In this media age, when the wall between editorial and advertising has been replaced by a chlorinated moat three feet deep and heated to body temperature, it's possible to look at a piece of reporting that might or might not be a news story and have no idea what it really is.
A reader just spotted a story on the Crain's Chicago Business website and forwarded it to me. Her e-mail began with the above question.
The article was by Steve Hendershot, reporting for Crain's on a "lifesaver of an app" called Dashlane. He explained that Dashlane generates and remembers "hacker-unfriendly" passwords for all your accounts, requiring you to know just one: the password into Dashlane.
"A few rivals provide the same service—Keeper from Chicago-based Keeper Security Inc. and LastPass—" Hendershot allowed, "but none does the job so attractively and intuitively as Dashlane." He added, "Thanks to browser extensions, Dashlane can work its auto-filling magic almost anywhere on the Web."
If Dashlane falls short of perfection in any significant respect, Hendershot didn't notice.
If a news story reads like a puff piece, is it a puff piece? And what's wrong with a puff piece anyway, when perfection comes along? I searched the CCB website, discovered that Hendershot lauds pretty much everything he writes about for CCB, further discovered that he isn't actually a staff writer there, and then spoke by phone with editor Michael Arndt. He tried to allay my concerns.
Hendershot is a freelancer, Arndt explained, who focuses on tech issues and reviews new products just as someone else would review new movies or restaurants. The difference is that film is a mass medium, so a reviewer is obliged to report on the films he despises; Hendershot is writing for a specialized audience of business people. "You tend to write about the tech gadgets your readers would find useful or enjoy," said Arndt, "and by omission lay aside the ones you think would be a waste of their time."
In other words, Hendershot practices criticism by omission. But Arndt didn't want me to think that Hendershot is incapable of a full-blooded rip job. He said that Hendershot kept a file of silly products and at the end of last year "really skewered" four of them in a "kind of mock awards ceremony." Arndt told me to check out that piece.
I did. Arndt's story ran in mid-December under the headline "Introducing the Crainiac Awards: 2013's four weirdest iOS apps."
The problem is that although these apps were indeed eccentric, and Hendershot couldn't possibly advise his readers to buy them, by and large he thought they were all pretty charming. For instance, the Chordana Viewer and Chordana Tap for determining "the chord structure of music from your iTunes library." Wrote Hendershot, "The Chordana technology is accurate most of the time and is particularly impressive on songs without frequent chord changes or complicated chord voicings."
And Papa Sangre II, an iPad game that's audio only: "Gameplay consisted of me standing in my living room wearing headphones and lurching around while clutching my iPad. I'm sure it looked funny, but the game itself is stylish, immersive, addicting, and disturbing."
Does a reporter—or, for that matter, an editor—who thinks you're skewering your subject by calling it "impressive" or "stylish" still have a grip on journalism's ancient verities? Where are the surly old puritans of yore?