Hacking the Press, Part 2: Types of Publications
Last week I talked about the reasons you might want to work with the press; whether you’re a developer looking for product exposure, or a non-profit looking for volunteers, knowing how to deal with the press can be a valuable tool. This week I’ll continue with a look at publications. Because they vary significantly in the types of information they publish and their target audiences, it’s important to tailor your efforts to specific media outlets.
Many types of publications exist because the Internet has lowered cost barriers that previously prevented individuals and small organizations from publishing. Ric Ford’s MacInTouch is a perfect example – Ric Ford and Rick LePage started MacInTouch as a paper journal years ago, but the difficult economics of publishing on paper resulted in MacInTouch transmogrifying into a well-received column in MacWEEK. Then, with the rise of the Internet, Ric was able to recreate MacInTouch yet again, this time into a Web site that has become one of the primary sources of frequently updated news in the Macintosh world.
Keep in mind that the lines between the types of publications I discuss below are blurring, with the smudges also caused by the Internet. Few traditional publications lack Web sites, though sometimes they’re mere placeholders.
Traditional Magazines — Traditional computer magazines are still what comes to mind when many people think about the press. The Macintosh world has a handful of major magazines, with Macworld, MacAddict, and MacTech being the main names. Others such as Mac Home Journal certainly exist but don’t command the same recognition, and I know less about them. (We’ve never personally been involved with the business aspects of a paper magazine, but in the interests of full disclosure I should note Tonya and I have written for the three main magazines, I’ve been a columnist for the now-defunct MacUser and MacWEEK, and I’ve recently been named a Contributing Editor at Macworld. Other TidBITS staff members also write freelance pieces for these and other industry publications.)
Traditional magazines make and spend a lot more money than most Internet publications. It’s not surprising – staff for copy editing, design, and layout aren’t cheap, and printing and distributing hundreds of thousands of magazines isn’t cheap either. Some years ago, when I last looked into the economics of paper magazine publishing, magazines assumed that subscription fees only covered the cost of printing and mailing. Since then, increased costs may mean publishers spend more to print and distribute than they bring in from subscriptions and newsstand sales.
So, most of a magazine’s revenues come from advertising, with the split between editorial and advertising pages varying widely. That’s why magazine page counts can change, sometimes radically – without enough advertising, there isn’t money for editorial pages. The reverse is also true – with a lot of advertising, the number of editorial pages may increase, since a publication must carry less than 70 percent advertising to qualify for a periodical class mailing permit.
These details explain important facets of working with traditional magazines. The publications have moderately large staffs, pay their writers, and have numerous policies about interacting with vendors. They expect to be taken seriously when they call for review copies or other information, and their quality is generally high. I won’t pretend traditional magazines don’t publish mistakes, but mistakes are less likely since the publications can hire good writers and pay people to check details – and they want to protect their long-standing reputations.
On the downside, traditional paper publications have long lead times. A writer typically finishes a feature article months before it appears in print – editing, layout, graphics, printing, and distribution not only cost money, but take time. Other types of articles can have shorter leads, ranging from two to eight weeks. As a developer, it’s worth asking when an article covering your product is likely to run so you can keep the writer in the loop with upcoming product releases. Many magazines won’t review betas, but writers may still want to see them, particularly if your final release and the publication date correspond closely. (Remember that the date on the cover of a magazine often doesn’t correspond with the month that people receive the magazine). Be up front about your planned release schedule with the writer and editor (you often talk to both when working with paper magazines), since that’s the best way to avoid a less-than-positive review or mention appearing in print right before you release an update or new version. Some accommodation can usually be made if schedules collide.
Keep the bureaucracy of paper publications in mind – it’s most appropriate to talk about technical issues with the writer and scheduling issues with the writer and the editor. Never mix any discussion of advertising with the editorial side of the magazine. At best, you’ll seriously offend the writer and the editor. For instance, Neil Ticktin, publisher of MacTech, once kicked an advertiser out of the magazine after the advertiser threatened to pull their ad if MacTech didn’t review their product.
When inquiring about advertising, talk to an ad sales rep – you can find contact information in the magazine itself. Ask how to make the most from your ad: some magazines can place ads near specific articles, and although some people interpret such placement as collusion between editorial and advertising, the editorial folks are unlikely to know anything about it. Such placement can be especially beneficial, since it links the editorial coverage with your advertising message and tells readers your company is sufficiently "real" to run ads.
