Friday, 21 December 2012

End of an era, for me at least

Today is my last day as a ZDNet UK reporter. I have written for the site for six and a half years.

In May 2006, I was but a budding journalist. I had not intended to become a tech writer specifically – I enjoyed researching gadgets thoroughly before I bought them, but that was mainly because I don't like to waste money. The ZDNet UK mobile reporter gig, as it was at the time, was just the job I ended up getting.

Being a tech journalist is now a defining thing for me, and that's largely because ZDNet UK and the people who staffed it filled me with enthusiasm for the subject. I was terrifically lucky to be mentored by the likes of Graeme Wearden (who has since hived off down the business path), Karen Friar and of course the endlessly knowledgeable and entertaining Rupert Goodwins. Not only did they love the subject material, but they taught me to dig, question and explain.

It was great fun, and I was proud to be part of a publication of record, a publication that insisted on the highest standards of accuracy and objectivity. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have had that experience, as I am all too aware that many of those coming into journalism today will never know the feeling of trying to responsibly write history's first draft, as opposed to merely chasing ephemeral hits.

A year and a half ago, I moved from London to Berlin. No longer able to stay on as a ZDNet UK staffer, I continued to write for the publication in the mornings on a freelance basis. Then, in February of this year, I started writing for GigaOM about the Berlin startup scene. Again, a publication that tries to get things right and to explain not for the sake of empty provocation, but for education and understanding. Over time, my beat there evolved – I now cover cloud, mobile and data-related subjects across the whole of Europe.

And so, on the morning of the Winter Solstice (and yes, also Mayan non-Apocalypse Day), I find myself having written my last piece for ZDNet UK. From the start of January, I will be going full-time with GigaOM, and proudly so. I look forward to learning new things, meeting new people and gaining fresh perspectives. Most of all, I look forward to continuing down the path that materialised in front of me six and a half years ago.

Yet again, onwards!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

How PR structures send a message

There I was, having a standard moan on Twitter about PR things that annoy me, when along came this tweet:
Well, firstly, I'm a great believer in that division. We hacks shouldn't be too cosy with flacks, otherwise the whole thing becomes corrupt and the readers (my main concern, always) are not being served.

But Max is a nice chap and this is a good opportunity to better explain my complaints, which were: I won't name names, but both whinges were to do with delayed responses. And neither situation was really something the relevant PRs had any control over. My issue is with the PRs' clients.

The first case was pretty straightforward – I asked a question and got a late and very bullshitty answer that didn't actually address what I was asking. Not much can be done about that, other than to point out the irrelevance of the reply and suggest that a "no comment" may have come across as a little less insulting.

But the second case was symptomatic of a wider problem. As a tech journalist, few things are more frustrating than dealing with a company that has multiple PR operations – one for this department, one for that, some in-house, some with agencies. There often appears to be little communication between these various operations, which are sometimes run by rivals.

The result is massive inefficiency. It's bad for me as a journalist, because my request will often take ages to reach the right person, let alone get an answer (my specific complaint today was about the person I originally contacted not letting me know that they were forwarding it on, which would lead to a delay – I know that most good PRs do offer this courtesy).

And it's bad for the company. After all, the PR's job is to try to manage the client's message, which means reacting quickly. Like most hacks, I want to give the company a fair chance to respond to whatever it is the story is about. If I don't get a timely response, there's not a lot I can do about it - in most circumstances, I need to get my story up, response or no response.

Companies don't seem to realise that their choice of PR set-up sends a message in itself.

I can think of one megacorp that used to offer a centralised PR team that was incredibly helpful. This gave hacks the impression that the company itself was open and honest, and that informed the tone of the coverage.

But then Megacorp split its PR operation up into an unholy in-house/agency mix. All journalist requests now get passed around like the proverbial parcel and nobody informed or useful is ever on-hand to explain what the firm's doing. The impression we get is that of barriers having been set up, and it's hard not to translate that into "this company has changed and is now acting like it has something to hide".

