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New blog site [Apr. 28th, 2006|09:04 am]
I've decided to get a little more serious about this blogging thing, but that also means moving off LJ. It doesn't seem to support trackbacks - not very easily, anyway - and I wanted it to be integrated into my own web site more (currently I have to use scripts to pull the RSS into an HTML page and it's clunky). Plus, Wordpress seems to have some fun plugin options, which I'll be able to explore now, at my leisure. So. My blog (including RSS feed) is now at my own site. Do follow me over there. This will be my last post here on LJ. Thanks to Livejournal for the past couple of years. Bye!
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Apple's PR faux pas [Apr. 23rd, 2006|10:51 pm]
Apple's sniffy response to a nine year-old's letter offering suggestions for the iPod wasn't the best way to handle things. But the news report doesn't tell the whole side of the story. It's common practice in the US not to accept unsolicited ideas from individuals outside a company, for fear of being nailed in court at a later date by the sender, should you end up implementing the idea. Everyone has to be careful about the origin of their ideas now. Just ask Dan Brown.

Say in 2004 I sent Apple a letter saying 'Hey! You should introduce an iPod that uses a video screen for its entire user interface!" And then, say, in Q4 2006, Apple releases the thing, having come up with the same idea on its own and filed patents critical to it after I submitted my idea . If the company doesn't make it very clear from the outset that it is not reading or accepting my unsolicited idea, then I could try to sue it when the product hits the streets. Not that I'd succeed, necessarily, but I could try, and such a lawsuit could be a thorn in its side, especially if there were more claims like mine. So it has to play hardball, and send me a letter saying "We don't take unsolicited pitches. We're not reading this. Go away."

For examples of this policy check out none other than the copyright part of the web site for CBS5, the station that reported Apple's response to the kid's letter. The station's site carries the standard disclaimer that you'll see on the web sites of most production companies and TV channels with any legal sense:


CBS has a long-standing company policy that does not allow CBS to accept or consider creative ideas, suggestions or materials other than those CBS has specifically requested. It is the intent of this policy to avoid the possibility of future misunderstandings when projects developed by CBS's staff might seem to others to be similar to theirown creative ideas, suggestions or materials.


So, Apple was doing exactly what it should have done, and what it outlines here, in its own policy on unsolicited submissions. The problem is that it did it to a young girl, thus making a PR faux pas. But how was it to know that the parents wouldn't sue on the kid's behalf, further down the line?

Like Usher says, Apple is an arrogant company in many ways. But these days it might be legally dangerous to "thank someone for the unsolicited advice and let them know it is certainly something they will consider." At least, it's dangerous if you're trying not to risk a court appearance later. Not that staying out of court seems to be something that Apple cares very much about these days, as long as it's in the litigant's chair.

The problem is that we live in an increasingly litigious society in which people are very happy to try and sue each other for the craziest stuff, and intellectual property violations are no exception. Now, Apple has revised its policy on responding to kids' letters. Whatever. The real issue here is that someone at Apple, and all the other companies that eschew user suggestions, really should work out a better way to engage customers rather than dismissing their suggestions, whether harshly or politely. How about a customer feedback form or commentable set of Apple employee blogs with legal disclaimers clearly stating that Apple cannot be later sued for stealing any ideas expressed? As far as I can see -- and perhaps someone will come along and correct me -- Apple doesn't even have any company-sanctioned staff blogs (further adding to its increasingly arrogant, insular image). Just how do you deal with the IP liability issue, in an age where everything is meant to be about customer conversations?
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Snakes on a Plane [Apr. 18th, 2006|09:02 am]
So, why all the fuss over Snakes on a Plane? Seems to me that the movie, which has become a cult classic before it was even released, relies wholly on the title. Samuel L Jackson said that he only agreed to be in the movie because of the title, after all.

Why is the title so attractive? Because the title is the pitch. If two guys walked into New Line and had to pitch the movie in five words or less, that's what they'd say. 'It's about...it's about...snakes on a plane!".

I was asking Susie whether there have been any other movies that embody the pitch in the title, and nothing else.

Brief Encounter?
My Dinner With Andre?
Strangers on a Train?

Close, I guess, although I'm not sure that an executive could base a contract on any of those based on the title alone. Snakes on a plane works because you pretty much know exactly what's going to happen. No room for conjecture. The idea is so silly that making it the title of the movie highlights the inanity of the formulaic Hollywood action format. Take a random danger, and a location, put them together, and fill in the blanks in the script.