Let the writer know you’re happy to answer questions – if you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to fact-check the article ahead of time. Some publications (including MacTech and TidBITS) will do this to increase accuracy; others explicitly do not to avoid tricky issues with pre-publication knowledge and arguments with negative reviews. If you’re given the chance to fact-check an article, do not comment on anything but questions of fact, particularly if the article is at all negative: your only chance to improve the conclusions is to point out factual errors which led to those conclusions. Only occasionally have representatives of companies abused this privilege with TidBITS, and in each instance it was tremendously unpleasant and damaging to our relationship with them.
Responding to errors or concerns in a published article is trickier. If the errors are minor, personal email to the writer can prevent similar future mistakes without burning bridges, and the writer can point you in the right direction if the magazine has a corrections column. Address email about more serious errors to the editor, and if you feel that the editor is part of the problem, a politic note to the Letters to the Editor address is best. Although publications are generally willing to acknowledge factual errors, be very careful disagreeing with published conclusions or subjective things like ratings. The relationship you establish with writers, editors, and the publication at large is paramount: it’s self-defeating to jeopardize that relationship by complaining about a single article.
If you feel you’ve been totally wronged, keep all of your communications unfailingly polite. Never blow up at a writer or editor: it’s especially stupid with paper publications since the individuals involved are likely to stay in the industry for years and move to more influential roles. Poisoning the well at a paper publication could contaminate a fair bit of the groundwater too.
As you’ve probably realized, paper publications are marked primarily by structures which you have to work with and understand. Your best strategy is to ask the editor (without being obsequious) what the publication expects from you and how you can help. Editors appreciate this attitude because it makes their lives easier, and (as we’ll see in a future installment) journalists are incredibly busy.
Internet Magazines & Newsletters — I’ve talked about paper publications because they set the model emulated by other types of publications. Online magazines and newsletters, TidBITS included, often follow approaches similar to paper publications in creating solid, professional content. Some (again, like TidBITS) stick to regular schedules and integrated issues; while others publish new articles on the Web whenever they’re ready. Internet publications don’t have paper and its associated costs, but do have much shorter lead times. When Tonya and I started TidBITS we made a big deal of our short lead time, which put even MacWEEK to shame. These days, our weekly schedule seems downright relaxed compared to Web sites that publish news items as soon as they can.
The lowered expenses and quick turnaround for Internet publications significantly changes how you work with them. Few Web publications have many staff members, so there’s less distinction between writers, editors, and ad sales reps. Despite the multiple hats worn by the people who run Internet publications, it’s still best to keep discussions about advertising completely separate from editorial issues. For instance, TidBITS is too small to have someone dedicated to working with current and potential sponsors, so I handle that along with my writing and editing. But I separate the tasks by using a different email address – <[email protected]> – exclusively for corresponding with sponsors to make clear that I’m wearing a business hat, rather than the editorial beret.
When an editorial schedule exists for an Internet publication, it’s abbreviated. You need to be prepared to respond to queries quickly, since a turnaround of even a day could mean the difference between good and bad coverage.
The faster the publication schedule, the more likely it is that errors will creep in, and handling these cases is different than with paper magazines. First, you have to keep an eye out – or use some sort of scanning service – for such errors, since it’s unlikely you’d be alerted by the publication that they’ve written about you. Your users are often the best source for alerts – yet another reason to make sure users can easily send you email. One advantage of Internet publications is that they can fix the offending text on the Web or publish a correction immediately (we adhere to the latter approach; see "The Unbearable Lightness of URLs" in TidBITS-467 for our rationale). Some sites may be less interested in doing so since their news cycles off quickly – this is another situation where a good relationship with the publication improves your chances of having mistakes fixed (and fixed quickly).
Reader-based Sites — There’s no official term for these kind of Web sites, but they tend to generate little content on their own, instead relying on readers to submit material. They add value by culling out bogus information, organizing the remainder, and providing a single destination for readers. Ted Landau’s MacFixIt is one of the best examples, since Ted puts a huge amount of work into collecting and selecting bug reports from readers, verifying them to the extent possible, organizing them into a coherent whole, and often rewriting them so they make sense in context. Reader-generated content is also an increasingly common adjunct for publications that write their own content. For instance, articles on Mac Publishing’s Web sites feature a reader feedback forum at the end, and our moderated TidBITS Talk mailing list serves much the same purpose.
