Gift wrapping all sources of information

Sometimes, as journalists covering the IT industry, it seems like it’s too easy to get the information.

Not only are we are supplied with huge press kits, but vendors are only too happy to allow us to touch and review their products, while public relations practitioners are only too happy to

arrange an interview.

Now our jobs are getting even easier with the latest little trick: the media event where ALL the sources are brought together, including the vendor, the market research firm, the expert commentator and the end-user. Even the hard to come by channel companies are being made available.

It brings up an interesting issue though – are we as IT journalists being spoon-fed the information?

A good case in point is the release of the latest version of the Microsoft Office Systems in Toronto. First of all, there’s been quite a change in the way vendors make announcements, and that itself has led to differences in the way such announcements get covered. As Frank Clegg, president, Microsoft Canada pointed out in his comments, 10 years ago, product managers would simply demonstrate a software package such as Word 2.0, and companies such as Microsoft would simply count the “”oohs and aahs”” from the audience as a way to gauge reaction.

Today, software demos are seldom a part of the official product launch. You can, if you wish, test out the software later on a PC, off-stage somewhere or in another room. But journalists seldom bother.

Now at a press conference, it’s all about proving how technology benefits business rather than showing all of a product’s many features.

What you get from Microsoft, and from most other media-savvy software companies, are business cases and user testimonials, and the names of experts who are knowledgeable about the announcement.

And to take it one step further, all these people are present at the launch.

In the case of the Office System launch, market researchers were available from Evans Research Corp. and IDC Canada. The end-users included the Fraser Health Authority in Surrey, B.C., the Alberta Cancer Board and PCL Construction out of Edmonton. Compugen supplied the channel content. Immediately after the announcement, representatives from each of these organizations were readily available for interviews.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. These are all good sources of information. It makes it quite easy for any journalist to get a well-rounded story.

At the same time, though, was it all too cozy?

What you are always wondering is how much this interview subject has been coached. Were any deals made by the vendor to get that end-user to act as a product spokesperson? And will that end-user tell the whole story, talking frankly about what may have gone wrong and how any problems were resolved?

It’s difficult, if not impossible to get answers to these questions without putting off your interview source, and you are always wondering if you’ve got the full story. But all these risks have to be weighed against the benefits gained, and the opportunity to do these interviews does help us write our stories.

A supplied source is better than no source at all, or worse yet, a single source story that includes only quotes from the vendor. And yes, public relations firms are being very helpful.

The real enemy in all of this is the lack of time it takes to prepare a fully comprehensive look at a product. After an announcement like this, those reporters covering it scurried back to the office to file a same-day story for the Web. The reporter had about two hours digest about four interviews plus the press release and write the story. You do the best you can.

Now as far a getting a real good look and being able to touch the product, and that demo, I’ll get back to you later.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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