“If they start making products people don’t want, and start losing users, then Apple’s strategy will run into problems.” You can see the full NYT Business section story here. My wife and I love to read the papers in the morning. French-born, we still marvel at this American icon: the newspaper route, the nice deliveryman in his beat-up truck throwing the paper on our doorsteps in the wee hours.

But enough Norman Rockwell.

‘Who is this guy?’ My spouse is pointing at the NYT story. I had avoided it because we’re a couple of days away from Apple’s WWDC. Every year, in San Francisco, Apple holds the Worldwide Developers Conference for individuals and companies writing programs (applications) for its computers and, now, its smartphones. The rumor mill makes too much noise. Writers, bloggers, anal-ysts, pundits and kremlinologists attempt to top one another with predictably bad results.
Still, who is this guy? Is Brigitte referring to the article’s author, Brad Stone, a respected writer, or to Benjamin Reitzes, the Barclays Capital analyst quoted above? The doubt points to an all-too-common problem with business writing in our Valley: Cut-and-Paste stories, formulaic and, if not content-free, bland and devoid of insight or explanatory value.

Here’s the formula: First, take a topic that’ll sell, meaning it’ll attract readers to be pimped to advertisers by the newspaper’s sales department. Check. Apple always sells, especially around events or announcements such as the WWDC.
Next, round up the usual suspects, analysts, industry observers, research reports and market statistics. Skillfully tortured, they’ll confess and say what the writer (or his/her boss, we’ll get to that) wants to hear. Check. We have three analysts and one software developer. We also have truncated market statistics: Mac sales went down 3% year-to-year, true and not exactly surprising in this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) recession. But, here, the writer fails the reader. The story would be more helpful, it would provide a better view of the industry if it offered comparative data: Dell revenue went down 23% year-to-year; HP’s numbers fell by a similar percentage (24% for desktops, 13% for laptops). The story then moves to the operating system licensing question: Apple doesn’t but Microsoft and Google (Android) do. True but followed by a misbegotten point: “Apple builds its own hardware and software and carefully strikes exclusive relationships with wireless carriers that are willing to heavily subsidize its devices. The strategy depends on a constant flow of new products that people are willing to switch wireless companies and pay extra to use.”

The writer forgets or chooses to omit facts that destroy the point he’s struggling to make. For example: RIM (Blackberry), the US smartphone market leader, doesn’t license its software and it, too, makes its own hardware. And so on. The piece doesn’t bring a single bit of original information or explanation and, as a summary of the state of affairs it is mangled.
(A side note: as I troll my usual set of blogs this morning, I see Gizmodo mocking the same insight-free quote from the Barclays gent in the NYT piece.)

Unfortunately, this NYT story isn’t the exception; it merely is a polished instance of a long-standing genre. Years ago, I asked people in the know why there were so many cut-and-paste jobs. The reply? This is “the way things are done around here”. A reporter isn’t supposed to analyze or opine, s/he’s trained to go around, gather information and report. Just the facts ma’am.
This is avoiding the real question; this is an attempt to frame the discussion. Who can be against objective reporting, against gathering facts, getting experts to speak for the record, all this in the service of a professionally written and edited story? No, the trouble lies with the implementation of the noble idea, with the pretense of objectivity, with getting too comfortable, with the gaming of the formula and, trying to be fair, with the pressure on writers.

For the latter, the pressure, I’ll speculate a bit. The editor calls his reporter: Brad, we’re being scooped by the WSJ, they’re writing an “above the fold” piece on Steve Jobs returning to work at Apple, perhaps on the occasion of Apple’s WWDC, perhaps not, we don’t know. I need 1,000 words by 5pm. Your piece will also run on page one of the business section, also above the fold. A quick spin of the Rolodex, a few phone calls and the tried-but-not-so-true-anymore formula helps meet the deadline.

As for the experts, my calling them the usual suspects isn’t entirely a joke. Once upon a time, I was parachuted as chairman of a software company. I found a well-known industry analyst on the payroll. Not as an employee, just a retainer for his product strategy and media relations advice. The individual, name withheld, once bragged to be the Valley’s most often quoted expert. Actually, he wasn’t really bragging, he was a veritable quote machine and the company, being practical, made sure to be commented upon in the best of objective lights. The arrangement didn’t last. Not because I objected to it but because the company got promptly sold.

One has to wonder: Do newspaper editors and writers know about such arrangements?

But, one will object, can this be avoided? Am I being naive to suggest reporters should be given more time to write a more deeply researched piece, to hope editors would demand better quality or even push towards more analysis and opinion as opposed to warmed over factoids and a pose of objectivity. Perhaps.

But I love newspapers, and I pay for them, I read them off-line and on-line. I want them to survive, I have high expectations for them, and I don’t want them to lose credibility.
We don’t need business stories that end with: “Apple has had a nice rally because they put up very strong numbers, and at the end of the day it will still be all about numbers,” said Mr. Reitzes of Barclays Capital.

A coda, without venenum, au contraire: I checked with a friend, a veteran of Silicon Valley journalism. Was I out of line? Here is what he says in defense of his colleague:
“Having been in the situation many, many times myself, I am always sympathetic with journalists who are forced by their editors to write something when there is clearly nothing new to say. Which is essentially the life of an Apple beat reporter. Having lived through this at [redacted], I'd bet a lot of money the conversation in the SF bureau of the NY Times went something like this.

NY Times tech bureau in San Francisco
Wednesday morning

Damon Darlin (Tech bureau chief; smart guy; former WSJ'er in Tokyo): Hey, Brad, New York wants a curtain raiser for the Apple Developer Conference next week.

Brad Stone: When do they want to run it?

DD: Tomorrow

BS: TOMORROW? Why the fuck do we want to run it tomorrow? Why not Saturday or Sunday, like we usually do.

DD: Because New York wants us to have ours before the Journal has theirs.

BS: Oh, but that's so LAME. Besides, there is nothing new to say.

DD: Well, come up with something. You know analysts will say anything we want them to.

BS: But we've said everything we need to say a thousand times already.

DD: Stop whining. You want to cover Cisco instead?

BS: But what about all those Pre stories we just wrote? Those said everything there was to say.

DD: Look, it's a slow news day, and everyone likes reading stories about Apple. Plus, everyone wants to know if Steve Jobs is going to die or not.  The story doesn't even have to say anything; it just needs to be 900 words long and say "Apple" every other paragraph. New York can't be talked out of it.

BS: Shit, this is ridiculous. When do you need it by?

DD: You have plenty of time. 90 minutes.”

My friend adds: “I think you understand: This is not a knock against Brad, who I don't know, but who seems like a great reporter, and certainly not against Damon, who I do know, and who I have enormous respect for. The point is that when it comes to grossly over-covered topics like Apple, it's inevitable that some of the stories will be on the lame side.”

I half-heartedly agree. This is the way the system works. But is it the best way to save it? —JLG

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