That's not to say that agencies don't have their place – clearly they do, especially for clients for whom a dedicated in-house team in the UK makes no sense. But, in this increasingly fast-paced business, inefficiency just won't do, particularly if it comes across as a deliberate tactic.

All of which brings me back to the point that the PRs themselves are not to blame here. The problem is the PR structure their client has chosen, deliberately or otherwise. And I'm not sure who to complain to about that.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

What about artists who can't/won't tour?

Glyn Moody has written an interesting post on the old question, "should artists be entitled to make money?". It's worth reading.

As you may know, I write quite a lot about copyright-vs-technology, mostly concentrating on the technical aspects of copyright enforcement as I'm a tech journalist. But I'm also a musician in my spare time, a songwriter and a sometimes-performer, so I like to think that these two sides give me a sense of balance when I report on these issues.

I completely agree that artists shouldn't feel entitled to anything, particularly to being rich as a result of their endeavours. After all, if money is your primary motivation then you're probably pumping out some pretty shitty art. However, the idea that art should always be given away (not, I realise, what Moody is saying, but something that many people do say) bothers me somewhat.

The conventional wisdom underlying this position is that the art itself can be the free gateway to paid stuff like performances and merchandising. There's an element of truth to this, although I think it holds much truer for established artists (Radiohead, NIN etc) than it does for new.

But the thing that gets me, the bit where I start to play devil's advocate, is this: what about musicians who can't perform? Let's take the hypothetical and somewhat extreme example of a singer-songwriter who's paraplegic and finds it difficult if not impossible to tour. Let's say this person has an amazing voice, writes amazing songs and can record... um, amazingly. You get the point.

If we take the give-it-away-now approach, what chance does this person have of being rewarded for their art? They can record, but they can't use that recording as a springboard for more lucrative follow-ons. Are we saying that this person should treat it as a hobby and nothing more?

And what about the mad-genius-type musician who can record incredible works in their loft or whatever, but doesn't deal well with the public and certainly can't play the self-marketing game?

Basically, are we saying there is no longer any inherent value in recorded music? Does it have to be in the added extras? I'm willing to be persuaded, but I'm not there yet.

PS - Yeah, I know. I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who treats music as a hobby (by necessity - gotta earn a living) and can't really perform right now (I don't have a band but record like I do), but would ideally like to see some return for it. Self-interest abounds. Still, this aspect of the debate is worth having.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Why getting paid for writing is a good thing

Writer Milo Yiannopoulos is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. The tech press has failed, and he's going to rescue it.

According to Yiannopoulos (memorably described by Stephen Fry as a "cynical ignorant fucker", after the then-student said Fry was "opportunistic" for offering to pay the fine of Twitter joke trial defendant Paul Chambers), start-ups, particularly those in Europe, are not getting the attention they deserve. And it's all the fault of bloggers.

Because the emerging technology industry is small, there's a shortage of brilliant, opinionated writers with the wit and intelligence to make people smile, and, more importantly, think. The ones who are out there, for whatever reason, are not getting jobs. Instead, we have a glut of rather embarrassingly illiterate bloggers who, in their competitiveness for pageviews, feel pressurised into churning out rewrites of press releases and other people's posts, occasionally over-reaching themselves to pen opinion pieces.

Having derided the entire technology press for constituting a "cult of the mediocre" and failing to "make insightful links between technology and other disciplines, draw distinctions, see revealing connections", Yiannopoulos goes on to complain that founders and venture capitalists are not getting their voices heard.

Who is providing founders and venture capitalists themselves with a platform to share their expertise in pieces whose appeal reaches beyond the tech blogosphere? […] Where, too, are the sketch-writers, the gossip columnists, the people writing about the people, places and events that shape the headlines? Fundamentally, people are interested in people, and we don't hear nearly enough about the faces behind the technology that is so rapidly changing our world.

The answer to this crisis of journalism? "The Vanity Fair of European tech", a "gorgeous online magazine" that will see "the technology industry explored, celebrated — and sometimes, yes, debunked — for those who work in it, but perhaps more crucially, for everyone else too".

