web analytics

Bill Bennett

Menu

Tag: journalism

Journalists too mean to tech companies

deathtostock_modernworkshop-04At The Register Shaun Nichols writes:

“The tech press has dared to lean away from its core mission of making technology companies more profitable, says tech advocacy house ITIF.”

The ITIF or Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is an industry think-tank. It issued a report looking at “a change of tone in technology reporting” between the 1980s and this decade.

Long story short, it says the media moved from a positive attitude towards the industry to confrontation.

This, according to the ITIF, is because being tough on the industry makes it easier for tech media to turn a profit.

It goes on to talk about the media being ‘biased’ and distorts the public view of technology.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. There’s a lot to unpack, but here are a couple of ideas to think about.

Advertising

In the past publishers made money selling advertising to technology companies. They were a great sales conduit. It worked.

The technology industry was the tech media’s most important customer. Rivers of gold poured in.

While there are publishers who publish nice stories in return for advertising dollars, that was never a great business model. Reader are not fooled. They don’t stick around for blatant propaganda.

The advertising money didn’t buy favourable coverage, at least in the better publications. It did foster a favourable attitude towards the industry. The coverage reflected this.

The partnership also meant journalists and publishers spent time in the company of tech industry people. That too is good for creating a positive attitude.

One conclusion of the ITIF report is more advertising would repair media relations.

Readers and journalists

In the old model, advertisers paid for journalism, but journalists serve readers. Few understood this then. They still don’t.

As Nichols says, we’re not industry cheerleaders. We don’t earn cheerleader, public relations or marketing-type salaries.

Our job is to inform readers. If there is more cynicism in technology media (see the next point) then that is what readers want.

Modern reporting tools mean we know what stories rate from the minute they go online. Guess what? Readers are less likely to click on happy-slappy, isn’t everything wonderful darling stories.

In other words, journalists and publishers respond to reader demands.

Don’t shoot the messenger if they now have a darker view of the tech industry. Get your own house in order.

It’s all nonsense anyway

To argue tech media is meaner than it ways, say, thirty years ago is bonkers. The big newspapers and media sites are full of thin press release rewrites. It is common for blatant propaganda to appear as factual news.

Take, for the sake of argument, Computerworld New Zealand. Thirty years ago, even a decade ago, it was breaking news stories. It was quoted in Parliament. Today, it runs nothing that didn’t start life in a public relations office.

That’s not to say all the tech media is soft. It isn’t. But the ratio of soft stories to more hard hitting news is off the scale. You have to wonder if the ITIF is paying attention.

New Zealand Herald digital — newspaper without paper

The New Zealand Herald sent an email today inviting readers to subscribe to a NZ$25 a month digital edition.

This is a good idea. A digital edition is an exact electronic copy of the print edition. The paper is available online at 6am each day. It is separate from the website version of the paper at http://nzherald.co.nz.

You can read the digital edition from a Windows PC or Mac in a browser. There are apps for iOS and Android users.

Read on PCs, tablets, phones

The NZ Herald digital edition displays well on a big PC screen. A digital facsimile of the daily paper would be a joy to read on, say, the large version of the iPad Pro. You’ll get by fine on most laptops and 10-inch tablets.

A digital newspaper is harder work on a mobile phone. Small screens are not the best way to read tabloid pages. Yet even that format can be useful sometimes.

Digital newspaper editions are not new. They’ve been around since the 90s. A digital version of The New Zealand Herald was available on Pressdisplay (now called PressReader) when the Herald was still a broadsheet.

Like a newspaper, without paper

There are two reasons why a digital edition could be better than reading a website. First, web news pages lack context. You can instantly grasp the relative importance of stories and how they relate to each other.

While editors place the most important stories at the top of a list on a site’s home page, that’s not the same. And anyway, few readers arrive via the home page. For most news context is something decided by a Google algorithm or another automatic process.

Online news sites serve up atomised news, digital editions give a bigger picture.

The other aspect of old school print papers that you miss when reading news websites is the lack of filtering.

Papers are organised into sections: News, world news, business, sport and so on, but they serve up a wide range of material within these broad sections. You’ll find you’ll read more widely and are better informed — even if that is just a matter of glancing at headlines in passing.