Will I go to see Snakes on a plane? Hell, yeah.
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Hey ho, back again, vroom vroom vroom. [Apr. 4th, 2006|02:27 pm]

Welcome to America
Originally uploaded by itjournalist.
Sorry that I haven't posted in a while. I've been away and working madly. Just got back from the last (I hope) filming trip for my forthcoming documentary. It's been forthcoming for some time, but hopefully it will finally come forth this summer, so that I can go forth and do something else. This time round I was interviewing Pulitzer prize winner Richard Rhodes, Lynn Eden and Martin Harwit, the latter about his part in the Enola Gay exhibition that was canned in 1995. All of them fascinating interviews. Now I just hope that I can turn them into a film that does them all justice. But before I try, I have to turn some article ideas into cheques, so that I can pay to finish this whole thing off. The stock footage alone (which I just spent 2 weeks gathering at NARA - thanks for your help Jim) is really expensive. And let's not talk about the music rights. While I was at NARA I ran into Kevin Rafferty, who made Atomic Cafe, which isn't a million miles away from what I'm trying to do. I kept stumbling across the same footage that he was looking at 25 years ago, so it was an honour to meet him. It's amazing how "I really loved your movie" comes out as "arugha-ough-wagh" when you're feeling a little overawed and nervous.

I had 1.5 weeks to research my stock footage.
"How long did it take you?" I asked.
"Five years. And I had two people helping me," he said.
"Oh. Bugger." I thought.

Anyway, onwards and downwards. If you've mailed me and haven't received a reply, sorry about that. I'm going through my emails in the next few days. Sit tight. Especially on a personal note Trish, Teresa, Seth, and the two Tonys. All of whom I've owed mails to for months.

In the meantime, amuse yourselves with Google's Mars map, which I discovered while browsing the excellent Billy Goat Curse, while researching another article.
And for journalists, see if you recognise any of your antics here. I know at least three of the people mentioned in these posts. Glad to say I'm not in there! Give me a few too many early morning cups of coffee and some extra deadline stress and I'm sure I'll make it in eventually.
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(no subject) [Jan. 13th, 2006|12:25 pm]
I was just chatting to an anti-virus bod who pointed out that we're rapidly approaching the target date for the End of Spam As We Know It. Two years ago, on Jan 24th, Bill Gates reportedly said that spam would be a thing of the past in two years. Is it?

But then, his trustworthy computing drive is now four years old. The company refocused on security in 2002 and even froze code development (a risky move in an industry predicated on growth through new releases) in a bid to fix the security problems plaguing windows. Did it work? You decide.

At the end of last year, Gates talked about a web services economy in a memo that could have been written in 1999, and which seems to be more of a kneejerk reaction to Ajax programming models and Google's gradual attempts at pulling together end to end services crafted around search, than anything else. How many more statements can be made that are lacking in vision or just plain wrong, before people - including shareholders - stop listening?
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(no subject) [Jan. 3rd, 2006|10:17 am]
Hi all. Please note that I've switched to Vonage. While my old number still works for the time being, please update your contact books with the new one: +1 780 628 5755. For international callers, you still have to add the two zeros at the front. Happy new year!
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Merry Christmas! [Dec. 20th, 2005|10:01 pm]

MerryXmas2005
Originally uploaded by itjournalist.
We're foregoing the postal costs and physical cards this year, as per normal, and sending out electronic cards. Susie and I are donating the money that we would have spent on cards to Unicef and the United Way instead. Merry Christmas, all!
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Enough, already. [Dec. 9th, 2005|12:07 pm]
[mood |aggravatedaggravated]

Blogs often seem to be places for ranting and venting personal facts that are probably best kept private. I try to avoid both generally, but something happened recently that has caused me to suspend my own rule.

It seems to be a general law that the further away you get from working in agency PR, the more demanding you become about getting copies of articles that you've been quoted in. Agency types often mail me and ask politely when an article is likely to run. In-house types are often a bit more sniffy, mailing to say "we still haven't seen the article, kindly inform us when it will appear", and so on. But the real corkers are the inteviewees who don't have PR firms. They often demand a copy of the publication, and get quite shirty when it doesn't appear.

This happened to me very recently. Here's the backstory:

I call a guy who works in a scientific field, asking for an interview. While I'm waiting for him to call back I find that he organised a conference for a relevant organisation (not his employer), so I call the PR woman there, who is very helpful. Some time later I got a call from the internal PR handler at his employer, who it turns out I had to go through first before he was allowed to tallk to me. That often happens, and even though she was extremely brusque, barking out questions and interrupting me with more before I get the chance to finish answering, I politely played ball. OK, so I've dealt with two PR people to get to this guy, but it worked. So far, no sweat.

