Lies, censorship and lawsuits. Why 14 writers decided to take a stand against the unethical business practices of the owners of Blogcatalog and Broowaha. By guest op-ed writer, Garry Crystal
“I’ll sue your fucken ass if you make one false statement about Broowaha. You’re a pussy.”– Tony Berkman (left), owner of Blogcatalog, Broowaha and BloggersUnite.
What made 14 writers, many of whom had been writing with the Citizen Journalism website Broowaha since its inception, decide to leave? Seven of the writers left the site in one weekend, 14 within the space of a week. Many of the 14 requested that all of their work, amounting to hundreds of articles over six years as writers with Broowaha, provided free of charge to the website owner, be deleted as they no longer wished to be associated with the site. These were writers who had built up a solid following of readers at Broowaha. Many were featured continuously for years as the site’s most popular writers.
One or two writers leaving a website because of creative or business differences with the new owner may not seem unusual but when 14, including the editor, suddenly leave citing unethical business practices as the reason for the exodus, then alarm bells should start ringing.
In an ironic twist, Tony Berkman, the owner of a Citizen Journalism website has, in trying to silence the writers, turned himself into a story.
Broowaha; a Unique Citizen Journalism Website
“I feel that over the years I connected with a lot of good writers that I consider friends, although we haven’t met one another face to face. That’s the kind of community that had been built there; and to see how they were being threatened and “blacklisted”, I couldn’t in good conscience remain there. So, I left, requesting my account be removed – and not saying why. And for that I was “blacklisted” as well.” – Julian Gallo. Broowaha writer for four years, 110 articles.
Broowaha was created in 2006 by Ariel Vardy as a Citizen Journalism site back when CJ sites such as Orato and All Voices were also finding their feet. What made Broowaha unique from other CJ sites was the long-term writers. These weren’t fly-by-night writers who would submit a few articles or hang around for a few years and then disappear; many of the writers stayed the course, submitting articles regularly for six years. Over those six years these writers created Broowaha by supplying hundreds of well written articles on subjects such as politics, human interest and the arts to name a few. Broowaha became a unique place because the writers themselves were unique. They would interject articles with their own perspective, would encourage others with their writing through the comments section, and many of these writers became friends over the lifespan of their time with the site.
With any collection of diverse personalities there would be arguments, but freedom of speech was always a key component of this CJ site. Left and right wing writers would discuss and sometimes argue points, but what was always important about Broowaha was there was no censorship, no editorial bias and no interfering from the owner except perhaps to refuse an article that was not up to the writing quality of the site. Any writer who was refused publication for this reason was invited to revise their article and resubmit. This was all to change in October 2009.
The New Management Has Arrived
In October 2009 there were a few new arrivals to Broowaha.
Antony J Berkman, 42, describes himself on his Linkedin profile as a “Digital Entrepreneur” although in interviews he likes to describe himself as a visionary and someone who likes to “add fuel to the fire.” Angie Alaniz, 44, has been Berkman’s business partner for over 10 years. According to Berkman, Alaniz is the one who “keeps the fire contained and is the glue of what we do.” Together, Berkman and Alaniz are variously listed as either CEO or President or co-owners of Blogcatalog, Broowaha, Fried Eggs and Bloggers Unite as well as a host of past and present websites.
In 2009, Berkman purchased Broowaha for $15,000. A silent partner, John Forch, is also known to be involved in Broowaha. (Read more about Broowaha’s silent partner).
The arrival of Berkman, Alaniz and Forch didn’t go unnoticed by some of the long-term Broowaha writers. Some writers saw the new management team immediately as a threat and gave them the nickname ‘the wrecking crew’ but most waited to see how the site would be affected before passing judgment. Berkman began simply enough by bringing in new writers to the site, many from his Blogcatalog site. Most of the Broowaha writers saw nothing wrong with new writers coming onto the site as the common thinking was that new writers are always needed and would bring in more readers. But many long term writers left the site claiming that Berkman was a destructive force, getting rid of the features such as the individual country locations that boasted their own writers.
New Site Editor Cher Duncombe
One good idea Berkman had was to hire writer Cher Duncombe as Broowaha’s new editor. Duncombe had written articles for Broowaha since 2009 and was taken on as editor shortly afterwards. “After spending many months as a volunteer Editor at Broo, I studied the writers and tried to determine what the community wanted. The consensus seemed to be that the community wanted columns, which I thought was a great idea and appropriate for the site. I asked Tony’s permission to implement them and he told me to go for it!”
Duncombe began emailing previous writers who were no longer interested in the site and she stoked their enthusiasm. For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t Berkman or Alaniz who ‘added fuel to the fire’ and brought Broowaha back to life it was Duncombe. With Duncombe onboard as an unpaid editor, sometimes putting in 20 hour work days, Broowaha began to attract old and new writers. Many writers were given columns; a format introduced to Broowaha by Duncombe, and began submitting articles every week without fail. In October 2011, seven months after her appointment as editor, Duncombe quit Broowaha citing creative differences as the reason for her departure.
