congratulations on the gig, sounds like a solid opportunity.
Also, is there anyway readers could get the name of the producer privately or are we going to have to wait until the end of the contract? Would be really curious to know who was savvy enough to pick you up and would love to give their wines a try.
Thanks for the disclosure. I'm all about people making money, but transparency is good. (You made the right call in not writing about the client in this blog while under contract.)
Congratulations. Well, if you are going pro, it means someone was eventually going to pay you for your work. I don't think too many will cry "sell-out", as you've been transparent about making a transition for some time now. I think the bigger questions relate to the future of all bloggers who want to turn pro, and those who already have… (this is going to be a fun debate)
1. It is easy to write that 1WD will remain completely independent, but what happens if in a few months some sort of scandal rocks the Portuguese wine world? How would your employer feel about you covering it on 1WD? How would your 1WD readers fell about you ignoring it?
2. How would you feel if Steve Heimoff or James Laube took a gig writing for a winery blog? Or was paid to show up to a release party and talk about the wines? Does that same level of required independence ever apply to an amateur blogger? Can you truly be both an independent amateur and a professional within the same industry?
PAWINEGUY took the questions right out of my head.
It's good to be up front, Joe, but, as PAWINEGUY points out, that does not foretell the future. If in your future you must choose between conflict of interest or not, I am sure that you will make the right choice.
Generally, in the professional journalism world, reporters and critics on payroll cannot work for vendors or potential vendors. Period. But in the blogging world, not many are on payroll, which may or may not become a problem.
I'm freelance, guys – not on payroll. I appreciate the distinction and the questions.Obviously I cannot foretell the future either, so I can only submit my past history on this blog (and my transparency, and the “firewall” in the contract) as evidence that I won't be getting into conflict of interest territory.
Great questions – I agree the debate could get interesting!I think there are differences but we could use the same questions about mags taking winery ads (which I don't do on the blog) and blogs not or vice-versa. In those cases, the “firewalls” also exist, and so I was kind of following the same model (in the case of the ads, there is no way to make such a firewall so I *have* to refuse them outright).
For what it's worth, I think the best way to maintain your independence is to NOT paint yourself into a corner with constant assertations of independence. You don't know what the next gig will bring (PA privatization), so just keep delivering entertaining content and don't protest too much. Look around at the industry blogs written by professionals who often reference their clients, bash people they don't like, including competitors, etc…
Good luck, looking forward to reading a lot of interesting opinions today.
I do congratulate you on your disclosure but it I agree that it will be difficult if a scandal errupts in Portuguese wine that requires commentary. including on your employer, on your independent blog. An issue so big you can't ignore it. After the contract is over will you be as hard on your employer as on other wine makers?
Tom – after the contract is over they're not my employer, so I'd say yes, in that circumstance I'd be treating them the same. Actually, if there wa a big scandal then I'd probably try to dissolve the contract if they happened to be involved. Interesting question but likely a very small % chance of the situation ever even happening.
Lucky it's Portugal though, a relatively small producer compared to, say, France, or the US. Taking those on with similar terms could have limited your output considerably.
So, if you DO get approached for any PR gigs in France or the US…
Just tell them to use the link above.
:) The thing is, there's no way I'd have time right now to do more than one of these gigs at a time. This one is really a unique proposition and I don't expect that I'd take a similar gig from another producer now and might not in the future unless the pot was really sweet (i.e., money and chance to learn new stuff about a wine region, etc.). I suspect this gig will be formative in terms of whether or not I want to do similar gigs, but I don't see these as being primary money-makers for me in the future – I've got my sights set on more independent stuff really.
Interestingly, I'm getting emails from other writers and wine personalities that have done similar stuff for producers and are congratulating me and reinforcing that I'm not selling-out, etc. But they're not commenting publicly here – I suppose they have their good reasons for that but it seems a bit odd that they're not doing it here int he comments as well. Not sure if that's a bad sign or not!
There is very good reason that they are not doing it here.
I didn't read any posts that I interpreted as a lack of trust, just the reality that working for a producer IS crossing a Rubicon. That's not a bad thing… much less than 1% of the people in our industry earn a living as a true "independent."
Good point, PA – I suppose if we split hairs then technically speaking I'm working for the PR agency intermediary, and not the producer. But basically I'm working directly with the producer so it doesn't feel right to say that I'm *not* working *with* them, because in reality I am. But the other side of it is that I'm not working *for* the producer in the traditional sense – no paycheck, no benefits, no salary, etc. It's a temporary gig, a freelance gig, and so in a lot of ways I suppose it's breaking a little bit of new ground from the blogging perspective (but probably not from the traditional print perspective in a lot of cases).
I should add – if it goes a bit quiet here in my responses it will be because I'm traveling back from Portugal, and not because I'm avoiding the questions / comments / thoughts here! :)
For the questions that could be boiled down in some for as "but can we really trust you?" I can only answer that I hope we've built up enough trust already, and I have no way to assure you beyond the history of the relationship that we've all built up together on the virtual pages of 1WD. If you trust me now, I'm going to wager that you wills till trust me as I do this work and continue to trust me to do the right thing (like establishing those firewalls wherever and however I can during the gig). If you didn't trust me already, you probably never will and this gig won't change your mind – that's your choice which I can totally respect even if I don't fully understand it; all I can do in that case is thank you sincerely for the time you spent on 1WD and for sharing your thoughts with me and the other readers.
Bottom line is that I respect both opinions (if I didn't, I wouldn't even be talking about this stuff publicly I suppose! :-).
A case can be made, and a serious case at that, that by working for just one producer in a wine region a reviewer crosses a line when reviewing other wines from that region or country, either by lending inadvertent marketing support to the employer or by questionably panning the competition.