I've no idea what it might eventually become, but the new publication I'm about to flip the switch on will showcase only the very brightest and best original writing, particularly from entrepreneurs themselves, but also from journalists, academics and big thinkers looking to share fresh ideas: visionaries who want to inspire, educate, enrage and amuse others with their experiences, opinons [sic] and insights. People who can place what's going on in technology in a much broader context. This is your opportunity to articulate a vision of the future at length and to people outside the technology world.

Most of this sounds great. It is indeed the case that not enough attention is paid to the sociological implications of technology and its proliferation. It's also true that an awful lot of tech writing is utter bilge, consisting of little more than reheated PR material and wild, hit-chasing conjecture. Also true: Europe doesn't get its fair share of coverage in a US-media-dominated industry.

The problem here is encapsulated in this sentence, intended to refer to the fact that Yiannopoulos doesn't yet know precisely how his operation will make money, but with wider implications too: "The economics can wait."

New contributors will normally be unpaid. […] We will, however, experiment aggressively with ways to financially reward our writers. We may, for example, have subscription-only premium content or one-off article fees for the really thrilling stuff — such as our Special Reports, the first of which will be a comprehensive survey of the European tech PR industry.

In my years as a technology journalist, I have made this rather obvious observation: those who are paid the worst or are, worse, unpaid tend to be the most biddable and least critical. Yes, there is nothing wrong with being young and starting out — we all have to do it — but it takes a while to know what you're talking about. Until you have gained a reasonable amount of experience, you will take most of the PR material fed to you at face value. PRs are persuasive, technology is complicated and deadlines are tight.

(I might add, though I will not moan about it in depth right now, that the odious practice of exploiting unpaid interns leads to a skewed socio-economic demographic in the media, with those lacking financial backing being less able to get their foot in the door. I'm sure the Cambridge-educated Yiannopoulos is aware of this widespread injustice.)

Many journalists never choose to become more than they were at the start. Chasing hits can be very profitable and digging for the truth can be arduous and unrewarding. These people would probably fall into Yiannopoulos's category of "embarrassingly illiterate bloggers" (although many bloggers are much better than this) and he's right — fuck 'em.

But there are also those who are serious, funny, incisive and genuinely educational writers. They don't necessarily shout the loudest, and they may not be part of the Great Tech Media Circlejerk™, but their output is there. As I am not trying to ingratiate myself with anyone here, I will refrain from citing examples of who I mean, but, if you pay attention to the European tech press, you will already know them.

In most cases, those writers get paid for it. Some do not — independent analysts in particular will often maintain a blog as a way of attracting clients for remunerated work — but the majority do it to get money. That is only right. Everyone who writes has a motive for doing so, and earning enough to eat and get shelter is at least a transparent imperative. Provided the publication has editorial independence, financial reward can even be seen as the most honest of motivations.

I'm not saying paid writers don't also do it for love of the subject material. As with any profession, those who love what they do will produce the best work. I am also not commenting on the academics, founders and VCs that Yiannopoulos hopes to attract. The motivations of these potential contributors are equally transparent and — provided he can get the execs to talk about more than how great their product is — honest.

But as for journalists, well, I'm not sure what Yiannopoulos is after. If he really wants writers who can "educate others with their experiences", and do so without an ulterior motive, he will have to pay them. Unfortunately, the economics cannot wait.

(PS — I am aware that I have just written a lengthy piece here for no remuneration. However, I'm doing it as catharsis and for my own satisfaction. I do very occasionally write for others for no money, but only when it's the kind of self-indulgent drivel I can't sell, at least not yet.)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Synergise Harder: A Love Solutions Story

The meeting was running late, but Andrea was entranced. Everything about Ted, the company's new senior vice president of corporate development, made her itch like a compliance officer scanning first-draft marketing material. She knew she should say no, but the dividends seemed too alluring to resist.

Ted's mastery of PowerPoint betrayed an animal side. Whenever he flicked to the next slide, Andrea felt innately in sync with his transition animation. When he spoke to expanding into new geographies, she imagined only his strategic fit. He was not one to move with the herd.