“Cher did so much work setting up a column system and it just got swept of the table. Like it was nothing. I truly admire and respect Cher and to see one of my friends hurt like that, it just pissed me off.” – Tahira Lubrano. Broowaha writer, May 2011, 17 articles.
The Beginning of the End
The creative differences mentioned by Duncombe is a nice way of saying that Berkman had decided that things weren’t going the way he wanted them to. As Duncombe said, “He removed the columns and began adding new writers to Broo where they could essentially hone their skills and become better writers. Many of the regular Broowaha writers are published authors and I thought this took Broowaha down several notches on the quality rungs. I asked Tony if this was really the direction in which he wanted to go, and he said yes. After spending so much time on setting up columns, talking to writers, etc., I became totally disheartened and left. It became apparent that Tony had his own ideas for the direction of Broowaha. It was time for me to move on.”
Censorship and Favoritism by Broowaha Owners
“It appeared that specific article comments were being deleted without warrant. It seemed as though there were favorites (writers), and it was usually those whose opinions, usually political, sided with one of the owners.” – Jennifer Sharp. Broowaha writer since 2007, 23 articles.
With Tony Berkman now in charge as editor, relationships between writers and management quickly deteriorated and the term ‘wrecking crew’ became a reality. A site that was previously free from editorial bias and censorship now had Berkman’s boot print stamped all over it. Whereas Berkman had previously tried to come across as a guy who understood writers, wouldn’t interfere with the site and wanted everyone to have a say, he now began laying down the law in no uncertain terms. Berkman again began to bring in writers from his Blogcatalog site, claiming he would promote them heavily on the site if they wrote regularly for him.
One right-wing writer brought in by Berkman was a particular favorite of his. It didn’t go unnoticed by other writers that if another writer disputed the ‘facts’ on the right-wing writer’s article, then Berkman, who had never usually commented before on articles and had described himself as apolitical, would jump to her defense. In fact, disputing the facts on this writer’s article was all it took for Berkman to issue threats of termination from the website, as happened to long-term writer Dean Walker.
Walker, who publishes regularly on the website Project Censored, would regularly shred the right-wing writer’s alleged facts as propaganda and outright lies. Berkman and Alaniz gave Walker the ultimatum of either keeping silent on these specific articles or being banned from the site. When the right-wing writer publicly made desultory comments on Walker including accusing him of anti-Semitism, Berkman either stood back and said nothing or backed up the right-wing writer. In the end Walker, who had been given frequent warnings that he would be banned for simply exercising his right to free speech and disputing unbalanced reporting and disputable facts was eventually kicked off the site by Berkman.
Just before Walker was banned from the site, Berkman stated his intentions in a public comment on Broowaha when Walker dared to argue with him: “This is my site, I’ll do what I want. Don’t like it leave. I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of me who doesn’t know me.”
The New Edgier Broowaha As Defined by Tony Berkman
“I think we should have a porn section, I mean don’t you think that would sell?”- Sam Zell, the businessman who took over and ran the Chicago Tribune into bankruptcy.
The quote above will sound familiar to anyone who was around when Tony Berkman announced his intention to make Broowaha an ‘edgier’ website. In a Letter from the Editor called The Edge of Writing and Creativity, published on September 29,2011, Berkman outlined the direction he wanted the site to take, which was to make the site edgy and to “attract hip, high quality, undiscovered authors and artists that are writing and sharing stories about life on the edge.”
Between the lines of the article Berkman also publicly tore into the hard work and success achieved by Cher Duncombe. Berkman called the columns that Duncombe had implemented “a hangover thinking derived from the age of traditional journalism,” and in an article that reeked of hypocrisy given the nature of Dean Walker’s exit, Berkman wrote “Broo’s mission is to flatten the news organization and provide a platform for authors, new’s (SIC) journalists, citizen journalists and creative people to express their views without fear of censorship.”
What was apparent to the writers was that when Berkman said he wanted a new direction he meant increased page views above all else, even if that meant deterioration in the quality of writing on the site.
Sex Sells at Broowaha
So what did Berkman, the visionary, think would give Broowaha this edge? With amazing unoriginality Berkman tried to take the most obvious route towards increasing page views: sex. Berkman brought in a sex writer to post regularly but also, in what is one of the more bizarre Broowaha moments, wrote an article called, Wikipedia’s Insights on Masturbation are important to Google-Broowaha.
The image that accompanied his article on the front page is as pornographic as it gets. When writing the short article Berkman inserted the keyword ‘masturbation’ around 20 times in the hope of using search engine optimization (SEO) to lure internet users typing in this keyword to land on the article.