The downside of a digital edition is that is out of date after publication. Although you might see this as a positive if you think of it a snapshot frozen in time.

At $25 a month, the NZ Herald digital edition is about half the price of having the print edition delivered. Some print subscriptions include the digital edition at no extra cost. For some readers that makes the digital edition great added value.

Money

Given the high cost of printing and distribution, it might seem the publisher isn’t passing on all the potential cost savings.

In practice, it’s more complicated. Setting up the technology to deliver a digital edition is expensive, it may require frequent tweaking. Reader numbers for digital editions is often a fraction of print edition reader numbers. So these costs are shared by a relatively low number of readers.

One trick the Herald’s digital edition marketing effort has missed is offering a sample edition so potential customers can check the format is right for them.

Six years ago Rupert Murdoch hailed tablets as the newspaper industry’s saviour. That was premature. The industry is still stumbling to find a way to make money after the advertising apocalypse. Digital editions could help, but it puts the onus back on publishers to ensure the journalism is worth paying for.

Bill Bennett writes features for New Zealand Herald business reports.

Reviewing technology products: Science and anecdotes

Tech product reviews take many forms.

Some are scientific. Others are anecdotal. 

Scientific reviews involve research, prising the back from things, taking them apart and dropping them on hard surfaces. Listening to noises. Measuring everything. Running battery life tests.

You come away from these tests with numbers. Often many numbers. Maybe you’ve heard of data journalism. This is similar, you need maths and statistics to make sense of the numbers.

Scientific reviews take time. And money. You need deep pockets to test things to breaking point.

Benchmarks

Benchmarks are one reason scientific reviews take so much time. You do them again to make sure. You draw up meaningful, measured comparisons with rival products. Then put everything into context.

We used the scientific approach when I ran the Australian and New Zealand editions of PC Magazine. This was in the 1990s. ACP, the publishing company I worked for, invested in a testing laboratory.

We had expensive equipment and a range of benchmarking software and tools. Specialist technicians managed the laboratory. They researched new ways to make in-depth comparisons, like the rest of us working there, they were experienced technology journalists.

My PC Magazine colleague Darren Yates was a master at the scientific approach. He tackled the job as if it were an engineering problem. He was methodical and diligent. You can’t do that in a hurry.

There were times when the rest of my editorial team pulled their hair out waiting for the last tests to complete on deadline. We may have cursed but the effort was worth it.

Our test results were comprehensive. We knew to the microsecond, cent, bit, byte or milliamp what PCs and other tech products delivered.

There are still publications working along similar lines. Although taking as much time as we did then is rare today.

Publishing industry pressure

It’s not only the cost of operating a laboratory. Today’s publishers expect journalists to churn out many more words for each paid hour than in the past. That leaves less time for in-depth analysis. Less time to weigh up the evidence, to go back over numbers and check them once again.

At the other end of the scale to scientific reviews are once-over-lightly descriptions of products. These are little more than lists of product highlights with a few gushing words tacked on. The most extreme examples are where reviewers write without turning the device on — or loading the software.

Some reviews are little more than rehashed public relations or marketing material.

The dreaded reviewers’ guide

Some tech companies send reviewers’ guides. Think of them as a preferred template for write ups. I’ve seen published product reviews regurgitate this information, adding little original or critical.

That’s cheating readers.

Somewhere between the extremes are exhaustive, in-depth descriptions. These can run to many thousands of words and include dozens of photographs. They are ridiculously nit-picking at times. A certain type of reader loves this approach.

Much of what you read today is closer to the once-over-lightly end of the spectrum than the scientific or exhaustive approach.

Need to know

One area that is often not well addressed is focusing on what readers need to know.

The problem is need-to-know differs from one audience to another. Many Geekzone readers want in-depth technical details. If I write about a device they want to know the processor, clock speed, Ram and so on.

When I write for NZ Business I often ignore or downplay technical  specifications. Readers there are more interested to know what something does and if it delivers on promises. Does it work? Does it make life easier? Is it worth the asking price?

Most of the time when I write here, my focus is on how things work in practice and how they compare with similar products. I care about whether they aid productivity more than how they get there. I like the one week with this tablet approach.

