By Antony Savvas.
When considering how to do anything right in life, the answers may well seem subjective to some. But here I will outline some of the gripes among technology journalists that are continually aired when they find a moment in their busy schedules to chew the fat amongst their peers.
It might be helpful to start from where I began in my technology reporting odyssey, to illustrate how the technology may have changed over the years but not some of the gripes.
IN THE BEGINNING
My first full-time technology reporting job was at PC Dealer at publisher VNU in 1990, when the title was battling against Dennis Publishing's MicroScope in the then very profitable and cut-throat IT channel advertising space.
Both titles were packed with job adverts and extremely expensive display ads from leading PC and server vendors, despite their relatively low circulations – not that much more than 10,000 in PC Dealer's case. But they “hung around” in the industry as they were passed around by channel pros looking for their next job.
Anyway, it was a pretty exciting time in technology journalism as vendors were killing themselves to squeeze copy into the limited number of specialist and general technology magazines on the market then – pre-internet and pre-mobile for over 99% of the population.
Did we get paid a fortune? No. Did we drive the fast cars of the people we wrote about? No. Did we take the drugs many of the executives we wrote about did? No, not all of us. And did we feel like Gods? Yes, to a point. As even the attention of PR and marketing people - begging to fly you everywhere for three or four days, to write one 300-word news story you could have done over the phone in half an hour - feeds your ego.
Then there were the long lunches at any Soho restaurant of your choice, strip clubs for the ones into that kind of titillation, sports tickets for big events, and the regular evening free bars with elaborate buffets. And all the editors and publishers went along with it. We had plenty of time to fill a weekly magazine with a relatively large staff, and after press day there were always a couple of quiet days.
IN THE END
Then we had the internet, mobile phones, the dot-com bubble burst, magazine closures and the creation of online technology titles which resemble a battery hen farm – you seat a journalist in front of a PC and one technology story after another drops out. Believe me, I'm not criticising the hens, I've been one at varied titles from computerweekly.com, computerworldUK.com and ITProPortal.com to documentmanagement.com [yes, it really existed] and channelbiz.com.
For instance, for over four years at Computer Weekly as a freelance, five days a week, I churned out eight to ten online news stories EVERY day as the main news stringer. Am I complaining? No, I got paid relatively well and the gig lasted its natural course before I moved on. But when it came to dealing with PR, I didn't have time to mess about, particularly as I was a hen who actually flew around to cover events still.
Instead of churning out stories, most journalists would still prefer to work on bigger, more in-depth pieces, which will get more hits in the long-run, but they are forced to bump up story counts to appease publishers and advertisers. Publishers love quality too when they're reading it, but they are unwilling or unable to pay for it in terms of more staff and/or better writers, as every man and his dog has launched a technology website and Google and Facebook are stealing all the advertising revenue.
A number of daily news sites are also now staffed by freelancers, with only a skeleton permanent staff, including an editor but often not even a news editor. They rely on outside stringers being paid as little as £10 per story. For that, these stringers have to knock company announcements into shape, write a headline, write a stand first (introduction) for the story and find digital pictures for the piece, as well as write a picture caption.
With traditional magazines, this whole process would have involved a news editor, a writer, a sub-editor and a production editor, now it only involves the person being paid peanuts for their efforts. Therefore, they're not going to spend much time on each story to try and make a living, are they?
As a result, big story counts prevail in most instances to enable the site to be “comprehensive”. Although the internet can never be filled anyway, it swallows all the junk thrown at it. So, with all this in mind here you go...
Announcements, otherwise known as press releases, are very very useful despite what some journalists may tell you. If we are honest, in technology journalism, we will admit that press releases make up the majority of news in magazines, and particularly on websites.
There's nothing wrong with this, when having to work within the parameters previously described, but you do start to wonder what stories could be covered if we were looking elsewhere more often. Most journalists will use their experience to put background and context into a press release, perhaps putting a helpful and informative spin on the message being put out by the vendor.
Of course, if they are able to rubbish the whole release for the benefit of their readers using their informed opinion, industry experts and vendor rivals, even better for entertainment value. But that doesn't happen too often these days, as publishers are understandably fearful of losing advertising revenue from vendors that can now go anywhere on the internet – not the case when there were a few magazines to choose from.
As a side point, is there a single Apple announcement that is not dutifully covered by the tech press almost word for word, albeit with the sentences often jumbled around and a bit of obvious and well-trodden background thrown in?
In fact, until a few years ago, no general IT website could get the hits it required for the advertisers if it didn't have a pile of Apple mentions on its pages. If you're Apple's PR you've still got an easy job, but if you're not you have to try a little harder to get your message across, among the multitude of press releases being sent to journalists.
The second part of this blog post will cover contacting journalists, PR events, 'exclusives' and journalist briefings. Watch this space!
About Antony Savvas
Antony Savvas is a freelance technology editor and corporate writer. He works for various technology magazines and websites and has been working in the sector for over 25 years.