Weekly Slide: Why Ethics Are Important

Slide To Play editor and publisher Steve Palley takes a long, hard look at the ethical implications behind review site AppCraver’s recently publicized cash-for-expedited-review policy.

Read on after the jump.

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Even though we basically play games for a living, all of us here at Slide To Play take journalistic ethics very seriously.

I learned my games journalism chops at GameSpot during the Greg Kasavin/Jeff Gerstmann era, when the site was extremely rigorous about separating business from editorial — some would say Puritanical. Some Internet rumors allege that this is what got Gerstmann fired, telling it like it was after business had seized power from editorial.

STP managing editor Kelvin Ma and I did a summer internship in college at Boston Magazine, where our editor’s favorite phrase was “No free favors!” Actually, he said something considerably more vulgar than that, but we got the message: Our final responsibility is to our readers, not to our sources or the subjects of our stories. Accuracy, objectivity and balance are paramount. Having the people you’re writing about like you personally is a nice bonus, but it better not interfere with your story.

This profession isn’t accorded much respect, and we don’t make much money to speak of, but journalists are among the most powerful people in the world. Journalism reaches people in ways that self-interested politicians and businesses can’t. Our only interest should be to uncover and report the truth. We earn our credibility through painstaking research and honest reporting, and that establishes a unique bond of trust between us and our readers. Reporting the facts can move crowds.

It drives a lot of traffic on the App Store, too, which is why I’ve taken a stand on journalistic ethics in the App reviewer’s profession. Many others have joined in this endeavor to build OATS, the Organization for App Testing Standards, which is now 10 sites strong and growing. The principle at the center of OATS is the absolute separation of business from editorial, with no exceptions.

It does not follow that all non-OATS sites are automatically unethical, of course. Many already share our core values, without knowing or caring what OATS is. Our aim is merely to raise awareness of the issues by holding ourselves to a higher standard. We obviously can’t force any other site to toe our particular line.

All we can do is invite them to join us. And that is what I’m going to do right now for AppCraver.

AppCraver’s sale of “expedited reviews” at $50 a pop to developers has been an open secret around the community for some time. And now that TechRadar has published an article about it, AppCraver’s controversial policy, which is noted at the bottom of the site’s FAQ, is receiving some mainstream attention.

AppCraver was the unnamed competitor site in my first ethics column several months ago. At that time, my feelings were absolutely clear — I was pissed off.

This time, AppCraver editor-in-chief Barbara Holbrook explained to me in an e-mail that they are aware running expedited reviews poses a risk to the site’s credibility, but made assurances that the business aspect of selling an expedited review is kept separate from the editorial process.

“We don’t even disclose to our writers which apps are Expedited and which aren’t,” Holbrook writes. “Our writers are presented all assignments with the same criteria and same deadlines. The only part of the process that is expedited is how quickly the app is assigned, from that point on it’s treated like any other review.”

Holbrook says that editorial retains the right to turn down expedited reviews because some “apps don’t meet our standards to merit a review,” but she still recognizes that there is a major promotional aspect to a game review, no matter what the review actually says. “Most people realize that even a lower-scoring review can generate sales,” she writes. “This is because even with guidelines, scoring is inherently subjective. A clock app recently scored a 6/10 but received the highest number of click-throughs to the App Store for the day it published.”

“AppCraver tries to review apps that people will like,” Holbrook writes. “We try to avoid reviewing apps that we think will score poorly because it is a waste of time and resources.”

Fine. Although I personally don’t agree with this viewpoint, many argue that the App Store is so vast that it is more useful to celebrate the highlights than warn about the pitfalls. But that is precisely why sites should not sell guaranteed coverage.

Suppose AppCraver grants an expedited review to a middling app, while superior apps in the same category languish for weeks or go unreviewed entirely. By allocating resources according to commerce over objectivity, it fails its readership by not pointing out the best and the brightest.

Boosting a game to the front of the line for a fee? Come on. That’s not journalism, that’s advertorial.

It stands to reason that the demand for advertorial would be immense in this business, given the volume problem on the App Store. STP gets tons of requests for coverage every single day from all over the world. Why wouldn’t developers pay for it? It seems like the perfect racket, one that put our site and many others at a disadvantage.

“Given all the crazy crap that is flooding the market right now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for AppCraver to request a fee to triage the review requests that come their way,” Appy Entertainment brand director Paul O’Connor wrote to me in an e-mail. “I’d pay a nominal fee — $5 or so — to get into the review queue ahead of the mob of fart apps, etc. that are likely pounding on AppCraver’s door.

“But I don’t think developer fees should be a profit center for a website. Fifty bucks is not a triage fee — it is an advertising fee — and if I’m going to pay that much I should be treated as a sponsor.”

Holbrook claims that expedited reviews are “a small part of our business model,” accounting for only 11 to 14 percent of the site’s reviews. AppCraver depicts it as more of a service to the App community than anything else. “Not all developers can afford to advertise,” writes Holbrook. “The Expedited Review program levels the playing field because even independent developers with tiny budgets can afford to guarantee that their app gets a shot at a review.”

But is AppCraver a site for developers, or a site for consumers? Some developers understand how consumer media is supposed to work.

“The relationship between the games media and game publishers has always been delicate, and charging money from the people whose creations you’re objectively reviewing should at least be done with a very carefully worded proposition,” says Finnish developer Secret Exit’s Jani Kahrama. “While the reality is that publishers need to advertise on the same websites that review their games, it would be best if the websites kept their business limited to selling advertising spots, not review spots.”

What is the moral of the story here? It’s not that AppCraver is evil, and run by bad people. On the contrary. I like AppCraver, and in fact, I was once very excited by the possibility of working with the site.

But AppCraver has started down a slippery slope, editorial firewalls or not. For one thing, it’s generating lots of bad press. According to the TechRadar piece, some developers are even calling for a boycott of the site. For another, once a publication compromises its journalistic integrity in any way, no matter how minor, it opens the door to increasingly large transgressions. In the final analysis, I think it’s the wrong way to build the business.

I’m not the only one, either. “While I take AppCraver at their word that they are not selling good reviews, they are losing integrity in the eyes of their readers by blurring the lines of editorial and advertising,” says Jeff Scott, the owner of fellow OATS site 148apps.com.

He’s right. Controversies like this may not impact a publication’s bottom line immediately, but they can cause subtle, irreversible damage to its name over time. Their actions also reflect negatively on the industry as a whole, because when one reader has to question the integrity of one of us, he has to question all of us.

AppCraver, let us help you kick the expedited reviews habit. Renounce the practice and join us in OATS. Nobody would be happier than me.

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Steve Palley is Editor and Publisher of Slide To Play.

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