Monday, January 14, 2008

Vendors as tech publishers

I have known Sam Whitmore my entire journalism career -- we both were at PC Week (Sam actually was one of its founding editors) in the middle 1980s. Sam runs his own shop called Media Survey, where he interviews tech and business media and tracks trends for PR professionals and others. He asked me to write a series of articles about the evolution of vendors becoming their own tech publishers. They ran on his subscription-only mailing list late last month and are reprinted below with his permission.As the major tech publishers go through additional layoffs, shut down publications and generally disinvest in their editorial product, the most experienced journalists are going to work as analysts and joining and creating vendor-driven editorial projects.

These projects are not always some custom-published vanity efforts but attempts at real editorial efforts to extend brand awareness and fill the void left by the tech pubs. Microsoft, Cisco,, and Oracle all try to mimic the level of professionalism and technical authority of the trades. These vendors are all worth taking a closer look at -- but know that you may never see it all: in Cisco's case, at least one former trade editor has been hired to publish content behind a gate exclusively for customers, employees and partners."You have greater impact on the industry as a whole when you're writing reviews and working at a major trade publication," says Lori MacVittie, a former Network Computing labs analyst who now works out of her home as a technical marketing manager for F5 Networks. "Now we have a much narrower role working for F5," she says. "And you realize that you are going to have some bias, and try not to say nasty things about the company we work for."

More often than not, the journalists who succeed in vendor-land are the technically savvy ones. Peter Coffee, whom I hired back in the late 1980s at then-PC Week has been with for most of 2007 and does a brilliant job blogging and video-posting about Web applications development.

Former InfoWorld marquee columnist Jon Udell has been with Microsoft for about as long, and continues to write about data access and programming issues. Reading their blog posts show their depth of understanding of arcane issues that isn't your average bedtime reading, even for many seasoned IT professionals.

While at Network Computing, MacVittie and her husband Don often played the role of analysts, because of the high quality of advice they gave to vendors. "When we were at CMP, we used to talk about how much we wanted vendors to open that kimono and show it to us," says Lori. Now that we are at F5, she says, she has a new appreciation for complexity and how difficult it can be to make sense of it all.

The tech pub world is evolving beyond just blogs and podcasts, and likewise, we'll have a hopefully rich mix of vendor-sponsored content from a wide variety of sources. Let's hope that tech PR pros, in concert with their clients, can play an important role in the overall discourse.

Part 2. Why journalists leave their tech publishers.

While some tech journalists have found a new home on the vendor side, others have become reportorial industry analysts. Maybe we should call them "journanalysts." Why do they leave?

Former eWeek lab analyst Henry Baltazar is now with The 451 Group in San Francisco as a storage analyst. He says that "although my audience as analyst is smaller -- since most of the content I produce only goes out to our subscriber base -- our readers (VCs, investment banks, vendors, end users) have influence over the markets I cover." He is also writing in more depth and has more time to cover the companies than he had at eWeek.

China Martens left the IDG News Service this summer to join The 451 Group in Boston. Martens says she has "more influence as an analyst, since the level of engagement is very different. There is a sense that as an analyst you get much greater insights into the 'why' of decision-making, and of course there is more time to engage with people, too. We also don't quote anyone in our reports so there is not the same pressure as in journalism to come up with the killer quote or two."

She also makes the point that The 451 Group keeps her objectivity intact: "I couldn't work anywhere where there were any restrictions in place on what I could say, and fortunately I've still never had to." Unlike some analyst firms like Gartner or Forrester, The 451 Group doesn't take vendor payments for specific research reports.

Deni Connor left Network World this fall. She remains there as a freelancer, writing a twice-weekly storage newsletter. But now Deni works for herself, as principal analyst for Austin, Tex.-based Storage Strategies NOW. "This is something that I wanted to do for a long time," she says. "And really, it is pretty much what I have been doing when I was a journalist, providing technical content to readers." Connor did PR for a networking vendor back in the day when Token Ring was still a viable technology, and ran an internal publication for Novell, too.

It is this background that has encouraged her to put out her own shingle. "I am fortunate that I have marketing experience and know-how, and am comfortable promoting and marketing my own business," says Connor. "Other journalists that don't have this background may find that a limiting factor."

Part 3. What does this all mean for PR professionals trying to get ink – or page views – for their clients?

Well, for one thing, it is going to be harder to keep track of where to pitch stories, and also harder to get these pitches across the transom. You should first hone your skills at tracking the blogging community: use a blog search tool, start posting comments on the more influential ones, and go meet them at the conferences that the bloggers who are working in your market niche attend. In China Martens' case, she has had to find a whole new set of AR contacts: "the analyst relations and public relations folks at the companies I cover are completely different, so it feels almost like I am starting over, establishing fresh relationships with companies that I've tracked for many years."

Second, it is too late now, but the most successful PR types are those that have developed good personal relationships with these editors before they depart CMP, Ziff et al. If you want to pitch the vendor-sponsored editors, make sure you fit into their niche and have something that can complement the overall message and product line that they represent. This means understanding your client's overall partner, channel, and distribution ecosystem and being able to find how your client's news nugget can apply to these third-party players.

For example, a new SharePoint add-in product can be pitched to people writing about collaboration (such as someone like Chris Miller who writes, to Microsoft-centric bloggers, and to major ISVs too. You need to cast a wide net, and spend some time tracking this stuff down. Which means now more than ever you need to understand the overall context for that news nugget, too.

Third, if you don't know how to use RSS feeds to keep up to date on what these folks are doing, now is the time to learn. We have put links to the RSS feeds of the journalists that we mentioned on purpose (rather than provide links to ordinary Web URLs), and if you haven't tried an RSS reader, I recommend starting with Bloglines or Google's Reader. To make things easier, you can check out the consolidated links on my Pageflakes page and see what you might find appealing.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.