Bill Bennett

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New Zealand Herald digital — newspaper minus 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The downside of a digital edition is that is out of date after publication.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.

Technology product reviews: 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 tech 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.

NetHui 2013: The real trouble with journalism

TLDNR – too long, did not read.

It’s the kind of comment you might expect to hear in an online forum, not from a senior news executive at the nation’s largest newspaper.

And certainly not in the context where it was used by a colleague in front of former New Zealand Herald feature writer Chris Barton.

That snide comment tells you the real trouble with journalism – the people running the industry simply don’t get it.

There’s a lot they just don’t get.

Depth and prestige

For the best part of a decade Barton worked on the kind of long-form, in-depth feature stories which win prizes and readers for newspapers. They add depth to the paper and prestige to the masthead.

Perhaps they weren’t read by everyone. But many readers would buy the Weekend Herald especially to get the more expansive, intelligent features.

By the time Barton left the Herald last year, the feature department was effectively finished. In-depth features are no longer part of the paper’s mix.

Read on

And anyway, Too long, didn’t read is nonsense. People do read long form stories. They read them online and they continue to read them in magazines.

They read even longer stories.

There’s a special name we give to those even longer stories, we call them books. They can be printed, although increasingly books are digital.

The Scoop Foundation Journalism

Barton was speaking at a session run by The Scoop Foundation. It’s a public interest journalism organisation set up by Alison McCulloch and Alistair Thompson to fund journalism projects.

Also at the presentation was The Science Media Centre’s Peter Griffin.

He talked of his experiences looking at how similar organisations in the USA have stepped into to cover some of the issues journalists might have covered for large newspapers. He says there’s potential to raise money in New Zealand from philanthropic trusts.

Grumpy editors and how to deal with them

dealing with grumpy editorsModern public relations people often don’t understand how the media works. Many don’t get journalism.

This wasn’t a problem in the past when most PR people were ex-journalists. Today, many publicists have never seen the inside of an editorial office.

Or if they have, they haven’t seen how editors and journalist work. They know little about what makes journalists tick. What motivates and drives reporters and editors.

Harmful PR failures

As a result many PR people end up harming their client’s chances of getting publicity. Or at least the right publicity. Instead they get in the way of journalists and annoy editors.

Which is where Dan Kaufman’s Dealing with grumpy editors gets its name. To public relations people journalists often appear grumpy, rude and obstructive.

This should not surprise anyone. You wouldn’t believe some of the nonsense editors have to put up with from PR people. Some of that nonsense passes for wisdom or craft in the PR industry.

Rubbish public relations

After 17 years before the editorial masthead Kaufman has seen some rubbish PR. He has also seen some sharp operators. In this book he provides practical advice for communications workers wanting to get an editor’s attention.

If you work in PR, you may not agree with everything Kaufman says. He tells it like it is in straightforward language. It is a valuable work, worth every cent of the ridiculously low $4.99 he is charging for the PDF version.

I can come to your offices – or meet you in a fancy restaurant – and give you the same advice for $150 an hour. So on second thoughts, don’t buy the book. Hire me instead.

Grumpy editors

In the spirit of good journalism, I should disclose my connection with Kaufman. I hired him as a junior journalist some 17 years or so ago. Hopefully he wasn’t thinking of me when he gave his book its title.

Nine journalism apps I can’t live without

There are few journalism apps in the sense they were developed to make reporting work easier. But there are plenty of more general apps that fill a need.

Livescribe SmartPen

Livescribe’s Pulse SmartPen is a standard ball-point pen with a built-in microphone and digital audio recorder. It can store hundreds of hours of audio in memory and will work all day without charging.

The SmartPen uses infra-red to digitally copy handwritten notes. This downloads to a PC via a USB cradle. The Livescribe software links audio and note data so you can use your notes to move back and forth through the audio by selecting words and bookmarks.

Recording interviews is new to me. Before I had a Livescribe SmartPen I relied on my appalling shorthand. It was barely readable, but efficient. In 30 years I’ve never been accused of misquoting anyone.

But this US$150 device has changed the way I work, especially when covering formal press conferences, roundtables, seminars and conferences. I sometimes use the SmartPen for interviews, but often go back to shorthand – a skill I don’t want to lose.

The Livescribe’s main drawback is the need to use expensive, specialised notepaper, but that’s a small price to pay for the convenience. But I think every journalist should at least investigate the SmartPen.

MyScript for Livescribe

This US$30 add-on software turns my Livescribe handwritten notes – perhaps scrawl would be a better term – into digital text. MyScript is far from perfect, the error rate can be high, especially when I’m racing to take down notes or revert to my old school shorthand. There are times when pages are gibberish. I can report it is more accurate than the first Apple Newton MessagePad and not as reliable as the later models. However, when it works MyScript saves time when writing longer stories.

Microsoft OneNote

Like many other journalists I spend much of my working day using Microsoft Word. I’m not crazy about Word – I mainly use it because it keeps me compatible with everyone else in the media and doesn’t frighten editors. If I could find a better alternative, I’d move.

On the other hand Microsoft OneNote, which also comes bundled in some versions of Microsoft Office, is essential.

Microsoft designed OneNote for tablet computers – and can take audio and electronic ink – but I use it as a data depository on my desktop and synch my OneNote files to my laptop – I store all my important reference material once. I use it to clip text, pictures, movies or even complete web pages from the net, incoming email and other digital sources.

Evernote is a great alternative to OneNote. It does a better job of capturing online data and the auto-tagging feature is neat. It works better with smartphones than OneNote – that’s something that may cause me to jump ship in the near future.

WordPress

I built this website on WordPress – and three more for other people. WordPress is not a full-blown content management system, but it is the cheapest, fastest and easiest way to create professional-looking sites and there’s a fantastic support community along with hundreds of useful plug-ins. Learning WordPress isn’t for everyone, but this is my entry point for digital publishing.

Gmail

Having one inbox on my desktop, laptop and smart phone is essential. I switched sometime ago from Microsoft Outlook and, with one exception mentioned below, haven’t looked back.

Linkedin, Rapportive key journalism apps

Gmail’s weak spot is poor contact management. It isn’t useless – it works well on my Android phone – but it is second-rate compared to Outlook’s excellent contact manager. To get around its shortcomings I use Linkedin and Rapportive to keep track of people.

Linkedin is a great fact-checker for getting correct name spellings, job titles and so on. Unlike any other contact management tool, it stays up-to-date when people move jobs – or at least it does when the people update their entries. I’ve also found it a source of news stories – when someone moves between companies.

Rapportive helps me get timely information on the people communicating by email and pulls Linkedin and other social media data into Gmail. I also use Linkedin on my Android phone.

Scansoft Paperport and Omnipage

I’ve been working on becoming a paperless journalist – one powerful tool is Nuance’s  Paperport. I use it to store digital images of paper documents. Some of them I keep as raw images, others I covert to PDF format and send another set of documents to OneNote. Eventually I’ll have them all in a single place.

Scanning material and send it directly to OneNote works well, so that may prove the better option long-term. On the other hand PaperPort integrates well with Omnipage – an optical character reader. Sometime I need something able to handle bigger newspaper pages: Microsoft Image Composite Editor gets the job done.