Shimano, VeloNews, BRAIN and embargoes

The bicycle industry is just small enough to fall prey to the gravity of moneyed interests. Ironman, governing bodies, Trek, Specialized, and the large footwear companies can exert force on the endemic press or, if they don't exert that force, their shadows are checks on the press anyway.

Magazine product reviews in cycling and tri are almost always very positive, and why? Fear of lost ad dollars. I got fired (twice) from the same magazine for writing negative reviews of products produced by advertisers.

We at this publication stumble along with our own half-measures designed to inoculate us from conflicts of interest. I rarely accept for no-charge a product of consequence to triathlon that I might write about. I buy my bikes and my race entries, my wheels, because then I don't feel compelled to give a gift in return. (I don't require the same rigor of all who write for us, and I don't hold up my own behavior as singularly rigorous or ethical.)

The model for cycling journalism unbent by fear or ad revenue was Felix Magowan, owner of VeloNews during its formative years. That tradition continues and VeloNews published an article on upcoming Shimano product that Shimano did not want published. VeloNews claims Shimano exerted pressure on VeloNews not to publish the article, threatening to pull its ads. VeloNews published anyway, and then made public the threats it says Shimano levied.

Throughout my time in this industry certain journalists have stood out as honorable and brave, such as Charles Pelkey (VeloNews) and Marc Sani (Bicycle Retailer & Industry News). Sani wrote an editorial today in BRAIN standing in solidarity with VeloNews' reporter and editor, and i can't fault anything he wrote. VeloNews had the legal right to write what it did, and apparently did not break an embargo or NDA. Shimano is getting roundly thrashed in social media for the behavior of which it has been accused.

But there is another side. Yes, there are areas where Shimano has not been a helpful citizen. I wrote almost a decade ago about Shimano's political advocacy for its fishing division. Shimano's failure to control its pricing (Speedplay has no trouble controlling its pricing) also hurts the fragile network of local dealers. But I see Shimano's point in this. News embargoes, let's talk about these.

“In general, I am not a fan of embargoed news,” writes Marc Sani. “Why? It puts a company in control of the editorial process and makes editors beholden to that company for information. We get too cozy with our advertisers. And then the media — without even knowing it — becomes complicit in their marketing program.”

I can't deny this. But shouldn't this mean tech editors should not agree to attend a launch if an embargo is a requirement of attendance? If we're at a moment of change in the industry, okay, but let us take stock of the ramifications of our ethical evolution.

There is another kind of embargo, and that is where a bicycle product manager, and OE buyer, are necessarily given access to future products because the buyer can't buy it if he can't see it. These folks need to know what they're buying nine months or a year, or more, before it will come to market.

“If, indeed, a product manager who had signed a nondiscloure agreement helped [VeloNews with its] article,” writes Sani, “that is Shimano's problem. Reporters can ask anybody anything, but nobody is compelled to answer.”

I suspect Sani wrote this sentence above because this is the most likely way VeloNews got its information. I respect Sani's opinion. I hear him. But I'm not sure I agree. If your word, as a reporter, is your bond as regard embargoes, and you end-run this by trying to get someone else to break his word, is that really just the manufacturer's problem?

Shimano has a legal right to pull its ads from VeloNews but it probably shouldn't. VeloNews had news it had a legal right to publish, but I'd like to know if it got information from someone under an NDA or embargo promise before I give it two thumbs ethically up.

This a close call, and it's a good question. As an industry, we ought to have this out.