From the perspective of a software developer, these sites are difficult to manage. Anyone can post a message about your product, and it has a good chance of being published if it’s not clearly wrong or offensive. For instance, I personally approve every message to TidBITS Talk, but I may approve a message containing incorrect information if I don’t know the product in question. Other readers may write in with corrections, but there’s never a guarantee.
There are two solutions to this problem. First, get to know the people in charge of the site. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed this theme throughout these articles: personal relationships are all-important when working with the press.) You want the people who manage these reader-based forums to think of you when something about your product comes in. If they know you, they’re more likely to ask before posting something potentially damning.
Second, when something does slip by – and it will – it’s up to you to address the inaccuracy in person in the same forum. This is extra work, but it’s worthwhile. Remain calm and reasoned so you don’t lose your rhetorical position of authority. Such a response will also have the effect of introducing you to the people in charge of the site, increasing your chances of avoiding similar problems in the future. I’d also recommend continuing to monitor the forum for appropriate topics – you’ll help your reputation if you participate in discussions in a positive way as well as doing damage control.
Mainstream Publications — Mainstream publications are magazines and newspapers that don’t cover technology – they may run stories or even a regular column, but it’s not their focus. It’s not worth trying to get coverage in these publications – consider it a stroke of luck if they notice you. The hard part is working with them when they do notice you, since the approaches you use with technology publications are less likely to work.
The reason? Reporters for mainstream publications are less likely to be expert in the field on which they’re reporting. There are notable exceptions, such as the technology reporting for the San Jose Mercury News and MacWEEK alum Henry Norr’s column for the San Francisco Chronicle. But on the whole, assume that reporters for mainstream publications lack technical or industry backgrounds and adjust your discussion appropriately. Also remember that these publications’ readership is also unlikely to be technically adept, so tailor your comments to that audience.
The advantage mainstream publications have – and the reason you want to be extremely responsive to them – is that huge numbers of people read them. Although it’s difficult to measure, a mention in a widely read news magazine provides tremendous exposure. And being able to say that your product has been mentioned by the Wall Street Journal or the like may confer a great deal of credibility.
Other Media — If coverage in a mainstream publication is luck, consider coverage in other media – television, movies, and, to a lesser extent, radio – manna from heaven. Over the years I’ve been interviewed for many local television news shows, and I’ve learned that my job is to distill the opinion I wish to convey into the shortest possible sound bite. The first interview I gave took about 45 minutes as I explained some Internet topic in depth… and I was on air for 25 seconds. Since then, the reporters haven’t pretended to know much, and I’ve come to accept my role. I try to explain things to them while they set up and tear down; while they’re filming, however, I speak in easily digested bits that the general public will understand. I try to make hand gestures so I’m not just a talking head), and I do whatever they ask if they need extra footage (generally of my hands typing). Thousands of people watch the evening news every day, and the exposure is always worth the effort of talking to the television crew.
There are good radio shows that cover technology, such as David Lawrence’s Online Tonight and Shawn King’s The Mac Show. They’re great – the hosts have a clue, and you get a fair amount of time to talk. And on a technology-oriented show, you can be relatively technical without losing the audience. The manna from heaven comes if you end up on a non-technical radio show: you must be careful that you speak to the general public, but since these programs reach larger audiences than most technology-oriented shows they’re always worthwhile.
I don’t have much experience with movies, although I’ve done enough video work that I have a feel for the business. It’s all based on contacts – one of your beta testers has a friend whose sister is an assistant director on the second unit for some movie. For the most part, it’s not worth trying to get product placement – it will either happen or it won’t based on contacts you probably already have. Large companies like Apple have departments which work with the film industry to make sure Macs show up in movies and television – if it happens for almost anyone else, chalk it up to good karma.
Looking Forward — I’ve skirted the issue of types of coverage – paper publications are generally best at large feature articles that require hardware test labs, Internet publications often specialize in news, and so on. Although Macworld Expo may delay the next installment in this series, I’ll next look at the types of coverage you can receive, their utility, and what to expect from each one.