Putting readers first

March 20, 2014

Pat McGovern passed away yesterday. He founded IDG — my employer, the company that publishes CITEworld — back in the early 1960s. I’m new at IDG, so did not know him very well, although I met him a couple times, but I’ve been struck by how many long-time (and former) employees of IDG absolutely revere him. Part of it was the way he’d walk to each person and hand them their Christmas bonus personally, always stopping to chat and always remembering a few key facts about the person — pretty unusual in a company with thousands of employees.

But the deeper root of their admiration, I think, is the fact that he was there at the beginning of this industry. He was one of the people who invented it. And while other pioneering companies like Ziff Davis have been chopped up and reconstituted so many times that they’ve become meaningless, IDG is still IDG.

More to the point, Pat McGovern understood what very few media businesspeople do: The customer is the reader. Advertisers pay to reach readers. If you serve the reader, the advertisers will have no choice but to come along.

I’ve heard many tales along these lines from coworkers who’ve been around longer than me — most of which aren’t for public consumption — but it became really clear when I read this interview (long, PDF) with him from 2000. There’s a lot of great stuff in there that today’s tech reporters who have never heard of Pat McGovern might want to read, like how he set up a business subsidiary in China before the US and China even had diplomatic relations. But in particular, check out this anecdote about the launch of Computerworld in 1967:

Pat McGovern: The industry was horrified  that we were writing these stories about bad performance, bad applications. No one  would advertise with us. They said, “You are the enemy of our industry.” We put out  the publication, almost without any ads at all for the first six months. Then the  people apparently did some readership studies and found out that even though our circulation was only about a third the size of the magazines that were all being mailed out en masse, as controlled circulation or free publications, more people were reading our publication and relying on it than anyone else.

They would call us and say, “I really hate to have to do this, but my research, and also  our sales people are calling me to complain. They say, “The publication I find on the desk of my prospect is this Computerworld, and why aren’t we advertising there? That’s where the attention of the prospect is. So I’m going to have to advertise. It really burns me up to do it.”

To really make matters worse, our Editor who was in the English, Journalistic tradition, which is very aggressive and investigative, started a column called “Measure for Measure,” in which, any time an ad appeared in the publication, he would review the copy for justification and accuracy and completeness. Of course, since almost every ad sort of relies on hyperbole of some fashion, or over-dramatization, almost every ad would be excoriated by his report. The advertisers just couldn’t believe it. Not only did they have to advertise in a publication that criticizes their company, but their ad itself, is going to be critiqued and blasted for incompetence.

Interviewer: Who was selling the advertising?

PJM: Many people. After a while they would quit. They would say, “I just hate to  send the ad in, because I know after your column appears I’m going to be called by this chap and he’ll say, ‘What the heck is going on, you’re tearing my ad apart, and my boss is asking how we can we have such a stupid ad.”

DSM: Who were your first advertisers? Which companies?

PJM: I remember Memorex was one of our first advertisers. I remember their ad, which claimed all this reliability, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” That was totally destroyed by the attack that this was all done without evidence or justification, a meaningless claim.

As a study in contrast, take this essay by a reporter who recently quit her entry-level job in tech journalism at VentureBeat. In her perception, today’s tech journalism is all about chasing pageviews and fending off pitches from marketing people.

TV party tonight!

March 10, 2014

This recent article in the New York Times about how David Carr never has time to catch up with the TV shows he never has time to watch really hit a nerve with me.

About six months ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever seen “Girls.” I made some snarky response, which she misinterpreted, which I tried to explain away by saying that I don’t watch episodic TV shows and I get sick and tired of everybody asking me if I have and then telling me that I should because TV is now some form of high art that every American is compelled to appreciate. I think I just pissed her off more. But I wasn’t even trying to! I just don’t watch these shows.

I like watching movies. They’re over in 2 hours. A self-contained story. But who has the time and energy to follow all these characters through 60 or 100 or 250 episodes? Not me. Short attention span? Restless leg syndrome?

Maybe I was brainwashed as a kid — TV was strictly limited in my house, so I watched as much crap as I could when my parents weren’t around. I loved Kung Fu, and the Dukes of Hazzard, and the Incredible Hulk — that pathos-ridden music whenever David Banner walked off into the sunset after another welker of destruction, man, that was awesome. So maybe I just associate watching TV with being stuck in the suburbs without a driver’s license. Now, I’m not, so I don’t.

