Category Archives: Publishing

Poor, FORTUNE

In its blog post on the shuttering of Think Secret FORTUNE magazine manages to miss the point quite nicely:

“The case drew national attention because it raised important questions about press freedom and whether First Amendment protections extend to blogs.”

It might have “raised important questions” about blogs – but only in the minds of people obsessed with the distinction between journalism and blogging. In fact, it was clear from the start the Nick Ciarelli followed journalistic method far more effectively than many so-called professional journalists. The fact that Think Secret was an online-only publication with dated stories was the only resemblance it had with most blogs.

“At the time, Apple was apparently unaware that “Nick dePlume” Think Secret’s publisher, was an undergraduate at Harvard. Nicholas Ciarelli was 13 when he launched the website from his parents’ home in upstate New York.”

If Apple really was unaware of this, then it was the only part of the Mac industry that had missed out on this obvious fact. I met Nick in press rooms at quite a few Macworld shows, and I find it absolutely impossible to believe that Apple wasn’t aware of his age.

Poor, FORTUNE

In its blog post on the shuttering of Think Secret FORTUNE magazine manages to miss the point quite nicely:

“The case drew national attention because it raised important questions about press freedom and whether First Amendment protections extend to blogs.”

It might have “raised important questions” about blogs – but only in the minds of people obsessed with the distinction between journalism and blogging. In fact, it was clear from the start the Nick Ciarelli followed journalistic method far more effectively than many so-called professional journalists. The fact that Think Secret was an online-only publication with dated stories was the only resemblance it had with most blogs.

“At the time, Apple was apparently unaware that “Nick dePlume” Think Secret’s publisher, was an undergraduate at Harvard. Nicholas Ciarelli was 13 when he launched the website from his parents’ home in upstate New York.”

If Apple really was unaware of this, then it was the only part of the Mac industry that had missed out on this obvious fact. I met Nick in press rooms at quite a few Macworld shows, and I find it absolutely impossible to believe that Apple wasn’t aware of his age.

In praise of Think Secret

Anyone coming to the Mac in the past couple of years won’t have seen Think Secret during its heyday, when editor-in-chief (and owner, and reporter, and bottle-washer) Nick “dePlume” Ciarelli was running the site on a day-to-day basis. Since Nick decamped for Harvard, the site has effectively been on hold, which makes its demise less important than it once would have been.

In its day, though, Think Secret wasn’t just a Mac web site: if you wanted to know the inside story of Apple and its forthcoming products, it was the only web site you needed to read. The key thing about Think Secret – and the bit that made it work – was that Nick didn’t just publish anything that got emailed to him. He was a good reporter, and that meant that everything which went on the site was confirmed by at least two independent sources.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every story was correct: stories can reverberate inside a company before they emerge, at different points, and still be wrong. And, with advanced product information, plans can change pretty quickly: I’ve been given advanced information on product plans from excellent sources within Apple the day before a product is announced, only to find the information changes prior to launch. When reporting on what a company will release in several months time, even if you are assiduous about sourcing, you’ll get more misses than hits.

Ironically, Nick’s finest story appeared not on Think Secret, but on eWeek, when in collaboration with MacWEEK veteran Matthew Rothenberg he revealed the existence of Marklar, the top secret Apple project to port Mac OS X to Intel. Both had been working on the story for months, gathering details and confirming the project’s existence with as many sources as possible.

I was tangentially involved in later iterations of the Marklar story, as Nick asked me to see if I could dig anything up about a little company called Transitive, which he’d heard was working with Apple on a PowerPC to Intel code system. I couldn’t find anything, Nick never got his corroboration – and so Rosetta remained a secret until the announcement of the Intel transition.

For three years after the original story, until Apple announced it was, in fact, switching to Intel, both Nick and Matthew were accused on a daily basis by groups of Mac zealots of making the story up. Even commentators who should have known better gave the story little credence, claiming that the different architectures meant PowerPC code performance would be appalling, and thus Apple would never do it.

Sadly, its not possible to go back to every one of the (largely anonymous) commenters who accused them of being “brain dead” (at best) and make them eat a large slice of humble pie, but I’d imagine that both Nick and Matthew had a wry smile on their faces when the Intel transition happened.

