If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you'll have noticed banners, sidebar ads, and the revamped title bar all bearing the by-now familiar images of an alien spaceship and an alien-shaped gun range target, which are only part of the gargantuan promotional effort for Neill Blomkamp's upcoming film District 9. The advertising blitz was directly tied to io9's coverage of Comic Con, with most of its con-related articles accompanied by an individual banner reading 'San Diego Comic Con - Presented by District 9' (you can still see the individual banners if you go back a page or two on io9's history, and though the main site's title bar has returned to normal, it's still in its District 9 version on the individual pages of several of the Comic Con-related articles).
If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you may also have noticed that on July 24th, site editor Annalee Newitz gave District 9, which she saw in an advance press screening at Comic Con, a rave review, and that on Tuesday, news editor Charlie Jane Anders, in an article ranking the con's biggest buzz generators, gave District 9 the top spot.
Commenter oliverkirby, who suggested, albeit not very diplomatically, that District 9 triumphed over James Cameron's Avatar in the latter article because of the advertising buyout, was told by Anders that "that's the most ban-worthy comment we've had in ages." I commented yesterday, saying that the film's sponsorship of io9's Comic Con coverage represented a clear conflict of interests. The comment appeared some time during the night, was replied to by commenter zenpoet, and has since been deleted (comment permalinks don't appear to be working. Click on 'show all comments' at the bottom of the page to see oliverkirby's comment and the reply to mine). Both user accounts are now banned from commenting on the site.
On the one hand, I feel more than a little silly getting worked up about this. To rant that I've lost all respect for io9's journalistic integrity is to suggest that I had any in the first place, which is very much not true. There's a wide spectrum in culture journalism between delivering news and delivering hype, and io9 has always tended towards the latter end. And to be honest, even the most conscientious, independent blog or news site will inevitably bump up against the problem of distinguishing journalism from advertising. Is it alright to accept an ARC from a publisher or editor? Should you go to an advance press screening of a movie you've been eager to see? Should you accept memorabilia and tie-in merchandise from PR agents? For that matter, should you go to Comic Con, which is ground zero for this kind of targeted, swag-laden advertising?
I have different answers to each of these questions, and am by no means of a Jonathan McCalmont-esque purist persuasion. I recognize that it's impossible to interact with the product of an entertainment industry--particularly one like Hollywood, with money to burn--without becoming complicit in the marketing of that product on some level, and that there are many shades of gray when it comes to deciding just how deep that complicity should run. What io9 did, however, does not fall in a gray area. io9's Comic Con coverage was brought to us by District 9, and as part of that coverage io9 informed us that District 9 was "One of the Best Movies of 2009," and that it had won the convention's "buzz wars." There is no way to make this kosher, and if there were, deleting and banning commenters who questioned this choice is clearly not it.
Bear in mind, also, that this isn't some newbie blogger excitedly running a promotional book giveaway from their den because they're just so stoked that a publisher actually talked to little old them. io9 is run by Gawker Media, a half-decade old company running some of the most highly visited blogs on the net. There is no way its editors aren't savvy enough to understand what they were doing. Advertising on the site isn't the equivalent of some blogger activating Google Ads in the hopes of getting a couple of bucks to defray the costs of blogging part-time. Like traditional newspapers, io9 is in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The District 9 sponsorship-rave combo makes it look as though the site has made the transition to selling customers, and only serves to blur the difference--already not that easy to discern--between io9 the science fiction news site and io9 the promotional brochure.
This is not, by the way, to be taken as a comment on the film itself. I've heard good things about District 9, including from sources other than io9, and the trailer is very promising. I'm looking forward to seeing it--it is incredibly irksome to me that I'm leaving Montreal the day before its release--though I have to say that io9's behavior also reflects badly on the film's PR team, who, one would think, were already paid up in the snafu department. I'm even prepared to believe that both the review and the buzz ranking article were written in good faith, but whether or not they were, it simply doesn't matter. You can't review your own sponsor and expect to be taken seriously as a news source, though of course it remains an open question whether that is a state that io9 has ever aspired to.