I once did that Netflix thing of renting the entire output of The Office (UK version) a bunch of nights in a row until you’re done. It was funny, then dark, then sad. I felt kind of sick when I finished. This was in Seattle during the winter where you don’t even want to go outside because it rains all the time, and still I wished I’d gone outside and gotten my feet muddy.

I did occasionally catch the US version of the Office, South Park, and The Simpsons, back when they were on and I didn’t have little kids sucking up all my excess time and energy. (Are they still on? I don’t know about the first two. The Simpsons is but it started sucking 10 years ago so I can’t imagine it’s any better now.) My nephew was into Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is hilarious. I watched a couple Arrested Develompents with my brother, but didn’t get the big deal so stopped. I saw Curb Your Enthusiasm a few times. I even caught a couple episodes of The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. I have no idea why.

But the must-see episodic fine art shows? Sorry. I’m hopelessly out of my depth whenever somebody starts talking about:

  • Girls
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Sopranos
  • Arrested Development
  • The Wire
  • Treme
  • Deadwood
  • Glee
  • Six Feet Under
  • Family Guy
  • Weeds
  • 24
  • Law & Order
  • Survivor
  • Sex & the City
  • Friday Night Lights (I do love the band who did the soundtrack, Explosions in the Sky, though.)
  • Lost
  • House of Cards
  • Game of Thrones
  • Mad Men

Maybe someday I’ll be fatally ill and catch up with all of these shows as I’m bedridden with a morphine drip in my arm. Until then, Black Flag has the last word:

Mapping Seattle to San Francisco

September 8, 2013

So you’re moving from San Francisco to Seattle? Or from Seattle to San Francisco?

I’ve done both, and the two cities have a lot in common. San Francisco is bigger, more expensive, more socioeconomically stratified, more ethnically diverse, and a lot sunnier except during the summer, when it’s miserably cold.  But even with these differences, there are lots of similarities, like booming high tech companies and startups, beautiful waterfront, glorious nearby nature, long lines for brunch, the frequent smell of marijuana, fancy beer, a serious homeless problem, and great young NFL teams.

These analogies aren’t perfect, but I hope they help you figure out where you might want to live, visit, and avoid. I’ll leave it to the designers to create the actual physical maps.


The Financial District :: Downtown

Civic Center :: South Downtown

SOMA :: SoDo

The Mission :: Ballard

Dolores Park :: Green Lake

The Castro :: Capitol Hill

Upper Haight :: University Ave

Lower Haight/Hayes Valley :: The CD

Fillmore :: Wallingford

Noe Valley :: Ravenna

Pacific Heights :: North Capitol Hill

The Marina :: Madison Park

Seacliff :: Broadmoor

Chinatown :: The International District

North Beach :: Pike Place

Embarcadero :: Seattle Center

Pioneer Square :: Pier 39

Potrero :: Queen Anne

Dogpatch :: Georgetown

Glen Park :: Phinney

Bernal :: Madrona

Excelsior :: Beacon Hill

St. Francis Wood :: Windermere

Forest Hill :: Laurelhurst

The Richmond :: Magnolia

The Presidio :: Discovery Park

The Sunset :: North Seattle

19th :: Aurora

Oakland :: Tacoma

Walnut Creek :: Bellevue

Palo Alto :: Mercer Island

Berkeley :: Olympia

 Complaining about hipsters :: Complaining about the weather

Your startup getting written up in TechCrunch :: Your band getting played on KEXP

Produce :: Seafood

MUNI delays :: I-5 traffic

Fog :: Rain

Point Reyes :: The San Juans

The Redwoods :: The Olympics

Yosemite :: Mt. Rainier

There are a couple places that are vital to each city but don’t have very good analogs. West Seattle is seen as the “old” Seattle, the way Seattle used to be, physically removed from the rest of the city and solidly middle class. I can’t think of a good equivalent in SF. Golden Gate Park is a beautiful green refuge surrounded by concrete, full of museums and lakes and even a waterfall, both urban and natural at the same time. There’s nothing really like it in Seattle — Volunteer Park is much smaller and not nearly as vital to the life of the city, and Seattle Center is much too developed. And there’s absolutely nothing in Seattle that compares with the spectacular vistas, cinematic charm, and genteel unaffordability of Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill.