The meeting discontinued, and Andrea cast Ted a look that could only suggest imminent merger discussions. Quietly and separately, they slipped into a disused office that had until the previous week been the domain of Philip, the quiet yet seamlessly agile former head of supply chain management.

"I'm familiar with this ecosystem," Andrea whispered under her breath to herself as she closed the door. Philip had shown reliably robust organic growth, but she was ready to turn the page to a new chapter of expansion.

Aloud, she reached out to her fresh colleague: "You put on quite a showcase back there."

"I know," Ted said. "It's important to give good insight in your first month and anyway, my projections are rising. I think we have a great story to tell."

"We certainly do. Let's salad-bar this," she purred.

Subtly but inexorably, Ted outreached closer. She caught his scent for the first time: a heady mix of Pret and ambition that led her heart to skip a beat. "I think we should discuss your acquisition strategy," he evangelised in a low voice. "You may be able to capitalise on strong demand."

"Oh? It's good to know I have buy-in," Andrea responded coyly. Almost in stealth mode, her hand began a slow teardown of her high-level fabric. Given greater visibility, Ted took inventory of her sweated assets, and he too initiated a divestment of peripheral layers.

Roughly, he squeezed her margins. The stakeholders brought it to the table, and he took her on board. "His service delivery is outstanding," Andrea thought as Ted touched base with her one-stop nexus.

"Diversify your mix," she whimpered. He complied, broadening her parameters and accelerating forward below the line. "My turn," she gasped as she captured his low-hanging fruit. "Let's run this up your flagpole and see… ooohhh..."

Andrea took a helicopter view of Ted's metrics and expertly insourced his verticals. "I need you to drill down now, Ted," she moaned. Ted made a mission-critical entry into Andrea's channel. "Take a deeper dive," she cried as he tenderly leveraged her framework. But, as he ramped it up, Andrea's thoughts turned to Philip. Where was he now? Who was he with? Had he moved up the value chain?

Ted's gaze was already outcome-focused. He withdrew from her pipeline and targeted her magic quadrant with his deliverables.

"A quick win," Andrea thought languidly. "But where are the synergies?"

-------------------------------- x x x --------------------------------

In case you're wondering, a few years ago I did a song called Love Solutions, in an attempt to help people reinterpret management-speak in the infinitely more entertaining context of smutty innuendo.

As I could not cram in all the gobs of corporate babble that were in circulation, and as nonsense continues to proliferate, the track was due a sequel. This post is it. Think of it as Mills & Boon for management wonks.

Here's the original:

Love Solutions from miniblackhole on Vimeo.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Flat-hunting in Berlin: this means war

Sipping our coffees, we suspiciously eye the couple across the Prenzlauer Berg café. They're in their late thirties, well-dressed, perhaps a better bet that we may at first appear. They keep glancing out the window towards the door across the road: the same door we'd be looking at if it weren't for the fact that we didn't want to seem too eager. We know someone has the noonday appointment — we're due at quarter past.

At 12 o'clock they pay up and walk out… across the road… to the opticians next to that door. He collects his spectacles and off they go. It wasn't them. We feel safer. When our turn comes, though, the trendy, well-heeled gent who did have the noonday slot hangs around like the stink of smoke in a curtain. Even when our turn is over, he's still hovering, glowering at us, trying to coax the agent.

This is not flat-hunting as I'd known it before. In London, you can pretty much pick and choose — you're unlikely to get anything approaching good value for your money (one reason we’ve moved to Berlin), but there's a lot out there. There, it's the many estate agents who are in competition with one another, sometimes even picking up potential clients and ferrying them around several properties in one session. Not so in Berlin. Here it's you, the prospective tenant, against the masses.

Every viewing has at least one punter sticking to the agent like the class suck-up sticks to teacher. Some have many. The coffee-shop stakeout was a couple of days ago, and a day after we'd experienced our first mass viewing. At least, that's what we thought it was at the time. There'd been around 10 people there. That was nothing…

Today, we arrived at a viewing in Schöneberg around a quarter of an hour ahead of time. There were already five or six others there, waiting outside the Altbau's entrance. By the time the viewing actually began, that number had gone up to 40. By the time the viewing ended 15 minutes later, around 60 people must have jostled across the flat's floorboards. I almost felt sorry for the agent — she'd clearly been dumped into the situation at the last minute by her boss, and had no idea that many people would be turning up (it's Saturday, which probably didn't help matters).