Those who characterise Think Secret as “a rumors [sic] site” are, unknowingly, following a specific Apple PR line which started back in the late 1990’s. The aim of the campaign was to draw a line between what Apple saw as “legitimate” news outlets and “rumours sites”, which published things which Apple didn’t want its customers to hear about. I was told directly on one occasion by an Apple PR executive that I didn’t want to publish a story because it would get MacUser, where I then worked, categorised as a rumours site “and you don’t want that to happen”.

Whether it was meant this way or not, the implication I took at that time was clear: publish stories about forthcoming Apple products, even if accurate, and Apple would stop co-operating with my magazine. We didn’t change our behaviour, and the threat was never acted upon, but there’s no doubt that Apple had decided that there were two kinds of press: those who were “with” Apple, and those who were “against” it. And “against” simply meant publishing information which Apple didn’t want you to know about. Those people who, today, refer to “black PR” campaigns against Apple should know that their beloved company is no stranger to using PR as a weapon.

Look around the Mac media landscape today, and what do you find? Sites which are simple aggregations of press releases. Sites which report anything that an anonymous emailer sends in. How to’s, reviews, commentary (some good, some bad). And, of course, the sites whose sole priority is to put a positive spin for Apple on any news, even to the point of interpreting statistics in ways which are, frankly, insane.

What you don’t have is real, traditional technology reporting on Apple, of the kind which seeks not to sensationalise but to get underneath the skin of the company. To get inside the company, rather than observe it from the outside. Real reporting like this takes time and experience. It means working on stories for months, sometimes years, and that’s not cheap. In a free market, readers get the press that they deserve – or rather, that they’re prepared to pay for. No one is prepared to pay a living wage for one brilliant story a week anymore – but that’s another blog post in itself.

The loss of Think Secret as it is today was probably, for Nick, no big deal. Long-gone from the regular Mac reporting scene, his career as a reporter is only just beginning and we’ll undoubtedly hear from from him in the future. I hope that he chooses tech reporting, but given the way that the technology publishing market has gone, I doubt that he will. Real reporting, as opposed to regurgitating press releases and following the PR line, is largely done elsewhere these days.

(NOTE: For some background on the Think Secret case, take a look at my posts “Why the Think Secret case is being overplayed, by everyone” and “Rothenberg on Think Secret“, both from March 2005.)

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In praise of Think Secret

Anyone coming to the Mac in the past couple of years won’t have seen Think Secret during its heyday, when editor-in-chief (and owner, and reporter, and bottle-washer) Nick “dePlume” Ciarelli was running the site on a day-to-day basis. Since Nick decamped for Harvard, the site has effectively been on hold, which makes its demise less important than it once would have been.

In its day, though, Think Secret wasn’t just a Mac web site: if you wanted to know the inside story of Apple and its forthcoming products, it was the only web site you needed to read. The key thing about Think Secret – and the bit that made it work – was that Nick didn’t just publish anything that got emailed to him. He was a good reporter, and that meant that everything which went on the site was confirmed by at least two independent sources.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every story was correct: stories can reverberate inside a company before they emerge, at different points, and still be wrong. And, with advanced product information, plans can change pretty quickly: I’ve been given advanced information on product plans from excellent sources within Apple the day before a product is announced, only to find the information changes prior to launch. When reporting on what a company will release in several months time, even if you are assiduous about sourcing, you’ll get more misses than hits.

Ironically, Nick’s finest story appeared not on Think Secret, but on eWeek, when in collaboration with MacWEEK veteran Matthew Rothenberg he revealed the existence of Marklar, the top secret Apple project to port Mac OS X to Intel. Both had been working on the story for months, gathering details and confirming the project’s existence with as many sources as possible.

I was tangentially involved in later iterations of the Marklar story, as Nick asked me to see if I could dig anything up about a little company called Transitive, which he’d heard was working with Apple on a PowerPC to Intel code system. I couldn’t find anything, Nick never got his corroboration – and so Rosetta remained a secret until the announcement of the Intel transition.

For three years after the original story, until Apple announced it was, in fact, switching to Intel, both Nick and Matthew were accused on a daily basis by groups of Mac zealots of making the story up. Even commentators who should have known better gave the story little credence, claiming that the different architectures meant PowerPC code performance would be appalling, and thus Apple would never do it.