The Ministry approach to tech journalism

June 6, 2013

When I was younger and angrier, I listened to a lot of pissed-off music. I still have a lot of that music, and I’ve ripped some of it into iTunes.

The other day, Ministry’s song “TV II” from the seminal “Psalm 69″ album came up during a workout.

After it finished, it occurred to me that the first four lines basically sum up all of tech journalism.

  1. “Tell me something I don’t know.” (News)
  2. “Show me something I can use.” (Reviews,  hands-on)
  3. “Push the button.” (Trolls, rants)
  4. “Connect the goddamn dots.” (Analysis)

(Actually, these aren’t the exact lines — he says “can’t use” in the second case. But they’re the lines I’ve always heard.)

The repeated line “You’re lying through your teeth!” is also true way too often. Sadly.

Here’s the song:

Rules of engagement for interviews

February 11, 2013

I’ve been on both sides of a reporter’s microphone. It can be frustrating to subjects when they don’t understand the terms of an interview. So to help, I’m going to propose these as fair rules of engagement.

If there are better, commonly agreed-upon rules that are publicly available somewhere, please point me to them — not private rules that exist only in a manual for employees of a particular publisher, but something that subjects can also read.


On the record: Reporter may report the statement and attribute it to the subject by name.

On background: Reporter may report the statement or sentiment but should take some care to obscure the identity of the subject. This is most often used when somebody could get fired for saying what they’re saying — like leaking the existence of the iWatch. [UPDATE: Some people say "not for attribution," which to me means you can quote them directly, but not by name.]

Off the record: Reporter may not report the statement, but may use it to inform future reporting on the subject. For instance, the statement may be used to formulate uncomfortable questions during future formal interviews with other subjects.


1. During the course of a formal interview or press event, everything is on the record unless arrangements are made ahead of time, or unless clearly stated by the subject during the interview. (“This part is off the record.” “Please don’t report this.” Etc.) The subject must never assume that the reporter will know when the conversation switches to background or off the record.

i. The definition of a formal interview is any interview that was set up by both parties ahead of time, or that occurs in the context of reporting — for instance if a reporter calls a source and says “I’m working on a story about x. Do you have time to talk about it?” The presence of alcohol or other substances is not relevant to the definition. A formal interview over beers is still a formal interview.

ii. The definition of a press event is a public event where members of the press have been invited in their roles as press rather than as private citizens.

2. During the course of an informal conversation, everything is presumed to be off the record unless the reporter asks to use the statement. At that point, the two parties can decide if the statement is on background or on the record.

3. Once a story is published, it may not be changed unless the subject can show that the reporter did not abide by the prearranged ground rules or misquoted the subject or blatantly misrepresented the subject’s sentiments (e.g., quotes taken totally in the opposite context that they were intended). At that point, retractions or corrections may be issued.

[UPDATE: I got some comments from subjects about not being informed about the true nature of an article, or not being informed that the reporter’s byline was not going to be on the story — that they were simply doing research for another reporter. I think this boils down to a fourth point, which is:

4. Be fair to each other. Reporters should be as clear as possible about the story they’re working on, but subjects should also understand that the reporting sometimes changes the story — that’s the whole point of talking to people to arrive at the closest possible story to the truth.

If anything, these ground rules seem too lenient toward subjects. A lot of reporters will argue that no arrangements should ever be made ahead of time, and that all conversations with newsworthy subjects — even in a private setting — should be on the record, or at the very least usable on background. I think it depends on the context, the subject, the publication, and many other factors. Humans can make different decisions at different times – we’re not robots.

But I would love to get some feedback from other reporters and experienced PR people — am I missing something? Too lenient on subjects? Too harsh? Is there some rule book somewhere that everybody knows about but me?

Why health care costs in this country are skyrocketing

November 16, 2012

My health care provider is UCSF. They have some of the best doctors in the United States, and I’ve never had an issue with the care I’ve gotten there.

But like the rest of the country, their billing situation is an insane bureaucratic mess.

In my last annual physical in February, my doctor was worried about a mole. She ordered a biopsy. I went back in a couple days later to get it sliced off. Fortnately, the biopsy came back negative (lucky). I went back again two weeks later to get my sutures removed. Minor, painless. The usual stuff that starts happening when you get older.