You can tell a lot about people from how they react to such a situation. Some of the punters chuckled while scanning the crowd, while others glared at their competitors in fury. It's a sunny day, so we fell into the first category. Angry people are inherently funny.

It was a nice flat, obviously, and I don't think we stand much of a chance against the others, but at least we were the first to fill in the agent's form and hand over our details. All our details. I find it deeply ironic that, in a country so obsessed with data protection (see the copious blurring-out of residences on Google Maps), people are so desperate to get a good flat that they throw their most intimate financial information around like so much confetti. That includes us — we carry around envelopes filled with everything an identity thief could dream of, all neatly printed out and folded up. It's what you have to do here.

So why's it like this? The main reason, I guess, is that tenancy rights are about a billion times stronger in Germany than they are in the UK. Throwing out a tenant is nigh on impossible, especially if they've been in there for a while, and even if they're not exactly punctual with the rent. So landlords want to make sure their tenants are a sure bet, and prospective tenants are competing to prove that they're the most upstanding people in town.

Add to that the fact that Berlin is totally where it's at right now, and you can see why people keep saying that finding the right flat here is a full-time job, requiring months of dedication. I'm not sure who’s actually got the time to treat it that way, but whoever they are, it’s them we’re up against. Wish us luck.

PS - Like I said, it's all about the right flat for the person. For us, that means a decent two-to-four-room Altbau flat with a balcony in Prenzlauer Berg, Schöneberg, Kreuzberg or maybe even Friedrichshain, with a floorspace of at least 70 square meters and rent with bills maxing out around €1,000 a month. If you know of such a place, let me know...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Moving on to the next stage

In early June 1998, I left Cape Town, where I was born and raised, and came to London for a year-long experiment. I moved with the bassist from my band back home, and we’d decided to give it a shot in one of the great centres of rock and roll.

As you may be able to deduce, it’s now 13 years later, and I’m still not a rock star, goddammit ;) My time in the UK — more than a decade of which has been in the Big Smoke — has had its ups and downs, but I’ve developed a great amount of affection for the country, particularly for London.

However, one of *those* doors has now opened, and I’m passing through the portal. In about a month's time, I will be arriving in the German capital with a few boxes of stuff and strong hopes for the future.

I first visited Berlin about four years ago. I’ve been back a few times, and I love the place. It’s as cosmopolitan as London, but markedly less frenetic — as someone hailing from the more-than-laid-back Cape Town, and as someone now somewhat past his twenties, this appeals to me.

Most pertinently, my thoroughly amazing partner Doreen has accepted a job there at a good architectural office, and I’m happy and excited to say I’m tagging along.

I’m going to be leaving behind many things I care about. The most important of those is, of course, the friends and colleagues whose company I thoroughly enjoy. But, you know what, I don’t think such bonds will be severed — in part, thanks to the wonder that is the internet. I’ll also still be popping back from time to time, and I’m really looking forward to playing host in my new home.

I will be leaving my role as a ZDNet UK senior reporter, but I’m delighted to say that I’ll continue to work for the site on a daily basis, in a freelance capacity. It’s not hyperbolic to say that, having worked on the site for more than five years, I feel an immense amount of loyalty to ZDNet UK and the people who work there, and, well, I’m proud of the place. It’s the best enterprise IT site out there, IMHO, and I feel very grateful that the association will continue.

I’m really sorry to be leaving behind my band, Guns To Caviar, but the timing there works out as our excellent drummer Toby is about to become a dad (twins!) and that’s kind of time-consuming. It’s been a blast and, again, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished.

I’m filled with anticipation, excitement and terror, and it would be an understatement to say this is a weird time for me. But I have no doubt I’m doing the right thing, at the right time.


David / @superglaze x