rebecca lynn eisenberg on Sat, 4 Jul 1998 03:43:17 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> high-tech journalism

Hey Brill's Content, Over Here!
What the new watchdog mag could see if it turned over a rock in Silly Valley


June 18, 1998 By Rebecca L. Eisenberg

We tech journalists often fancy ourselves special. And because we use big
words to describe expensive machines, we often take for granted a hands-off
approach to our trade. This will change.

Brill's Content magazine, created by its namesake Steven Brill--the man
behind "Court TV" and "American Lawyer"--debuted in June with a heavily
hyped expose of the Clinton-Starr-Lewinsky press coverage. Brill's Content
promises to be "the new consumer guide for the information age." And it is
coming our way.

In "exposing the bias, the imbalance, the inaccuracies, the untruths--while
praising those who get it right," Brill hopes to hold all media up to "new
standards" from which we can all benefit. In each issue's "Clickthrough"
section, the magazine will turn its attention to "new media"--including the
sacred terrain of high-tech journalism.

To many of us out in Silicon Valley--including the very reporters Brill
hopes to grill--this is welcome news. What will Brill's Content reveal when
it turns over the Silicon stone?

If its premiere issue (labeled July/August, but released in June) is any
indication, BC has put the ball in motion by asking some of the questions
that we don't (or can't) ask ourselves.

In "Browser Beware," Noah Robischon, BC's tech reporter reveals the
advertising bias that influences the assignment of "prime real estate"
listing placements on search engines.

The problem? The savvy among us know that the Web sites listed first in
Yahoo catalog categories have paid for their placement, according to
Robischon, but newcomers to the Net may mistakenly believe that Yahoo is
recommending these sites on the basis of the value of their content.

Similarly, Robischon said, it might not be an issue that users who opt for
the personalization provided in "My Yahoo!" are provided with links only to
Ziff Davis and Reuters/Wired stories for high-tech news coverage, but
shouldn't readers be made aware that Softbank Corp., the Japanese company
that bought ZD in 1996 also owns a 29 percent stake in Yahoo?

"We write for consumers," said Robischon. "They are familiar with problems
in traditional media reporting, but they are not aware a lot of the same
things are happening in new media as well."

"For example, we know and care what Softbank is," Robischon continued.
"People unfamiliar with the Net as a medium do not. And [as tech reporter
for BC] one of things that I will be doing is providing that awareness."

Robischon makes a point. Reporters on the tech beat have grown accustomed
to the ubiquitous "appearance of impropriety" in high-tech reporting. From
our vantage point, perhaps we have become too complacent. We cannot rely on
HotWired and the Bay Guardian to provide us perspective on industry
problems, we need the views of an outsider back East in New York City.

A Fine Line

After all, it is the high-tech industry that gives us jobs and gets us
paid. To the extent that problems in the industry do exist, can journalists
impartially reveal them? The weaker the firewall between content and
advertising, for instance, the less likely it is that we can even ask the
right questions.

What does it mean that tech trade magazines depend so much on the products
they purport to review? How much is MacAddict's cover story screaming
"Wow!" about the new iMac influenced by knowledge that if Apple goes, the
magazine dies along with it? How balanced is CNET's coverage of its
part-owner, Intel Corp.?

Are reports from the industry analyst companies like International Data
Group (IDG)'s analyst group "International Data Corporation" (IDC) ever
influenced by IDG's need to sell ad space in IDG publications like PC World
and InfoWorld? Does Ziff-Davis's research group, Market Intelligence,
reveal conclusions that might affect the bottom line at PC Magazine? Or, do
publications regularly evolve with their products, as MacWeek did online
into e-media?

Should we be bothered by publications' selective choice of "experts" and
"industry analysts" from that company's same empire label, to the exclusion
of comparable sources affiliated with a (similarly large) competitor? Where
does "cross marketing" leave off and deception begin?

How about the role of trade shows? Does the need to book booth space at
Comdex and Seybold ever affect ZD's coverage of the industry outlets that
pay the bills? For that matter, how many "loaner" review items get shipped
to product reviewers (and shipped back)? And are the review models always
identical to the products on the shelves?

How much money is doled out shipping writers to press conferences? How much
better is the coverage by those who heard Steve Jobs announcing the new
iMac line in person?

And, if all these situations lead to bias in new media, can't we find that
bias in old media as well?

High-tech reporters, for example, often consider themselves to be a part of
the industry they cover. But how different is their role to that of
"fashion reporters" flown to Parisian couture shows, and "entertainment
reporters" given VIP passes at big-budget film premieres?

Similarly, one might ask, should we care about IDG's investments in
Netscape and Excite when we regularly watch reviews of Time Warner movies
and music on Time Warner TV?

And, while ZD may showcase Market Intelligence's expert sources, and
exclude similar sources from IDG's group IDC, haven't we grown used to
ABC's use of Disney product placement, or CNN's "repurposing" of People
magazine and Entertainment Weekly? Mergers and acquisitions have
consistently concealed old media's ties to advertisers; when GE-owned NBC
invests in CNET, what new risks appear?

We may find that the high-tech sector's problems reflect those of media as
a whole. But so far, we have looked almost exclusively at ourselves on the
"inside" to ask the questions, and have rarely questioned the sources and
the answers that we've found.

"Too much of the coverage of new-media journalism is about jumping to
conclusions," said Robischon. "Part of our role [at BC] is to see if the
coverage really is biased or not."

It's an ambitious project whose time has come.

Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg is a technology columnist for the San Francisco
Examiner, a regular commentator on "ZDTV," and a frequent contributor to
numerous publications owned by the media empires she mentions above,
including Entertainment Weekly, Time Digital and ZD's Yahoo! Internet Life.

Copyright 1998 Upside & Rebecca Lynn Eisenberg
All rights reserved.

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