Is there a conflict of interest for Petworth News & sponsors? (spoiler: no)

 A neighbor on the 16th Street Heights listserv sent me an email about my article looking for sponsors with a question about my conflict of interest policy. It's a good question she asked, so I replied to her email.

I thought I'd re-publish the exchange here in case others have the same question (I've redacted her name for privacy reasons).  If you have a question, feel free to post a comment or email me.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

On Jul 11, 2016, at 4:30 PM, A Person wrote:

A suggestion, if I may. It’s not clear to me to what kind of conflict of interest policy you have regarding taking on sponsors for topics you cover. For example, you cover housing issues in the neighborhoods, and you also take sponsorship from real estate agents and agencies, specifically ones which are representing those who buy and flip houses into multi-unit dwellings. It would be useful if you could clarify in your newsletter what your policy is so that the perception of conflict of interest is avoided. Thanks

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

My response:

Hi [Person],

Thanks for reaching out and asking your question. It’s a worthwhile question.

My short answer:
There is no conflict of interest, I don’t give editorial control to anyone for any reason. I write what I want to write about for good or bad. 

My longer, detailed answer:
I don’t perceive that Petworth News has had or will have any conflicts of interest. I don’t hold any public office, nor control any financial, governmental or corporate entity. I freely compliment and criticize without regard to who may sponsor the website or a newsletter. I retain complete editorial control over everything I publish, and take responsibility and accountability for my words.

A sponsorship doesn’t come with a guarantee that Petworth News won’t publish articles that might otherwise be unpleasant or undesirable to a sponsor, government official, neighbor or anyone I happen to genuinely like or dislike. 

It may mean I do go out of my way to write something about them that makes them sound amazing. However, when I publish an article about an entity or individual that is a sponsor, I note that relationship in the article. (For example, the recent Featured Property I promoted this week belongs to a friend of mine, which I stated in the article. While I’m not being financially compensated to promote her home being for sale, being invited to parties by my friends is nice compensation.) 

Another good example is that I often write about new restaurants in the area like Timber Pizza and Slim’s Diner, even though the Hitching Post is an awesome sponsor.

(That said, everyone should totally go to the Hitching Post at 200 Upshur Street NW. They’re giving a 15% discount on dinner to Petworth News readers on Wednesdays. Also, their food is delicious.)

Regarding real estate, I’ve criticized and written about the increased use of pop-up and pop-back additions in articles, same as I’ve promoted condos and renovated homes and promoted local agents who are experienced in the area. Because both are useful to my neighbors. 

I’ve investigated and written articles about DDOT, MPD, DPR, DPW and DCPS (to name a few) and criticized them for inaction or missteps, and I’ve written articles praising and supporting those same DC agencies. And they (mostly) still return my phone calls & emails.

If circumstances change in the future, say I ran for ANC, then I would recuse myself from a vote, etc., where appropriate or deemed reasonably necessary. 

In the Petworth News website terms & conditions, I do currently say:

Petworth News features sponsored advertisements from local organizations and businesses that we feel will be of value to the community. These ads serve two important purposes: they help readers and businesses/organizations connect, and they help cover the cost of hosting this site and running Petworth News. Petworth News reserves the right to write about local businesses, restaurants or organizations without sponsorship -- basically, reviews or introductions, good or bad.

The reason is simple: Petworth News is my personal blog about Petworth and the surrounding neighborhoods. The blog is news-oriented, and also contains opinion, sarcasm, humor, boring ANC notes (which are oddly very popular) and fun articles about parrots. I respond to comments and emails (like this one) with as much transparency and honesty as I can. If a sponsor doesn’t like an article or someone's opinion, they’re free to no longer be a sponsor with my best wishes and hearty thanks for the time they did support the site and the community. (No refunds though, a man’s gotta make a living.) 

I’m happy to expand upon the existing terms & conditions to let my deep respect for, and complete apathy to, the opinions of paid sponsors be clearer. 

Organizations should sponsor Petworth News if they want to promote themselves to a wide yet local audience and show themselves supportive of a popular neighborhood media outlet. They shouldn’t be a sponsor if they think it means they get any type of editorial control.

If you or anyone on the listservs have more questions, let me know. Happy to respond.

Thanks!
Drew