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The problem with watch payola

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Watches are great. They are works of art. They are pure products of human ingenuity and each and every one is a labor of love, a bulwark against the onslaught of cheap things cheaply made.

We cover watches that we would buy or recommend. We get watches sent to us and we give them away or send them back. I started this site in 2004 and I always said we wouldn’t be paid for watch reviews. People can buy ads on the site but I’m not going to take a check in order to write about something. If it’s any good I’ll write about it, if it’s not good I’ll pass. All the guys who work here know this.

But there’s a problem. Watch sites are doing you a disservice. They are charging small companies for hands-ons and reviews. How do I know? I recently received an email from a guy who was making a watch. He was doing it on Kickstarter, like so many others, and he asked if we sold reviews. We didn’t and I asked him why he’d assume that we did. He sent me this from Worn & Wound:

Worn&Wound Crowdfunding Sponsorship Rate Card

Basically they wanted to charge him $2,500 for a review. There are two ways to think about this. Most Kickstarter watches aren’t very exciting and this is a high wall that a company needs to climb in order to get the editor’s attention. It’s also a way to weed out the small players. Or it could be that they are so hungry for cash that they’ve resorted to selling reviews.

I have been railing against pay-to-play watch coverage and, to a degree, access journalism in the industry for over a decade. What does that mean? At it’s core this is how access journalism works: all of the big watch sites take paid junkets to Switzerland and Monaco and Germany in order to cover the big launches and there have been cosy advertising relationships between the big guys and various brands and auction houses for years. That, I suppose, is the price of doing business. But what happens when someone reviews the latest Rolex and says it sucks? Yoink. Access is taken away and the journalist no longer gets the time of day from brand PR. Or maybe you review something that looks a little too much like a Rolex. Yoink. Once again you get hassled. So the solution is to only review $200,000 monstrosities for the Swiss and ignore the rest of the world.

Then add in pay-to-play and you get a perfect storm of garbage coverage. The big guys earn their coverage through advertising dollars and junkets and the little guys can’t get past the gate because they can’t pay the toll. In short you get watch journalism that is bought and sold.

I don’t want to drop a turd in the watch blog punchbowl. I’m sure there’s a great reason Kickstarter folks should pay $2,500 to get covered that I’m missing. But it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to small watchmakers, it isn’t fair to the big guys in whose interest it is to encourage the love of watchmaking, and it isn’t fair to you, the readers.

Watchmaking is in dire straits. Many major houses are on the brink of collapse. Every single one is for sale simply because the owners realize they are losing money. It makes no sense to make watches anymore.

Watch blogs are hurting, too. But are they hurting so badly that they can’t play fair? Maybe if they supported small watches from small manufacturers they could nurture the next greats. Maybe we could have more than one US-made watch. Maybe we could find the next Gerald Genta.

If we keep charging thousands of dollars for reviews this won’t happen. It poisons the nest. It destroys the fledglings.

And I don’t want to live in a world that does not contain beautiful timepieces. I want to exist in a world where there are too many damn watches, not too few. And if the only way forward is to support Kickstarter watches then so be it. I don’t want watch blogs to shut down for lack of advertising. I want them to offer reviews to makers they like and withhold them from makers who are in it for a fast buck. I want them to review pieces fairly and sanely. And I don’t want the little guy to have to pay for coverage and I want you, the reader, to be treated with the respect you deserve from the manufacturer, from the blog, and from the industry as a whole.

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