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.