My health insurance company didn’t like some aspect of the procedure — I guess they thought charging me $350 for removing a couple stitches, a procedure that took a nurse practitioner about 15 seconds, was overkill. Or something. Whatever the reason, I got a bill for something like $250 for the whole mess. I paid it, like I always do.

A couple weeks later, we got another bill. My wife wasn’t aware it was for the same procedure, so she paid it too.

We figured out something was amiss, so we talked to the billing department. UCSF finally figured everything out, deducted whatever the insurance had paid, and on September 3rd (! six months later!) issued me another “bill” with a balance of -90.12. In other words, they owe me $90. Fine. Great. I figured they’d cut me a check and I forgot about it.

A couple weeks later, I started getting nasty letters in the mail from UCSF saying that I had an unpaid $25 charge from the same procedure — the one where I got my mole sliced off. I ignored it, since, after all, they owed me $90.

They sent me another bill. Then they started phoning me, leaving automated voicemail messages on my cellphone. Then they started threatening to send me to collections. I tried to call them a couple times on Friday afternoons after work slowed down, but the billing department is only open from 9 to 3. I left messages, and they just resulted in more threatening voicemails.

I finally answered one of the threatening calls and explained the situation. But because I didn’t have my paperwork with me, they couldn’t figure out what was going on.

So I unpacked the file folder with all my medical records in it, and finally, today, made the call with documents in hand.

It turns out that the $25 bill they were hassling me about was from hospital services (the facility). The $90 credit was from the doctors’ group. They could not see that credit. They could not use that credit. They were two separate departments, with separate billing systems that weren’t connected, and separate phone numbers.

I phoned back the doctors’ billing department and they happily transferred the $25 credit back over to the facilities group. I asked them why they couldn’t just consolidate everything into one billing system, and they said that insurance companies cover different parts of procedures separately, so they need two separate billing systems. (I don’t buy this — why couldn’t the same billing group just code things differently and let the insurance companies figure it all out? But whatever.)

Oh, and the best part? I had to ask them to send me a check for the remainder. They weren’t going to do it on their own.

All told, I spent about an hour on the phone getting this resolved. (If it’s actually resolved — I’ll believe it when UCSF stops threatening me and I get my $65 check in the mail.)

The billing department for the hospital probably spent a lot more time than that trying to hunt me down, issuing multiple threats via mail and my cellphone.

Now imagine how often this happens every day, in thousands of hospitals across the country. Imagine how many people would have just paid the bogus $25 charge. Imagine how many duplicate functions there are in each of these billing departments, how many duplicate employees, computer systems, and so on.

If you want to know why health care costs are rising, don’t just look at doctors ordering unnecessary procedures on the “pay per procedure” model. Look at the crazy, self-perpetuating idiocy that stems from our insanely bureaucratic private insurance system.

Then tell me that single-payer health care — that is, GOVERNMENT SOCIALIZED health care — is somehow less efficient than this. Right.

REVEALED: What I Learned Working At Business Insider

July 31, 2012

Today’s my last day working for Henry Blodget and the amazing machine that is Business Insider. It’s been a crazy fun ride, and I’ve learned a lot, but opportunity knocked and I’m answering.

I get the chance to launch and run a brand new publication for IDG Enterprise called CITEworld, focused on the use of consumer technology in the workplace, and the intersection between the two. I still believe that the enterprise is undergoing a once-a-generation change, driven by the breakup of the longstanding Windows client monopoly, and the rise of self-provisioning cloud systems that are picking off parts of the traditional enterprise software stack.

CITEworld is going to be the one-stop resource for the disruptors, covering subjects from BYOD to the social enterprise to renegade development, and I’m incredibly excited at the chance to shape it. An early version is here, and the official launch will happen later this year.

Before I move on, a moment of reflection.

One of the fun things about writing for an online-only publication is you know how many people read every single story you write. And one of the great things about Business Insider is its transparency. BI publishes the number of views that every story gets — that’s the little flame that appears next to our bylines. The haters can rant about linkbait and headlines and slideshows and whatever else drives them crazy about BI, but in the absence of any better objective measurement, pageviews are a pretty decent proxy for how well a writer is engaging readers.

So I had to find out: which of my stories were most popular? Did they have anything in common? What might I learn from this?

Here’s the list:

1. Apple Now Has More Cash Than The U.S. Government July 28, 2011.

Combine two of the hottest topics of the year — Apple’s becoming the most successful company in the world, and the U.S. government almost running out of time to lift the debt ceiling — and kaboom. In this case, the headline was the story.