Magazines and newspapers have long ago built the firewalls (most of them, anyway) between ads and writers, but even those firewalls can be malleable. As a columnist, I have been told that I can't write something for fear it would hurt some ad revenue–and I hate it when that happens.
My outlook on ethics is that no matter how much we like to rationalize our actions, the ethical line does not budge, it just challenges our serpentining and rationalizing abilities. Those bloggers who support you but in secret likely have a reason, and in my view, it can't be a very good one. Often enough, individuals know deep down when they have broken through an ethical line.
Thom – not sure I understand what you're getting at here. Not completely, anwyay.Speaking hypotheticly I guess I understand potential situations where one could benefit from unfairly panning the competition, but in every case it involves that person being on the payroll of the producer indefinitely or owning stock or similar. In other words, it seems totally far-fetched to me and I wouldn't give it the the tag “serious case” in those scenarios. (In my specific case, I don't benefit whatsoever – financially or otherwise – from promoting this producer's region or knocking their competition; in fact, just the opposite is true in some ways because I'd think there would be a much stronger case for competitors not to send me samples if they thought that could happen, and it would dry up part of the potential sample pool for my reviews, for example).I *do* fully get your point on an ethical line not really moving, though.As for the column / ad dilemma – I FULLY appreciate that: I have insider info. on specific examples of that happening but have never written about it because the sources requested that I do not do it as it would basically get them fired from those outlets. :-(
Thomas is 100% that in the traditional media world there is no way to be paid by a producer and maintain any hint of impartiality. (whether on a payroll, freelance, through the PR agency, etc…)
The question is not whether you are honest and / or independent, it is the perception, which always lies in the eye of the beholder.
The bigger question is that as a blogger, does it matter? And since only you know your ultimate career plan, you need to judge whether these types of assignments ultimately will hurt your credibility, or whether independent credibility is even part of your business plan.
Joe, I understand Thomas's initial point. You are being paid to promote a specific producer, and though it is by the PR agency, it makes no real difference. You are still working like an agent for the producer. So, anything you write about Portugal and/or other Portuguese producers has the potential to influence your relationship with the producer you are promoting. And yes, it could have a financial impact as well, from matters such as more free trips to Portugal, to a contract extension, a bonus, etc.
Conflict of interest is a tricky area as perception is such a huge part of it. Even if someone is completely above board and unbiased, some will still perceive a conflict of interest. So, if you write anything about Portugal on your own blog, it could raise the perception of a conflict of interest to some. It can be easy to deny such allegations, but harder to truly disprove. Doubts always remain.
Richard and PAWINEGUY,
Those are exactly the issues, with one more issue: all of us like to think that we are in control of our emotions and our actions, but slippery slopes are called that for a reason.
The origins of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate franchise was that he believed wine reviewers of his time, as well as retailers, had too much vested interest to be impartial. Many writers worked in the wine industry and of course the retailers had products to sell.
Parker set good standards for himself, but these days, for a variety of reasons, a lot of people perceive that he isn't meeting his own standards. Whether real or imagined, the complaints have caused him a great deal of consternation, if not credibility.
Great point about Parker… he takes no advertising, buys a least some of what he reviews at retail, and people are always trying to accuse him of some sort of conflict of interest. (and as you said, he's always been the "self described" Ralph Nader of our business.)
It's also worth noting the lack of well known or active bloggers in the supplier and wholesale ends of the business. With a few exceptions, we need to keep our noses clean because our whole lives revolve around balancing priorities between brands. An independent blogger doesn't have that problem, until he cashes his first pay check.
Introspection is one thing, but this is sounding downright sanctimonious. It's the Wild Wild West, Dude and the old rules just don't apply. So stop trying to fit into someone else's definition of ethics and just write.
Thanks, Steve – while I appreciate the viewpoints on both sides, I do agree that going too hypothetical is not going to get us anywhere. We need to apply the common sense test to the situations as well.
No one is being sanctimonious. As Thomas stated, ethics don't change, even (and perhaps especially) in the age of "new media." Perhaps you didn't see the flap when Leslie Sbrocco did work for Fosters?
And again, how would Joe feel if a major wine writer was found to have a gig with a winery? Would it be OK if he said that while he did work for the winery, he wouldn't mention them in his publication?
To reiterate, I don't see anything wrong with WD taking this position, I think it is a great step to making wine his career. What I think is his mis-step is trying to sell others on his independence – the rules are the rules – once you start working for someone, you are by definition no longer independent. (And that's OK)
And WD should at least consider that we are on to something when Thomas and I actually agree on a topic!
It's interesting (but I suppose inevitable) that the ethics debate came up again here. The only thing I can add (and it's not really adding but actually just reiterating my previous stance on it) is that I choose to be totally open, and adhere to what I lay out for myself openly, and the readers can decide whether or not I'm full of it! :-)
"Someone else's definition of ethics?"
A dictionary will easily relieve you of such beliefs.
At least we are agreeably disagreeable. If this keeps up, we might be candidates for congress in this new bipartisan era!
I need to work on PA privatization first, so your friends can sell their wine to independent PA stores, and then Congress.
Here in the Finger Lakes, wineries love the PA system, as it seems to produce a lot of tourists. PA is second to NY in the number of people to visit FLakes wineries.
Incidentally, while you work on the independent store issue, I just got off a conference call for the media. It seems the wine-in-grocery store issue in New York ain't dead yet.
PS: I use the small c for congress as a statement of protest–that body doesn't deserve to be considered a proper anything ;)
Regarding the PLCB and congress – what Thom said!!! :)
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