He calls and gave me half an hour of his time, taking me through the nuances of his particular field of research. He was a nice guy - very evuncular, knowledgeable, a really personable sort. At the end, I do what I always do - I gave him as much information as I could about the article's likely publication date. As it happens, my editor had given me a specific publication date - something which is very rare in the industry. So I told him the date, and explained that it would be on the web site, and gave him the URL and menu directions.

So, the day after the publication day rolls around. The guy mails me and CCs in his PR girl. "I looked for it but couldn't find it," he says. And I looked, and sure enough, neither could I.

This, or a variation of this, is happening more frequently these days. I don't know if it's because I'm writing more articles, or what, but one of three things happens. Either someone will look for an article and fail, and mail me to find out what's happened, or they'll mail me shortly asking the interview and ask me when it's likely to appear, or they'll ask me to keep track of the publication date and send them a copy of the paper when it's published. On nthe surface, this seems to be a perfectly reasonable request, of course - they've taken the time to chat to me, or arrange a call, so of course they should see the result in print. What's the problem?

The problem is that I'm a freelancer. And I'm a freelancer working in a different country to the one where 95% of my client publications are based. So if something doesn't appear on the web site, I don't get to riffle through the print publication to see if it has appeared. Which means that the only option is to contact the editor.

These editors are extremely busy. They're often facing ridiculous deadlines (especially the ones working on daily papers) and trying to get a publication out. So when a freelancer calls up to say 'hey! did the article run?' it's going to be pretty irrirating. Moreover, I generally do repeat business with each publication, which means that to satisfy everyone's demands I'd be calling the editor every time an article was due to appear and couldn't be found on the web site. That wouldn't just be irritating - it would be infuriating. Even though I write quality copy and get it in on time and do all the other things a good freelancer is meant to do, I'd be dropped pretty quickly if I was that much of a nuisance. It's often hard enough as it is trying to pitch article ideas to busy editors and knowing how to gently cajole them for a reply after my pitches drop into the moil of other demands and tasks sitting in their inbox. As I say, these are busy people. I understand that, because I've been an editor myself. So I deal with it as best I can in a way that gets results without pissing them off.

Of course, the further away an interviewee gets from the PR, journalism and publication processes, the less they understand that. And the more than they assume an editor is going to specifically call me up and say "Hey! I'm on five deadlines for other pages right now, but I just wanted you to know that the article you wrote on customer relationship management/office chairs/robotic squirrels is on the presses as we speak! And the quotes that you used from Mr I.M.Important are still in there! Please call him and let him know! Let a thousand paper-laden trucks roll forth!"

And of course, the interviewees think this because even though they know I work on multiple articles and interview multiple people, at some subconscious level they assume that they're the only interviewee I've spoken to. Let's review. I write 150-200 articles per year. And for each article, I talk to between 5-12 people, on average. That's a lot of interviewees, and a lot of articles.

All of the above assumes that I even have a copydate. A lot of the time, editors don't tell me when my stuff is going to run because not even they know. When an article will run depends on a lot of things. How much space did the advertising department give editorial this issue? Did eBay buy Skype this week, warranting a longer analysis piece? Did something happen on press day that bumped my article off the page? How time-critical is my piece, and as a freelancer on this publication am I further down in the pecking order than staffers, meaning that their stories trump mine? Probably. That's the way it goes, and it's the price you pay for getting to work at home and see your kids at lunch.

I've had editors tell me that something is on the page right now, and will definitely run this week, only to have it still not run months later. And when I ask them when it will run they'll say "We liked it, but we don't know. When we have space." And as a freelancer, you smile affably and keep filing copy, because you understand the pressure they're under, you appreciate the work they're giving you, and you do what you do.

But the requests keep coming. So, I got so fed up that I developed an FAQ that I started pointing people at. I mailed this guy back and told him that it probably ran but that I couldn't confirm it, and then pointed this guy at the FAQ, and he came back and said "There's nothing about my comments in the web page that you sent." This guy has a PHD, for chrissakes. So I eventually just pulled and slightly edited some of the relevant text from the FAQ and mailed to him:

It was meant to come out on (x day) and may well have done. Unfortunately, being a freelance journalist, I have very little insight into when articles will run. Some publications, especially national newspapers, make last-minute decisions on whether to run articles on a given day and often bump them to another day or week, giving precedence to other more time-critical articles.

I could keep pestering editors to find out when an article will run, to satisfy your query, but they�re generally extremely busy, and often don�t know the status of an article until the last minute. I've been told than an article will 'definitely run this Saturday' only to have it bumped at the last minute and held for weeks afterwards. And anyway, I don�t want to damage my relationship with my editors by badgering them repeatedly for news about article schedules. They have other things to worry about.

