Why did Bryan Sims buy $1000 in stock of Lending Club? Just because he loved the company, a kind of eBay for loans, so much at the time. Now he feels differently, but then, as he tells Bloomberg, getting in on the business he saw as revolutionary, right as it went public — in what would be the largest tech IPO of 2014 — felt like making history. Maybe Sims was reading the press surrounding the company at the time, which might have led one to believe that the company promised a financial revolution. (It might have, and might still, but certainly not thanks to such lavish praise.)
Later, it was listening to an earnings call — just for fun, really — that Sims heard now former Lending Club CEO Renaud Laplanche make a strange remark. He observed that 14 percent of borrowers — or a number of people greater than 100,000 — had come back and taken out a second loan after their first. That was news to Sims, and eventually, working on his own, Sims was able to identify 30,000 loans taken out by repeat bowers who were being treated as if they were new customers. Eventually, Sims noticed that Lending Club could have deliberately inflated its numbers with executives and employees taking out loans to boost metrics. And weeks after Sims made that discovery, Lending Club copped to the fact that Laplanche and three of his family members had taken out a series of loans identified by Sims as fishy.
Later, and not directly related — except in the important sense of credibility — Laplanche resigned in May of this year. The New York Times reported that the move was ostensibly made over a $22 million debt portfolio that was sold to investment bank Jefferies with loans misdated by Lending Club employees. Meanwhile, Laplanche had also encouraged the company to invest in an outside fund in which he held personal investments. After all that drama, most recently, the company has received a subpoena from the Department of Justice and is being looked over by the SEC.
The future of Lending Club isn't clear. It's defined a new industry, having thrown open a door to new lines of credit that could shut behind it. Bloomberg puts it this way: "The San Francisco-based marketplace lender is either the most important company in the booming financial technology sector or, if its many critics are to be believed, a Silicon Valley-tinged credit crisis waiting to happen."
It would, pretty clearly, have been useful to know exactly how Lending Club became one or the other of these things, or when it began to resemble one more than the other. But instead, it seems from Bloomberg that Lending Club, like several prominent startups (including vegan condiment company Hampton Creek and purported blood analysis technology company Theranos) was mostly buoyed along by mainstream Silicon Valley tech reporting.
Those kind of issues — kid-glove treatment of companies by a new field of reporters — is the subject of a Nieman Foundation report called "Access, Accountability Reporting and Silicon Valley" by Adrienne Lafrance, a staff writer at the Atlantic. In her experience covering tech companies, "Freebies are everywhere, but real access is scant," because "[p]owerful companies like Facebook and Google are major distributors of journalistic work, meaning newsrooms increasingly rely on tech giants to reach readers, a relationship that’s awkward at best and potentially disastrous at worst."
Possibly a good way to disrupt this system is to hire dedicated reporters with a narrow focus, such as on a single company, investigative journalists who can cultivate sources outside that company's PR department and beyond the scope of its own self-serving narrative. The New York Times, for example, just hired a dedicated Google reporter in Daisuke Wakabayashi, as media blog Fishbowl NY writes.
Sara Watson, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, also has this idea: “Critical angles on technology can live in a lot of different forms: reported pieces, op-eds, blog posts, the business section, satire, science fiction... The thing that’s missing on the critical side of the coverage is an attention to what the positive, constructive alternatives could be. That’s the hardest question to answer, and that’s especially hard if you are writing as a journalist. But helping readers imagine alternatives to the things that aren’t quite working for us, or on our behalf, is the way to start holding institutions accountable.”