Sadly, its not possible to go back to every one of the (largely anonymous) commenters who accused them of being “brain dead” (at best) and make them eat a large slice of humble pie, but I’d imagine that both Nick and Matthew had a wry smile on their faces when the Intel transition happened.

Those who characterise Think Secret as “a rumors [sic] site” are, unknowingly, following a specific Apple PR line which started back in the late 1990’s. The aim of the campaign was to draw a line between what Apple saw as “legitimate” news outlets and “rumours sites”, which published things which Apple didn’t want its customers to hear about. I was told directly on one occasion by an Apple PR executive that I didn’t want to publish a story because it would get MacUser, where I then worked, categorised as a rumours site “and you don’t want that to happen”.

Whether it was meant this way or not, the implication I took at that time was clear: publish stories about forthcoming Apple products, even if accurate, and Apple would stop co-operating with my magazine. We didn’t change our behaviour, and the threat was never acted upon, but there’s no doubt that Apple had decided that there were two kinds of press: those who were “with” Apple, and those who were “against” it. And “against” simply meant publishing information which Apple didn’t want you to know about. Those people who, today, refer to “black PR” campaigns against Apple should know that their beloved company is no stranger to using PR as a weapon.

Look around the Mac media landscape today, and what do you find? Sites which are simple aggregations of press releases. Sites which report anything that an anonymous emailer sends in. How to’s, reviews, commentary (some good, some bad). And, of course, the sites whose sole priority is to put a positive spin for Apple on any news, even to the point of interpreting statistics in ways which are, frankly, insane.

What you don’t have is real, traditional technology reporting on Apple, of the kind which seeks not to sensationalise but to get underneath the skin of the company. To get inside the company, rather than observe it from the outside. Real reporting like this takes time and experience. It means working on stories for months, sometimes years, and that’s not cheap. In a free market, readers get the press that they deserve – or rather, that they’re prepared to pay for. No one is prepared to pay a living wage for one brilliant story a week anymore – but that’s another blog post in itself.

The loss of Think Secret as it is today was probably, for Nick, no big deal. Long-gone from the regular Mac reporting scene, his career as a reporter is only just beginning and we’ll undoubtedly hear from from him in the future. I hope that he chooses tech reporting, but given the way that the technology publishing market has gone, I doubt that he will. Real reporting, as opposed to regurgitating press releases and following the PR line, is largely done elsewhere these days.

(NOTE: For some background on the Think Secret case, take a look at my posts “Why the Think Secret case is being overplayed, by everyone” and “Rothenberg on Think Secret“, both from March 2005.)

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River of News fails

The user experience has been a disaster (Scripting News):

“The NY Times has totally ignored the NY Times River, which makes the Times work on mobile devices with ease of use that they so often report is eluding them”

I don’t know how many times that it’s worth saying this, because Dave isn’t listening but… “River of News” approaches don’t work for everyone. In fact, for the majority of people – the kind who aren’t constantly scanning the feeds – River of News fails miserably. It had no concept of importance other than “Most recent”, and in news that’s almost never the most important factor to someone.

If a bomb goes off somewhere in London, it’s more important to me than other events. I want that front and centre of my news, more than anything else – more recent but unconnected stories are no use to me. If they push the important stuff off the front page, then I am missing things which I need to know.

River of News effectively abdicates responsibility for judging what’s important to a reader. Whether that’s done by human editors or machine algorithms isn’t important – what matters is that in order to well-serve readers, it must be done. River of News simply fails to do it.

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River of News fails

The user experience has been a disaster (Scripting News):

“The NY Times has totally ignored the NY Times River, which makes the Times work on mobile devices with ease of use that they so often report is eluding them”

I don’t know how many times that it’s worth saying this, because Dave isn’t listening but… “River of News” approaches don’t work for everyone. In fact, for the majority of people – the kind who aren’t constantly scanning the feeds – River of News fails miserably. It had no concept of importance other than “Most recent”, and in news that’s almost never the most important factor to someone.

If a bomb goes off somewhere in London, it’s more important to me than other events. I want that front and centre of my news, more than anything else – more recent but unconnected stories are no use to me. If they push the important stuff off the front page, then I am missing things which I need to know.

