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When business journalists become the product

You may not know about Talking Biz News unless you’re a business journalist, in which case you’re probably familiar. The site, which was founded and run for years by now former University of North Carolina journalism school professor Chris Roush, has become more or less the unofficial chronicler of the business of business journalism.

Talking Biz News (TBN) is primarily known for running stories on the comings and goings of journalists from one news organization to another, and/or (too often) layoffs, closures and the like. It also has a daily round-up of business stories the site deems to be notable. 

Last week the PR person here at Yahoo Finance, sent my story about this decade, “Why the 2010s were a decade divided,” to TBN to see if the editors there wanted to include it in their daily listing. The answer was: “It's a very interesting and good read, however, it has too much of a political element for us to cover.”

Of course that might have been just an excuse for not liking the story, which is fine. But they did say it was too political, which I thought was a bit odd because while the piece was somewhat about politics—along with a great deal of business and economic history of the decade—I went to great lengths to be non-partisan and even wrote that I was concerned about being so. 

In any event, I was curious enough to ask Roush, now the Dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, for some more context. Why was my story rejected I asked him? “...they have made it very clear,” Roush wrote, “that they don’t want anything that has anything to do with politics on the site.”

Wait? Who is THEY? Who owns Talking Biz News? I thought it was Roush? Well he used to, but this past summer it turns out he sold it to a company called Qwoted. It took some digging, but I ended up speaking with Matt Kneller, managing director of Qwoted, and he told me Roush has a contract to continue working for TBN.

So what exactly is Qwoted? It’s a freemium site that connects reporters to sources and PR firms. Or as the site says, it’s a “platform designed to help business journalists write better stories faster.” And one more: “Qwoted aims to solve inefficiencies in the pitching process and greatly improve communications between reporters and sources. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, Fortune and others to date have submitted over 1000 expert source requests.”

Qwoted

It’s also quite apparent that Qwoted doesn’t want its ownership of Talking Biz News to be known. There was no announcement or press release about the sale or new ownership. And although there is an ad for Qwoted on the TBN site, there is zero mention of the company’s ownership.

“I didn’t think it was important to make an announcement about this,” Kneller told me. “It’s a blog about media moves. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

And who owns Qwoted? 

Two PR firms as it so happens.

Qwoted was founded and is majority owned by Vested—founded and run by one Dan P. Simon. Here’s Vested’s remit: “At Vested we mix two shots of deep marketing, PR and communications industry experience with a swig of combustible creativity, throw in a dash of smart data and pour the whole thing over a global ecosystem, to deliver potent and refreshing outcomes for our clients.” <Glug.>

This past summer, Prosek Ventures, run by PR firm Prosek Partners, (founded and run by one Jennifer Prosek)—which seems to be ramping up these days having hired David Wells, a former Goldman Sachs communications guy, as well as PR vets Andy Merrill and Russell Sherman—made an investment in Vested. 

This from the Prosek site: “Jack Welch said that candor is the least-used weapon in business. We agree. At Prosek Partners we encourage clients to be as candid as they can at all times, especially if it’s something you think we don’t want to hear. And we will be candid with you. Our best clients appreciate this kind of open, honest relationship.”

Simon, Prosek and Sherman are all on Qwoted’s board.

“There are natural synergies between the audiences of Talking Biz News and Qwoted,” Matt Kneller told me. “There are data sets we can aggregate.”

Oh, indeed.

Kneller, who started off our conversation by remarking that one of our reporters had just used Qwoted, told me that when it’s reported a journalist makes a career change on Talking Biz News, that information would now be ported over to Qwoted, appearing it seems on the Media Moves section (which notes ‘In Association with Talking Business News.’) 

Who knew?

“We have always believed that automation and AI would reshape the way we do business. We also believe practitioners who have the best tools will be the most successful moving forward,” said Jennifer Prosek. “Qwoted has the chance to reshape the way public relations professionals do business...”

No doubt.

Check this out from the Qwoted Terms of Service, which may be fairly standard on an e-commerce site, but might raise the hackles of journalists:

We may share your information with selected third parties including:

3.1 Business partners, suppliers and subcontractors for the performance of any contract we enter into with them or you.

3.2 Advertisers and advertising networks that require the data to select and serve relevant ads to you and others.

3.3 Analytics and search engine providers that assist us in the improvement and optimisation of our site.

We may disclose your personal information to third parties:

3.4. If we sell or buy any business or assets, in which case we may disclose your personal data to the prospective seller or buyer of such business or assets.

3.5. If Vested or substantially all of its assets are acquired by a third party, in which case personal data held by it about its customers will be one of the transferred assets.

Qwoted also tweets out reporters’ queries—edited and enhanced with hashtags, and in the case of one of Yahoo Finance’s reporters, unbeknownst to the reporter!  When told about the tweet, the Yahoo Finance reporter was none too pleased. “I didn’t want it tweeted out because I didn’t want to tell the world what I was working on,” this person said. Tweeting queries out also doesn’t really match this FAQ from Qwoted: “Can my requests be seen by other reporters? Nope! Qwoted is a completely vetted two-sided network.” (Note that Talking Biz News’ Twitter account often retweets the tweets posted by Qwoted.)

Let’s return now to potential issues stemming from TBN’s new emphasis on being apolitical. Say for instance the Wall Street Journal does an award-winning story on Donald Trump’s plan to fund the wall on the Mexican border, or Elizabeth Warren’s tax plan. Would Talking Biz News promote those? Maybe not. 

And then there’s the two firms’ clients lists. On the Prosek side you have the likes of Edward Jones, Bloomberg, UBS, Franklin Templeton, Munich RE, Goldman Sachs, Ally, OppenheimerFunds, Capital One and Dun & Bradstreet. Vested’s include: Citadel, Morgan Stanley, Golub Capital, Citi, and Betterment. Would Talking Biz News put up a big investigative piece on Morgan Stanley in its daily run down? Or conversely a glowing piece about MS competitor and non-client, JPMorgan? I don’t know.

(Never mind what they would do with Yahoo Finance pieces after this story!)

Bottom line: What we have here is a site about journalism and journalists now owned by a business site—controlled by two PR firms—which isn’t exactly transparent about that ownership. 

Leaving aside that TBN doesn’t want to publish articles which are too political. (We wouldn’t want to scare off any clients, would we?) Or that it might be swayed by its parents’ client lists. More than that, Talking Business News, through the porting of updates (and possibly other integrations) is a party to gathering data on reporters and monetizing it. And it’s not making that clear.

Kind of like Facebook for business reporters, no?

An earlier version of this article said: “A Vested marketing exec who is also a former TBN editor.”

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on December 14, 2019. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Commentary by Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.