The high-tech media food chain

How the computer trade press paves the vaporware trail

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My neck hurts. My modem won’t connect. Somewhere in the non-dimensional, quark-sized bowels of cyberspace, I just lost a story that was due
yesterday, and I’ve been on hold with Microsoft’s decidedly not toll-free
“support” line, on and off, for several months.

I feel like a cybergeek version of Michael Douglas’ character in “Falling Down.” I have no control over my life.

Where, I might ask, is the individual empowerment the Digital Era promised? (I’m sure someone had promised me this.) How do all these semi-compatible, not-ready-for-prime-time, almost-functional products make it to market?

But I know the answer already. I worked for a year in the computer trade press — and still write for it when financially necessary.

Go to the Source

In 1977 Ed Pettit wrote a book called The Experts, more than 400 pages of official sources stating, on the record, deliberate or ignorant untruths about the situation in Vietnam between 1957 and 1975. I read the book after my stint at InfoWorld, and felt eerie shocks of recognition. In the trade press, as in “official source” quotes from the Pentagon during wartime, certain authorities — and every new reporter learns very quickly who they are — can be counted on to say certain things at deadline time.

Publications of repute, such as InfoWorld (a weekly with a 310,000 circulation), have an admirable three-source rule. The problem is, too often, all these sources are ignorant fools bucking for press, evangelists with an interest in a certain model or product, or just, as in the case of Pettit’s book, misguided and overpaid “experts.”

“Industry insiders say” and “Sources close to the company say” are acceptable ways to fill holes in stories. But the actual people behind these sources are part of a matrix that links companies, PR agencies, third-party experts and journalists in a cycle of amplified misinformation — the end-product of which is the often faulty technology with which we live and work each day.

The cycle begins with the public relations agencies for the big high tech firms (“flacks” to the trade reporters who often receive fatty gifts from them at holiday time). They want to get the word out about products far in advance to generate demand; that’s their job.

Then it’s the experts’ turn to weigh in. Any trade press journalist will tell you that many to most of the customary expert sources — typically, analysts who earn their salaries by selling expensive reports to corporate clients — don’t know their asses from their elbows. An analyst once called up an editor of mine at InfoWorld and asked for a guess about the percentage of people satisfied with a certain type of networking software. This was to go into a nationally distributed report — data from which could very well end up in a duly sourced graph in InfoWorld.

For one story I wrote about why the Macintosh has never been accepted as a business network operating system, a Paine Webber Wall Street analyst was happy to go on record as an Official Source. When I tried to see how much he knew about the company, it turned out this Manhattanite commenting on Silicon Valley hadn’t heard of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and didn’t know anything about the garage mythology that long dominated its corporate culture.

The astute might suggest the reporter just bypass the flacks, experts and analysts and go straight to company officials — who ought to understand the technology, since they developed it. Beyond the obvious role of self-interest in such interviews, though, they’ve become less and less likely to provide real news or revealing background. The PR departments at prominent high-tech companies have become so savvy that they often conference in on the calls, interceding whenever anything juicy threatens to slip out.

The ideal source, of course, would be actual users — people who are using the product but aren’t affiliated with the company. Yet these are the hardest to come by. If the product hasn’t been released yet, and the person is a pre-release, or “beta” user, his company probably has a close relationship to the vendor, and he is likely discouraged from (or contractually prohibited from) speaking publicly about the product.

So the corporate honcho is often the fall-back source for authoritative information. To hide the pervasive ignorance on both sides of the phone, a language of jargon, acronyms and abbreviations takes over in trade press daily routine. And corporate interviewees take advantage of it.

There’s nothing that makes an entrepreneur happier than sensing midway through a conversation that a reporter doesn’t have the technical background to weed the B.S. from the truth in his pitch. When deadlines loom and all know it, there’s no telling what claim might wind up getting through the filters and appearing in the following week’s trade press.

From flack to exec to reporter, confusing, misleading or plain wrong information flows into the system from one side — and out the other come prematurely released, insufficiently tested and frequently inferior products. These are the products that Dilbert and his colleagues take such care to design; the ones that lead to the millions of customer support calls made by the stressed-out users of America every week; and the ones which make experienced high-tech consumers know better than to buy a “1.0″, or first version, of a new product.

Examples include the infamous first incarnation of the Digital Equipment Corp. HiNote portables in 1994, which in the opinion of InfoWorld hardware guru Tom Quinlan were too fragile, ran too hot, and were underpowered; buggy versions of the spreadsheet Lotus Jazz for the Macintosh in 1988; and the megalith Windows 95 operating system itself. The campaign of Microsoft’s PR firm, Waggener Edstrom of Portland, Oregon, to make the much delayed and nonetheless technically immature release of the Win 95 bomb seem smooth and on schedule is an epic in itself.

Tools of the Trades

How did the computer trade press end up in this position? The trades, mostly distributed free to their readers, are completely fed by their advertising. InfoWorld articles are regularly killed or expanded based on that month’s success in garnering “pages” (of ads) by the frenetic and eternally nervous sales department a floor below in the San Mateo, California offices. This has nothing to do with corruption: it simply means that the publication’s mission is to report on the type of products its advertisers sell.

InfoWorld’s product niche is “client/server computing,” the system by which a network of powerful desktop PCs, connected to even more powerful servers, runs a business’ operations. Journalistic research showing flaws in this model can present a serious problem — like a GAO report for Jesse Helms concluding that communism was a better system, after all.