River of News effectively abdicates responsibility for judging what’s important to a reader. Whether that’s done by human editors or machine algorithms isn’t important – what matters is that in order to well-serve readers, it must be done. River of News simply fails to do it.

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The NUJ really doesn’t get modern journalism

Conrad Quilty-Harper is a writer for Engadget, which, according to Technorati, was the most-linked to site on the internet over the past six months. He posts several stories a day, and works under contract to AOL, which is itself one of the biggest companies around.

Despite this, Conrad has been turned down for membership of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) on the grounds that he’s not eligible for full membership as he’s also still studying, but not eligible for student membership as he’s not studying a journalism-related course.

Let’s just run that through again: someone writing daily for one of the most-read sites on the net, who has a readership which probably rivals (or even beats) that of national newspapers, isn’t classed by the NUJ as a journalist?

This is the kind of silliness which is likely to mean that NUJ membership goes through a slow but gentlemanly decline over the next few years. Conrad is quite clearly a journalist, by any objective standard – except the silly ones the NUJ is applying here.

Bobbie Johnson on “The Sticker Guy”

I’ve really avoided all comments on “The Sticker Guy” because the whole thing seemed, sneery, snobbish on the part of the Apple “cognoscenti” and generally irritating. Bobbie Johnson actually sums up my thoughts better than I could in his post “Internet grump #1: The Sticker Guy“:

“What nonsense that a guy gets dumped on for asking a question. It wasn’t even a rude question (’Steve Jobs, some people have said you are an asshole – what do you think?’) just one that didn’t want to hear the answer to – because they already a had a good idea what the answer was.

Therefore the very of asking a basic question at a press conference becomes tantamount to heresy. That’s pretty much the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

I’ve been to dozens of press conferences where questions that I thought were dumb elicited some very good – and occasionally very funny – answers.

But the other important thing to note is that these events involve a lot of different journalists, writing for a lot of different people – many of whom aren’t part of the cult of Apple, and who don’t know why a machine with an Intel processor doesn’t have the familiar “Intel Inside” sticker on it. Some of them – speak this quietly, for it is heresy – won’t know who Steve Jobs is, or give a toss about what a superb marketing man he is.

And, as Bobbie says, these events tend to be dominated by fawning members of the cult of Mac, who ask only the kind of questions which Jobs can answer with two words – and which, to be honest, obviously bore him.

“Unfortunately at events like that one, every journalist is following their own agenda (Bill says he is writing an article about Intel Inside) and so they don’t really take much notice . There are mainstream journalists, broadcasters, trade press, business mags, the whole gamut. And, this being Apple who – quite rightly – have many fans, there are too many softballs.

‘Stupid’ questions are part and parcel of the deal. We’re writing for audiences who don’t know everything (a fact usually ignored by snobbish specialist readers). We want to get quotes. We don’t get access to these guys every day (I was at a Jobs Q&A in London in April, but before that it was when I interviewed him a couple of years ago). Every so often a stupid question deals up a brilliant answer.”

Amen to that.

UPDATE: Charles Arthur sums it up extremely well:

“Before you go on, did you *know* what the answer was before the question was asked? That is, did you know *why* Apple was turning down the marketing benefits that accrue to companies which use the Intel Inside sticker – which are substantial? Pause, and answer honestly.

If you didn’t absolutely know why, you were wrong to pillory him. That means Gruber and Macuser, Macalope and others. You didn’t know. You assumed. You guessed. You presumed. That ain’t factual journalism. It’s jackass-y to take the piss out of someone who’s doing a better job than you. (In fact, I call on Gruber to recall his Jackass award. Investigation is never jackassery.)”

(Via bojo Feedburner.)

Online Publishers Need To Stop Selling Space

 Scott Karp has a lesson for online publishers – and it’s a good one:

So what’s the lesson for newspapers and other traditional media companies trying to transform themselves into online publishers?

Stop selling space.

Google doesn’t sell any space. It sells user intentions, i.e. what’s on people’s minds. And that’s a scare resource — there’s a finite number of people thinking about buying a digital camera today.

The interesting thing though is that I think he underestimates the intelligence of publishers. In the magazine world, selling intention in this way has long been a staple. Niche magazines, selling only 20,000 copies or less, could be madly profitable if they offered to a bunch of readers in a specific market intending by buy products.