Beyond benchmarks

Benchmarks were important when applications always ran on PCs, not in the cloud. How software, processor, graphics and storage interact is an important part of the user experience.

While speeds and processor throughput numbers matter for specialists, most of the time they are irrelevant.

How could you, say, make a meaningful benchmark of a device accessing Xero accounts?

Ten times the processor speed doesn’t make much difference to Xero, or a writer typing in Word. It is important if you plough through huge volumes of local data.

I still mention device speed if it is noticeable. For most audiences benchmarks are not useful.

Fast enough

Today’s devices are usually fast enough for most apps.

Much heavy-lifting now takes place in the cloud, so line speed is often as big an issue as processor performance. That will differ from user to user and even from time to time. If, say, you run Xero, your experience depends more on the connection speed than on your computer.

Gamers and design professionals may worry about performance, but there is little value in measuring raw speed these days.

Instead, I prefer exploring if devices are fit for the task. Then I write about how they fit with my work. I call this the anecdotal approach to reviewing. There has been the occasional mistake, my Computers Lynx review from 40 years ago was a learning experience.

Taking a personal approach this way is a good starting point for others to relate to their own needs. My experience and use patterns almost certainly won’t match yours, but you can often project my experience on to your needs. I’m happy to take questions in comments if people need more information.

Review product ratings

I’ve toyed with giving products ratings in my reviews. It was standard practice to do this in print magazines. We were careful about this at PC Magazine.

A lot of ratings elsewhere were meaningless. There was a heavy skew to the top of the scale. Depending on the scale used, more products got the top or second top ranking than any other. Few rated lower than two-thirds of the way up the scale.
So much for the Bell Curve.

If a magazine review scale ran from, say, one to five stars, you’d rarely see any product score less than three. And even a score of three would be rare. I’ve known companies to launch legal action against publications awarding three or four stars. Better than average is hardly grounds for offence, let alone litigation.

As for all those five-star reviews. Were reviewers saying a large proportion of products were perfect or near perfect? That’s unlikely. For any rating system to be meaningful you’d expect to see a lot of one or two-star ratings. That didn’t happen.

Loss aversion

Once I heard an advertising sales exec tell a magazine advertiser: “we only review the good stuff”.

That’s awful. Readers need to know what to avoid as much as what to buy. Indeed, basic human nature says losses are twice as painful, as gains. Where possible, I like to warn against poor products. Companies that make poor products usually know better than to send them out for review, so you’ll see less of them, but it can happen.

My approach to reviewing products isn’t perfect. I’d like to do more scientific testing, but don’t have the time or resources. Often The review loan is only for a few days, so extensive testing isn’t possible. Reviews here are unpaid. This means reviewing has to take second place behind paying jobs.

New Zealand technology journalism: the twilight years

New Zealand has a vibrant and flourishing technology sector. Nobody would use those words to describe New Zealand technology journalism.

Like a retirement village, there are still pockets of life, but things are winding down. There’s less coverage of local technology stories.

You can count the number of full-time technology journalists writing for New Zealand audiences on your fingers. Experienced local journalists are as likely to turn up on overseas publications as on local titles.

Readers are more familiar with international technology media; even if it doesn’t always serve our needs.

It means we no longer tell the best stories about local technology companies. We don’t report the ways New Zealanders deal with technology. A lot gets missed.

We’ve stopped telling our stories because no-one wants to pay for that kind of writing.

Specialist tech publishers

Three specialist publishers dominate:

Techday publishes two monthly print magazines: IT Brief and The Channel. It operates as an umbrella website featuring eight virtual publication brands covering subject niches.

You couldn’t accuse Techday of being mean to technology companies.

Techday lists three staff journalists are listed on its website. The last time I asked none of them worked full-time. This may have changed. Update: Techday Publisher Sean Mitchell tells me his journalists are all employed full-time.

IDG is US-owned and Australian managed. It publishes a print edition of CIO magazine three times a year. If you want a subscription you have to apply to Australia. That speaks volumes. IDG also operates Computerworld, NZ Reseller News and PC World as online-only publications.