I discovered this early on in my InfoWorld tenure. I wrote a story suggesting that, since the great majority (in the neighborhood of 80 percent at the time) of client/server software projects go over budget or fail, many companies should resist the urge to keep up with the techno-Joneses. If their needs are already satisfied, they should consider sticking with their old mainframe or “Big Iron” systems.

InfoWorld doesn’t need to look far for proof of the client/server model’s problems; not even its own diligent 10-person Information Systems staff can keep the network up and running with any consistency, and every reporter has had a machine crash on deadline while in the middle of a not-recently-saved story.

Nonetheless, I was strongly encouraged to morph the emphasis of the story. It wound up running with the headline, “Pace Yourself in Client/Server Projects.”

To be sure, trade press journalists produce plenty of top-notch investigations. There are certainly the odd stories that irk vendors no end (usually the result of a reviews department technician discovering a flaw and passing it on to a reporter). But these are not the meat and potatoes of publications like InfoWorld and PC Week (circulation 300,000); their staple is the trade announcement promoting a big company’s product — whether or not it ever makes it to market.

The Scoop Syndrome

It’s these stories that comprise the bulk of the “scoops” on which trade publications preen themselves. The scoop is the raison d’etre for the trade reporter. It leads to pizza dinners and raises. And it is a complete fiction.

To illustrate how the scoop process works and how the quality of the product concerned is almost irrelevant, let’s run through a hypothetical day in the career of InfoWorld reporter Mark Leon. He arrives on the seventh floor in San Mateo on Thursday (deadline day), his automatic key card barely working as usual after he fights traffic on Highway 101. There is a message waiting from the company representing, say, MegaFraud Enterprises, a major producer of systems management software, Mark’s beat. He returns the call. It’s a flack, offering a scoop on the next release of the flagship product, the MegaFraud Short Circuit, version 3.13.

Leon, who week after week is the target of editors’ demands to scoop PC Week, runs with the story, perhaps with “user” sources provided by the flack. He insists these miraculously willing-to-talk people be available that day, and spends until after dark ironing out the story before filing it to editors.

Result: InfoWorld “scoops” PC Week (whose reporters scurry like rats without sleep to get an edge up on the analysis the following week), on a product which uses imperfect technology that won’t see the market for another two years, if ever. The flack has done her job of playing the pubs — which seem to have forgotten everything except their mutual competition — against each other. Leon, though he doesn’t feel like a Real Reporter, looks good over his scoop. And next time, the flack makes a note, PC Week will get the little tidbit first.

The reporter has to follow this cyclonic cycle; his editor says so. But why?

Here’s an explanation from PC Week Senior Executive Editor of News John Dodge: “Do we have a deep scoop ethic? Absolutely. Is our coverage guided by InfoWorld? No. That’s overblown. We invented the concept of the scoop in the trade press back in 1984.”

Says PC Week Senior Editor for Networking Paula Musich, “Scoops are the most important issue in my job. I’ve seen it lead to vapor reporting (in this industry) but I’ve also seen the other side. One time a company was reported as having a certain feature in its product which it didn’t, but the response was so huge it added the feature.”

One nearly unanimous view of participants at a trade press “focus group” of readers I attended was that the readers don’t care a whit who runs a two-bit story like the MegaFraud “scoop” an issue or two ahead of the other. “We’d rather have quality reporting a week or two later,” these suits said. Their budgets are laid out six months ahead at least, and sometimes as far ahead as two or three years. A week isn’t going to make the difference between choosing InfoWorld or PC Week.

The illusion of scoops may project that a publication is “on top of things,” but the truth is that the dailies are almost always going to scoop the weeklies, anyway. Yet the mentality persists. And by the time a reporter grows savvy enough to question it, the staff has turned over and a new bunch of hungry recruits move in, psyched to have a writing job and medical insurance.

One thing that particularly irks a reporter like Dr. Leon (he’s a Ph.D. in philosophy) is the fact that the constructs of the InfoWorld news story actually wind up causing his editors to discourage him from heading out on the trail and doing journalistic leg work to garner information on stories others might not have. Instead, he has to gather material from flacks and from trade shows which the competitors will attend, at which carefully rehearsed demos will be displayed and reported on, whether or not the final product ultimately works.

Trade press practices also tend to discourage reporting on new, small companies with different approaches to computer technology. I’ve commiserated many times with the InfoWorld news reporter whose hot story got turned down because the company in question was too obscure. “It doesn’t have market share,” Leon says, “so the advertisers don’t care about them, so case closed.”

Why should we care how much puffery or inaccuracy appears between the ad-laden pages of the trade press? Here’s why: technology reporters for the mainstream dailies take the “news” the trades report and turn it into digestible tidbits for general readers. Vaporware acquires legitimacy as it travels up the media food chain, and before you know it, something inadequate is sitting on store shelves.

Trade journalists get a first look at new technologies before anyone else outside the companies and their beta users. That’s why it’s so crucial that they couch their analyses in realistic, accurate terms. If InfoWorld declares that some new version of a chip will revolutionize the way an operating system runs, who is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune to argue?

If you write it (enough), they will buy: The vapor products effectively become real. As Newt Gingrich headlined in a mailing for his GOPAC lobby, “Language (is) a key mechanism of control.”

All the high tech companies that shell out the big bucks for PR firms are well aware of this. It has long been a cliche that the best product in the industry is not necessarily the one that succeeds in the marketplace. Remember that as you worry whether the nation’s nuclear safeguards are running Pentium chips, and as you read the pundit-penned high tech columns that are popping up in your Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

Doug Fine is the author of "Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution." He blogs at www.dougfine.com.

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