I�ve had articles held over for months before publication. It all depends on the season, and how busy the industry is at that time. I�m sorry that I can�t be more helpful.


And he mails back one word:

THANKS.


Now, I know what he's thinking. "These journalists, they call and benefit from my time and experience and then they drop me once they have what they want." And of course, one of the first tenets of good journalism is that you treat your contacts with respect.

But there are a lot of things that this guy doesn't realise. He doesn't realise any of the above conditions or restrictions, or if he does realise them, he doesn't care. He couldn't know that my two-month old daughter just came out of surgery for a fairly severe cleft lip repair in which they basically cut her face in half, and that for the past week I've been trying to feed her milk without dislodging the wire that's holding her new nose and mouth together, or that she's in severe pain and mainlining infant Tylenol.

He can't know that, or understand the severe time and work pressures that it puts me under. But he can realise that he's getting free publicity, and in this case, in a very high profile publication. He can read the whole of the FAQ and be more understanding. And what bugs me the most is that this guy had TWO (count 'em) PR people working for him. PR people that should understand how freelancers and magazines work together, that should understand how pressured editors are, and most of all, who should understand how to use a clippings service. But it was one of the PR people who had originally mailed him to ask if anyone had seen the story, because it was buried in the body of his mail.

Most PR people I deal with are great - very savvy, and who understand the whole process. But I've had dealings with in-house PR people that just don't seem to get it. Like the US PR peep who mailed me after a web version of a story appeared. This happened to be for the same publication as in the story above, so she knew the publication date in advance. The web version had come out overnight, which meant that the publication was being distributed the following morning. She knew this. It was a UK publication, and we were mailing at around 5pm east coast time, which meant that anyone who knows anything at all about publishing realises that the issues were already on trucks rolling to their destinations,

"The story was accurate but we didn't like the headline. You probably didn't write that, eh?" she asked.

I checked online. "Nope, I didn't write it. I supplied a suggested headline but they used their own. It often happens, and it's their perogative," says I.

"Maybe you could mail the editor and ask him to change it in time for the print version tomorrow?"

Oy vey. That's annoying on so many levels.

I try to make life easier for PR folks and interviewees, I really do. I built the features management system that sits behind this web site so that they could get regular email updates for everything I'm writing, along with a detailed brief and an indication of my copy deadline for arranging interviews. I work hard to make it easier for people, so that we can work together more effectively. But frankly, I've had it with these queries over publication date and requests for copies of publications. There are too many of them, and now people like my otherwise cuddly professor are starting to get nasty and yell at me via email. Enough is enough.

So, as well as directing people to the FAQ that I wrote, I'm going to start directing them to this post. And I'm going to leave two messages for three classes of people:

To individual interviewees: I appreciate your time and help, and value your relationship, but I cannot tell you definitively when your article will appear, or send you copies. It is just not doable. I know it's frustrating, but that's just how it is. You're still getting half a page or a page's worth of free publicity in exchange for your 30 minutes of interview time, and I'll treat you fairly and accurately. It's a good deal, trust me. If you have a PR person, go talk to them. If not, and the paper is locally available, just keep checking that publication until it appears.

To in-house PR people and agency folks: No hard feelings, and I want to keep working with you, but I'm the writer, not the editor, there are lots of you and one of me, and I AM NOT YOUR CLIPPINGS SERVICE.

There. Rant over. I know I feel better. Still friends, I hope.

And incidentally, Lucy's post-surgery brace came off last night, and she's even prettier than she was before. :-)

Have a good weekend, all.
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(no subject) [Dec. 2nd, 2005|12:59 am]
[mood |anxiousanxious]

Hellow all. I haven't blogged in ages - too busy churning through work during the autumn rush and looking after two little ones. Talking of which, the reason I'm blogging today is purely logistical. to let people know that I won't be about today. Lucy, our two month old, is in hospital having surgery today on her cleft lip. And so of course we're both in there with her, holding her hand all the way.

I (and Lucy and her mum) will be back on Monday.
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Back at work. [Oct. 17th, 2005|10:53 pm]
OK, people. I've emerged from the sea of poopy diapers that was my life for the last three weeks. I'm still on partial diaper duty of course, as all good dads should be, but now I'll be arm deep in baby poop on a cordless headset while interviewing your marketing manager about dual core silicon architectures.

Yup, I'm officially back at work rather than just vainly trying to tread water. Why? Because we're running out of money and diapers are expensive, that's why.

Editors beware: feature pitches incoming.
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