IDG employs two full-time journalists. James Henderson is the editor of Computerworld NZ while Divina Paredes is CIO editor. Randal Jackson writes stories as the group’s Wellington-based freelance. Reseller News and PC World don’t have local editorial staff. Update: James Henderson is the editor of both Computerworld NZ and Reseller News.

iStart publishes a print and electronic magazine three times a year. The business is Auckland based with New Zealand and Australian print editions and websites. Auckland-based Clare Coulson is the editor.

Part-time technology journalism

Between them the three specialist publishers employ three full-time and four part-time journalists. Update: six full-time and one part-time. That’s still fewer than one journalist per masthead. They rarely break hard news stories. News pages are mostly filled with rewritten press releases and PR-fed material.

That sounds like criticism. On one level it is, but it also reflects commercial reality. There’s little advertising revenue. What advertisers the publishers can scrape up are looking for a shortcut to sales leads, not hard-hitting exposés.

You will find longer features in most titles. Sometimes there’s even analysis although there’s little of the deeper material that characterised the technology press in the past.

Again that’s commercial reality: journalists are under pressure to pump out a lot of content fast. There’s not much time for reflection.

This also explains why the IDG sites are full of overseas filler material. It keeps the pipeline full at no extra cost to the publisher. The stories seem to be picked at random. No thought is given to whether a story serves readers.

This can get extreme. Last week Ian Apperley noted there wasn’t a single local story among the 100 most recent news items on the Computerworld NZ feed.

Technology journalism in mainstream media

The same pressure to pump out volume applies to tech journalists working in New Zealand’s mainstream media. Both Stuff and the NZ Herald fill their online pipelines with low-cost, low-value overseas filler material.

In the past the newspapers did great work keeping industry insiders, users and the public informed about events and trends. Now they publish shorter, less analytical news although there are some notable exceptions, particularly when covering telecommunications.

One reason you don’t see as much local technology news is there are no longer any full-time technology journalists working on mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Chris Keall who at one time edited NZ PC World is the most notable specialist journalist in terms of output. He is NBR technology editor. Keall is also the paper’s head of digital, so he spends less time at the tech coal face. Keall manages to write roughly a story a day and at times gets behind more complex issues.

At the Dominion Post Tom Pullar-Strecker was a technology specialist but now has a general business journalism role. Being based in Wellington he sometimes gets insight into issues such as telecommunications policy. These days he writes roughly one tech story a week.

NZ Herald

The NZ Herald gives technology assignments to a number of journalists. The best know is Chris Barton, who writes features and commentary covering technology and telecommunications topics. Barton goes deep, but his work only appears occasionally.

The Herald also runs a weekly blog by tech veteran Juha Saarinen. Saarinen is one of the locally based technology journalists who appears to earn most of his income from working for overseas publishers. Unlike most of us, he has a firmer technology background. He mainly writes for IT News, an Australian online publication.

Rob O’Neill is another virtual ex-pat New Zealand journalist. He writes for ZDNet and is listed as part of the ZDNet Australia team. O’Neill writes local and international stories, maybe two local items a week.

Wellington-based Owen Williams has only recently moved to working full-time as a journalist. He is now on the team for US-based The Next Web.

On a personal note

This round-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my work. I’m a freelance journalist. I write a regular technology column for NZ Business magazine — it mainly appears in print. In the last year have also written features for iStart, NBR and for Management magazine, which is now part of NZ Business. I also turn up on TV3 Firstline and the NZ Tech Podcast talking about technology.

My highest profile freelance work would be on the business feature pull-outs that appear in the NZ Herald about ten times a year. Although I get to write about tech from a business point of view, the stories range across most business areas.

There are also overseas jobs. In the last year I have written for ZDNet’s PC Magazine and for Computer Weekly out of the UK. Both publishers commissioned stories that are specifically about New Zealand themes.

Local technology journalism is undergunned

Most experienced New Zealand technology writers, myself included, are not writing full-time for New Zealand audiences about local themes. Some are writing for overseas publishers, others split writing duties with other editorial responsibilities.

Those who are writing full-time spend their lives in a haze churning out short items dictated largely by the flow of press releases and PR-initiated pitches.

Too often an exclusive is nothing more than first dibs on a press release. You’re not doing your job when you post 20 smartphone shots of someone’s new data centre or are the first New Zealand site to publish alleged leaked photos of a yet to be launched product.