By posting this article, Berkman had in fact broken the terms and conditions laid down in Broowaha’s user agreement stating that users of the site were forbidden from uploading pornographic images.
Berkman did succeed in attracting more readers with this article, but only for around 30 minutes and only from long-term Broowaha writers who couldn’t believe how low Berkman would stoop to increase the readership. Broowaha writer Dan LaFollette cited Berkman’s article as one of the reasons why he left the site: “When I got a full shot of the picture he had on his masturbation article (with my kids right next to me) coupled with all of the news coming in from people who I have come to trust about his use of profanity while communicating with them, and endless threats, it was time to leave.”
When Berkman’s article was posted, Angie Alaniz stated in the Broowaha Café for all registered readers and writers to see that she “hadn’t signed up for this, I quit.” Then, Jennifer Sharp, a long-term Broowaha writer, had a public discussion in the Broowaha Café with Berkman and effectively talked him down off the ledge. Berkman at first simply changed the article image to a slightly softer version but then removed the article completely. Alaniz, whether she did actually quit or not, came back on board the next day.
* Since the writing of this article, Berkman’s contributions to the ‘edgy’ content of Broowaha has included articles on Fila’s skele-toes footwear and another on crooked teeth enhancements. According to one Broowaha writer, “The irony of the article written by Berkman entitled Are You a Social Media Tool is apparent to all but Berkman.”
Dirty Tricks, Lies and Legal Threats
“What pushed me to leave is finding out the writers that were NO LONGER part of it were threatened with a lawsuit for voicing their opinions. WE LIVE IN AMERICA and have the right to say how we feel and discuss with others. ” – Katy Kern. Broowaha writer April 2011, 35 articles.
October 24th 2011 saw the creation of a Facebook page by Jennifer Sharp known as the Broowaha Expats. This was a place ex Broowaha writers could come together and discuss what had been happening on the site. By this date, Cher Duncombe had quit, Jennifer Sharp had requested that her account by deleted and the Dean Walker censorship argument was coming to a head on Broowaha. Six days, later another 12 Broowaha writers, having seen and heard from others exactly what was going on requested that their accounts be deleted and their articles removed. In the Broowaha Café, Tony Berkman proclaimed his innocence and said that he couldn’t understand why writers were leaving. Behind the scenes, he quickly began threatening legal action.
Having a point of view or sharing an opinion is not against the law. In Berkman’s eyes however, the Broowaha Expats group was a threat to his name and his website’s reputation. The Expats was an invitation only group but Berkman had managed to view all posts by the members during the first week. Berkman and Alaniz would then put on rehearsed conversations in the Broowaha Café in which they would repeat and discuss the postings in the Expats group, again for all readers and writers of the site to witness. Berkman and Alaniz portrayed themselves in these conversations as free from blame and completely perplexed as to the cause reasons behind the writer’s walkout.
Berkman and Alaniz could have discussed the matter in private; they were working together in the same apartment. Instead, they chose to air the matter in public including Berkman falsely stating that health problems were the reason for Duncombe’s departure.
Black-Listing the Writers
Berkman also took the step of placing a status of “black-listed” in red on the Broowaha account of every writer within the 14 who had left. Berkman and Alaniz then had a discussion in the Broowaha Café on the subject after reading comments in the Broowaha Expats about the black-listed status. Alaniz said, “So apparently the word “Blacklisted” is a bad word these days. Please know that word has now been replaced with “inactive”.
Tony Berkman – Cease and Desist
“It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about the freedom to read what we want. It’s about having a site that provides writers with traffic and not telling them what to write about.” – Tony Berkman on Broowaha, November 2011.
On October 28 2011 Berkman took the step of sending Cher Duncombe (and Jennifer Sharp) a Cease and Desist email in regards to the Broowaha Expats group stating, “I am sending this to you with the intention to follow up with an attorney and a law suit if you fail to stop defaming BrooWaha, Angie and myself. If this continues I will sue both you and Jen for continuing to defame BrooWaha and Angie and I. You have already been reported to Facebook as has Jen. If it continues you will be sued.”
Berkman’s Love of Legal Threats
Why does Tony Berkman take the aggressive action of threatening writers with lawsuits in an attempt to silence them? Berkman is under the assumption that if legal threats have worked before they will work again. In 2010, Berkman used legal threats to force a writer named Selina Eckersall to give up all rights to a new platform that Eckersall had created in partnership with Berkman’s Blogcatalog. Eckersall claimed at the time that the new platform that would bring bloggers and brands together was 100% her intellectual property, which she created for free on her time. Although, according to Eckersall, no contracts were ever signed, Berkman threatened legal action against Eckersall if she did not relinquish all rights to the property that she had created. Eckersall walked away from the deal with nothing.
