Pretty in Print

Written by Wil Harris

December 8, 2005 | 16:23

Tags: #magazine #online #print #publishing #web

God, I'm hungover. I've got that lovely bleary-eyed headache, combined with a general fuzziness about the events of the night before. How exactly did I get home? There might have been a bus. But I'm not sure.

Such is the life at this time of year. It's Christmas time, and that means parties and, being a journalist, it generally means pretty good ones. Last night was an awards dinner for one of the top print IT magazines in the UK, and whilst they might technically be a rival to bit-tech, the kind-hearted souls invited me along anyway. Perhaps it was something to do with acting as their impromptu photography department on occasion.

"Print publishing still has more kudos than online publishing"

Going to these parties is usually a great way to catch up with people in the IT industry. A lot of the top people in the UK are there, and they're often people that can make stuff happen for us. A night's drinking in good humour might secure some exclusive news or a promise of a new product before anyone else. Anybody who works in media or business will know that networking (no, not 10/100) is a good way to make money, win friends and influence people; and in the competitive world of IT publishing, nowhere is that more true.

Talking to one chap who happens to run the UK outfit of a company you see very regularly in bit-tech's pages, I was really struck by his thoughts on print IT magazines and online websites like ours. His opinion is that IT journalists, in general, are more IT and less journalist. Why, he suggests, can't IT journalists be more concise, more accurate, more like the stuff he reads in the Financial Times every day? His argument was that, in general, the standard of IT journalism is fairly low, with writing and grammar being bad, and accuracy being at a minimum.

His second point was that, for all its faults, print publishing still has more kudos than online publishing. For many firms, an award from a website means next to nothing, but a 'Recommended' from even a middling print title can mean a satisfied boss. Why is this? Well, because print magazines are often seen as more 'serious' and 'credible'. It takes an awful lot of money to hire a bunch of journalists, print a magazine every month, hire sales people to fill the advertising sections - and any magazine that makes it to the newsstands in your local WHSmith has already done incredibly well. Many print journalists have some formal English training, and the magazine is often put together very well, with decent production values. Journalists have a strong sense of ethics, which is fostered by their office environment - untoward freebies are likely to be clamped down on by colleagues or by the Editor of the title.

The perception of the web, often, is the opposite. Many websites are guys in their backrooms, or bunches of friends, putting together a site for fun as a hobby - just as bit-tech was, back in the day. This is not professional. Many websites are bowled over by the prospect of seeing the latest kit, of getting invited to a party, and will reward the company offering them hospitality (in)appropriately in their pages, unaware of the ethical implications. Some websites have the same people writing reviews and selling advertising, a situation which you will never find in print titles. There's nothing wrong with these websites - you and I visit them frequently, I'm sure, and they often come up with some kick-ass stuff. But what they aren't is professional, and to companies, that devalues reviews and awards from them. By implication, it often casts negative connotations on professional websites like ours - some companies are too stupid to tell the difference.
So, if print is the holy grail, is bit-tech screwed? I can say fairly safely that we're not about to print a magazine any time soon, so how can we set the record straight with these companies? More to the point, how can we make sure you guys are getting the best, most accurate information about their products?

"Although manufacturers will sometimes be annoyed that we don't 'share their perspective' on a technology, ultimately they respect us more for our uncompromising stance."

Well, one of the things we've done is to adopt a print methodology of advertising ethics. Nobody involved in writing content on bit-tech is involved in selling advertising. Since the contacts for press and the contacts for sales people are different in tech companies, there's little overlap - meaning that we can guarantee that the reviews and articles you read on bit-tech have had nothing to do with any adverts you see around them. This is the print methodology, and companies respect that. It is, unfortunately, not the case on other popular sites, and sometimes you might notice.

Related to this is the general issue of ethics. Have no doubt, some companies to try to influence editorial by making sure journalists are entertained at events, or have plenty of testing equipment. Many firms will offer exclusive stories in return for favourable coverage on the site - "We'll send you the first of x product if you only publish these certain benchmarks." We make every effort to avoid this by insisting that any product we look at is seen on our terms, and by making sure enough investment goes into the site to avoid needing favours from anyone. Although manufacturers will sometimes be annoyed that we don't 'share their perspective' on a technology, ultimately they respect us more for our uncompromising stance. Our bottom line is this: we don't owe anything to anyone, except you, the reader. Anything that isn't directly in your interests isn't in ours, either.

The second thing is to give our writers some English training. We'd like to think that the stuff you can read on the site is of a higher quality than many other sites. I have personally written for quite a few other publications in my time, which has helped to hone my skills - the BBC, the Register, and a few print magazines - and all our staff are challenged to consistently improve the quality of their writing. Hopefully, it means you should see columns like this with the minimum of typos and with some decent grammar and paragraph construction.

The third thing is to ignore our rivals and focus on our own goals. A wise man once said to me - "If you spend all your time looking sideways, you're not looking forwards." Undoubtedly, we have rivals in our sphere - we compete with other websites and with magazines for advertising budgets, first looks at products, news exclusives and the like, as well as for you guys - the more of you that look at our website, the more successful we can be, the more we can then offer you. Sometimes the temptation to point out something outrageous (such as a blatantly 'bought' editorial pieces) on a rival site is overwhelming - but that wouldn't exactly be very professional. I'm a great believer in the high moral ground, and I have to believe that you guys aren't stupid enough to read something outrageous and think that it's accurate.

We're always working to keep bit-tech as professional and credible as anything you can buy in a newsagents. We also feel that you should be informed of what we're doing to keep your interests first, so we're banging on about it very, very loudly.

Oh cripes, I shouldn't bang too loudly. My head is still killing me.
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