Getting eyeballs is everything. Local publishers fight with Google over the slim pickings available from online advertisements. They also compete internationally. New Zealanders probably read more overseas written tech news than locally written stories.

I’m not judgemental about the problems they face or the way local publishers tackle the problems, I’m on the receiving end of the same economic forces.

Who pays the piper?

The market doesn’t serve the readers. It doesn’t serve the local tech industry. Leaders of New Zealand tech companies need to be aware of what is going on in their industry, not what someone’s promotional output says. They need intelligence, not propaganda.

The current approach doesn’t serve the public good.

There’s also a problem when a big news story breaks that has technology woven into its fabric. Remember the fuss in the run-up to the 2014 election over stolen emails? Perhaps the planned $1.5 billion reboot of the IRD computer system. How about the business of the Edward Snowden leaks?

In some cases journalists who don’t have tech expertise or the contacts needed to make sense of what is happening are sent to deal with these stories.

That’s a pity. There’s a bigger pity. Hundreds of real, hard news stories, things that the public needs to know about go unreported because they are not part of a public relations campaign. Or worse, public relations managers block the news from getting out.

Oxygen

Let’s put aside the worthy goal of keeping the public informed and get to a different commercial reality. New Zealand’s homegrown technology sector doesn’t get the media oxygen it needs to breath.

Because overseas news feeds dominate the agenda in New Zealand, people buying here are more likely to hear about an overseas supplier than a local one. Investors will put their money overseas, skilled workers will look for jobs overseas. This is already causing problems.

The lack of balanced, impartial and thoughtful New Zealand technology journalism creates the impression there’s not much going on here.

Blogs take up some of the slack. So does Mauricio Freitas’ Geekzone website and projects like the New Zealand Tech Podcast.

Technology needs a local voice. It has to be an honest voice. That means turning over rocks some people would prefer stayed untouched.

NZ media live blogging

New Zealand’s news outlets were late to the live blogging party.

British news sites had been using live blogging successfully for around 18 months before it blossomed here during the election. Most UK newspapers and the BBC use it to great effect on their web sites.

Live blogging is, without doubt, the single most important development in journalism of the past few years. It is the first uniquely digital format. Until live blogs, almost every piece of online journalism used formats re-purposed from print, TV or radio news reporting.

You might argue that tweeting news predates live blogging. I’d say tweets are a truncated, maybe even crippled, version of the live blog.

New Zealand live blogging

Live blogging took off in New Zealand during the 2011 election. It was used before then, but it took the sustained political campaign to hit its stride. There were live blogs at the NZ Herald and on the Stuff website.

Special mention should go to Toby Manhire at the Listener, who gave his election live-blog a highly personal flavour – for my money he is New Zealand’s first successful live-blog by-line. I also enjoyed Alex Tarrant’s election diary at interest.co.nz.

Where NZ Herald and Stuff went wrong

One criticism I have of the NZ Herald and Stuff live blogs during the election was they would close mid-afternoon, at around 4PM – long before the day’s news cycle finished.

I guess that was a function of the shift systems at the papers, but it would have been best to have journalists pass the baton rather than shut down. An election live blog needs to run almost 24 hours.

Before the election

A few New Zealand reporters were early to use the live blogging format, most notably Chris Keall who live-blogs press conferences and important meeting for the National Business Review. It didn’t always work, but hat’s off for pioneering the format.

Live-blogging works brilliantly when a story or event unravels at a steady pace. It is perfect for Cricket, other sports coverage tends to be good too. This is why it was a success during the election.

Fast moving news

With fast-moving news stories it gives reporters a way of keeping up with developments. Live blogging is better than constantly updating a static news story. It allows links to other coverage and, this is important, it encourages people with news to contribute. Reader comments can be worked into a live blog.

Live blogging doesn’t work well when the story is too long and rambling, it can get confusing. It often tends to be weak on providing background because live bloggers get caught up in unfolding events. Likewise it doesn’t lend itself to analysis.

Where live blogging didn’t work

One story that a number of outlets tried to live blog — and failed — was when Steve Jobs died. This was one main piece of news, his death, which could have been dealt with in a more conventional news story. The live blogs struggled to find interesting things to say and varied between mawkish and ghoulish.