The problem, of course, is that Google offers all this but better.

Presenting the Mac market’s very own Dvorak

Several months ago, everyone’s favourite pundit John C Dvorak admitted – as if anyone couldn’t guess – that every now and then he trolled Mac users, baiting them with outrageous and outlandish claims about their platform or the superiority of Windows. Better yet, John outlined his three-step method of Mac user-baiting:

Dvorak’s formula

• Find something critical to say about the Mac that may or may not be true.

• Personal attacks and hate mail then ensue. This gives me “free column number two.”

• Apologize for being wrong and then all the Mac crazies really go nuts since they all feel so vindicated.

The great thing about this forumula is that it’s applicable well beyond Mac fans: you can do this with any audience. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that one Mac “pundit”, Roughly Drafted’s owner/publisher/editor/tea maker Daniel Eran, has decided to apply it with a “pro-Mac” slant.

Yesterday, Eran produced what can only be described as a flame-baiting beauty of a column, claiming to “prove” that over a seven year period, Windows cost five times as much as a Mac. His method was to factor in the cost of OS upgrades, then add – for Windows only – a premium for anti-virus and spyware removal. So far, so good: there’s no doubt that you do indeed pay a tax on top of the cost of Windows for keeping yourself clean of malware, although you can – if you shop around – get both anti-spyware and AV software for nothing.

Where Daniel went off the rails, though, was in his costings. To determine the cost of spyware removal, he added in $200 per year for professional servicing. As a million people on Digg and in his comments pointed out, this was mad: it’s like claiming that every car driver must pay thousands per month for fuel just because some people have gas-guzzlers. Or, as I put it, it’s like saying every Mac users must have ProCare if they want their Macs kept up to date, as one of the benefits of ProCare is updating your Apple software.

That’s column number one. Today, Daniel has posted a second column, called “Bloggers in Blind Rage Over Digg”, which is basically one long “shock” piece at how he’s been criticised, while attacking those who criticised him – including me, of course. When I posted comments that were critical of his argument, Daniel threatened to ban me from his comments, and then trumped all my points with a one liner: “Haha Ian, you are such a tool”. Oh, to be wounded by such wit.

Does this method sound familiar to you? Yes, of course: It’s steps one and two direct from what should be called “The Dvorak School of Column Writing”. I’m expecting step three within a week, once Daniel’s trolling has stopped having the desired effect. It’ll probably take the classic “they all misread me, I don’t know what the problem was” form.

Daniel has been trying to stir up this kind of stuff for some time. His first effort that came to my attention was an attempt to show that, in fact, Apple’s market share was effectively double it’s usually-cited level – a figure he achieved by lumping together OS software and hardware, giving Microsoft a 48% share of the PC market. Why he didn’t add in printers, scanners, monitors, and everything else I don’t know. Thankfully, most people didn’t take the bait: perhaps because his argument was so jaw-droppingly specious that few could do anything but laugh at it.

There’s a second way in which Daniel reminds me of John: His gift for self-promotion. However, while for John self-promotion is mostly a face-to-face thing, Daniel’s chosen forum is Digg, and boy does he do it well. Being told off by some Digg users for the practice of submitting his own stories (referring to himself in the third person while doing so) hasn’t stemmed the tide of Roughly Drafted stories being submitted to Digg.

Instead, the baton has been picked up by an “Andrew Levi Black”, who since registering on June 21st, has submitted a grand total of 25 stories, all from Roughly Drafted. Oddly, many of the submissions follow the same style (“Daniel Eran of RoughlyDrafted Magazine has a phat list…”) as Daniel’s own submissions (“Daniel Eran of RoughlyDrafted Magazine Introduces the Apple XServe mini…”). Also oddly, doing a search for “Andrew Levi Black” on Google returns only his Digg profile: as far as the rest of the internet outside Digg is concerned, there is no Andrew Levi Black.

But whether “Andrew Levi Black ” is a real person who just happens to sound like Daniel, a helpful friend of Daniel’s or a good old-fashioned sock puppet, there’s no doubt that Daniel knows how to use Digg to maximise his traffic. And it all adds up to a pretty impressive package: Dvorak-style trolling, Dvorak-style writing, and Dvorak-style self-promotion. Fellow Mac users, we have our very own Dvorak.

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