When I asked Eckersall to comment on the matter she stated, “It was rough on me what I went through with them (Berkman and Alaniz)…. While it was a difficult experience to go through, especially publicly, I have to say, I absolutely have moved on and am in such a happier, brighter and more successful place now.”
On October 30 2011, two days after I had deleted my Broowaha account and had decided to write an article on the matter I emailed Berkman, stating my intention to write an article on the matter and politely asking for his view on the writers’ walkout.
In the early hours of the morning I received a reply from Berkman, “You have zero spine. A reporter? You ran with a bunch of people who didn’t like the fact that there was competition. It didn’t involve you. You’re writing an “independent story” yet you’re hanging with a group that defamed broowaha. I’ll sue your fucken ass if you make one false statement about Broowaha. You’re a pussy.”
Using Legal Threats to Avoid Bad Publicity
One of the reasons Berkman is trying to silence writers is that bad publicity is the last thing his company needs right now. Blogcatalog is Berkman’s most popular website, a blog directory site that Berkman and Alaniz bought in 2007 for a reported $40,000 from The Bloggy Network. The site that, according to Berkman, once generated $400,000 annually and was receiving 20 million visitors per month has been accused by many of its members of breaking the user agreement terms and conditions. Without prior warning members have found their accounts deactivated due to not linking back to Blogcatalog, not adding the Blogcatalog widget to their blogs and failing to consistently add content to their blogs. When one blogger found her account deactivated she contacted Berkman via Twitter to question why and was simply told she was no longer welcome at Blogcatalog.
If bloggers aren’t adding widgets and links and contributing content daily, then there is no financial incentive for Berkman to keep them. Blogcatalog is, of course, free to use but there is a fee paying ‘Very Important Blogger’ service priced at $20. Accusations that Berkman is only concerned with fee paying members of Blogcatalog have been denied by Berkman and Alaniz in their usual ‘fool the public’ business manner.
On November 8 2011, an article appeared on Broowaha entitled “Is BlogCatalog turning into a paid blogging community?” This article was written under the name ‘Blogger’. But this article is a copy and paste job that first appeared on Blogcatalog a year ago, written by none other than Tony Berkman. Because of the copy and paste nature, Berkman actually names himself as the writer in the most recent version, yet in the comments section under the article Berkman thanks the writer of the article a year before the article was actually published. Using a simple piece of code, the publication date on the Broowaha version of this article is updated daily.
Berkman also runs a year-long Power Blogger program costing $50 per month per blogger, which is still ongoing. Unfortunately for the bloggers who signed up for Berkman’s Power Blogging, Berkman made promises he simply couldn’t keep. According to two sources the Blogcatalog offices, as mentioned in the Power Blogger Video, in San Antonio, Texas, have now been shut down and the business partners are working from Alaniz’s home in order to save on overheads. The San Antonio, Texas address has been removed from Blogcatolog’s website. The business now consists of Berkman, Alaniz and a few volunteer writers marked as employees. Traffic to Blogcatalog has decreased by 50% since the introduction of the Power Blogging program in April 2011.
What Next for Blogcatalog/Broowaha?
To people like Berkman and Alaniz, writers are simply an ends to a means, a way of increasing their profits. All of the websites owned by Berkman and Alaniz are built to financially benefit Berkman and Alaniz – not the writers who supply the labor and content to them for free. Berkman’s use of legal threats to scare and silence writers is an example of not only his business tactics but also his view on the people who have contributed to his success. Berkman’s attitude towards using unpaid writers to publicize his company can be seen during his failed business deal with celebrity lifestyle coach Tony Robbins. (Read more on the Tony Robbins business deal that lost Berkman $200,000 of investors’ money).
Many people will be under the impression that Blogcatalog and Broowaha are private sites and the owners are free to do as they please. But owners of private sites who operate in bad faith are subject to penalty of law. Writers place content on their sites for free and owners make money from advertisements that are viewed beside the writer’s articles. The owners of privately owned websites are subject to internet commerce laws. The future of Blogcatalog and Broowaha can only be determined by the writers who supply the work that allow these websites to exist. Whether that is to be threatened into submission by website owners such as Berkman for daring to have an opinion or to place principles above pageviews will ultimately be the choice of the writers.
Never Underestimate the Narcissism of the Businessman
During November while writing this article I noticed a post in the Broowaha Expats. Dean Walker had been in contact with Berkman and made a more than fair offer to purchase Broowaha with the intention of turning it into a co-operative, which the 14 writers could all then run equally. Berkman has, for appearances sake at least, listed Broowaha for sale four times in the last year with apparently no takers. (Read more about Tony Berkman’s continual relisting for sale of his websites).
Berkman’s response to Walker perfectly captures how he feels about the 14 writers of a Citizen Journalism website who took a stand against his business tactics; the writers he threatened with lawsuits and claimed were defaming his website and ruining his name by simply airing their opinion.
“It’s not about the money anymore.”