2. What Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, And SAP Don’t Tell Customers Nov. 19, 2011. 

Wow. A summary of a talk by a Gartner analyst that just went crazy. This proved that enterprise software was a reasonable topic for Business Insider to write about.

3. This 26-Year Old Founder Is Raising $100 Million To Take On Giants Like Microsoft. Aug. 29, 2011. 

When I went to interview Box CEO Aaron Levie, I never had any sense it would be one of my most popular stories — wasn’t enterprise software supposed to be boring? But Levie was a great interview, and Gawker (I think?) picked out a great quote about how young companies focus on meaningless consumer apps because that’s all their founders know about. (“If you’re in your early 20s and you’re hanging out with a bunch of other people in their early 20s, nobody has a sense of the kinds of problems that ‘real workers’ run into every day.”)

This was the most popular Q&A I did, although Steve Blank (Stanford, lean startup guru), and Aneel Bhusri (Workday, Greylock) were also surprisingly popular. I was less surprised by the interest in Bill Gurley (Benchmark) and Keith Rabois (Square), since both are huge names in the valley.

4. Twitter Just Fired A Cannonball At Facebook And Google+. Dec. 8, 2011.

This was my live news coverage of Twitter’s unveiling of the “new new” design. I think this was helped by the fact that I posted live from the event, and the unusual imagery of the headline. Cannonball? Kind of retro, I guess. Like pirates.

5. People Who Use Macs At Work Are Richer And More Productive Oct. 28, 2011. 

A summary of a Forrester research report with an admittedly provocative headline. This must have been passed around by smug Apple fans — or perhaps angry Windows fans.

6. This 29-Year Old Just Got Named To The Starbucks Board. Dec. 14, 2011.

This was a brief article based on an interview with the super impressive Clara Shih — not even a full Q&A. It posted several hours after the news, so really a “second day” (or what we now call “second minute”) story.

I think this story did well because of the way I backed into it: I was honest that I didn’t really know much about Shih until I heard that she was replacing Sheryl Sandberg on the Starbucks board. Then I talked to her and she blew me away. I imagine a lot of other readers didn’t really know much about her either, and were happy to learn about an extremely accomplished woman under 30. I got to meet her a few months later, and she’s even more intense in person.

7. STEVE BALLMER’S NIGHTMARE: How Microsoft’s Business Actually Could Collapse. Nov. 22, 2011. (total divided by 12 pages)

I had a great time writing this story, but I think the positive response was a little bit of confirmation bias at work. A lot of folks believe or want to believe that Microsoft could go out of business soon. (It’s still amazing to me how common this conversation is in Silicon Valley.) This slideshow laid out a plausible chain of events that could send Microsoft to ruin.

We did similar stories about Google and Apple and they weren’t nearly as popular. And I did one earlier in the year on how Microsoft’s big customers would keep it alive for a long time and it wasn’t very popular either. Go figure.

8. Steve Jobs Was Right: Google IS Turning Into Microsoft. Dec 3, 2011.  (total divided by 12 pages)

An article on an interesting subject with a plainspoken headline and some funny (I thought) pictures. Having Steve Jobs’ name in the headline probably helped. MG Siegler’s linking to it also helped, even though he called it annoying that I formatted it as a slideshow. But apparently readers didn’t mind.

9. HP’s TouchPad Is Officially A Bomb: Best Buy Wants HP To Take Them Back. Aug. 16, 2011. 

There was a time last year when readers couldn’t get enough bad news about HP.

10. Google May Have Made The Worst Mistake In Its History This Week. Jan 13, 2012.

This was my honest take on a move that was very unpopular in techie blog circles — Google putting Google+ social results prominently in search results. But I was wrong and Henry was right: nobody outside tech noticed, and the move hasn’t affected Google’s search market share one bit.

11. More Hints That Google+ Is A Deserted Wasteland Feb. 27, 2012. 

The Wall Street Journal got stats from ComScore showing that nobody was using Google+. I simply noted it with a plain honest headline (I had done similar stories in the past based on data from other providers) and the story went crazy. Again, probably some confirmation bias here: a lot of people already believed or wanted to believe Google+ was a flop.

12. Marc Andreessen: The “Clock Is Ticking” On Oracle. Sept. 28, 2011. 

A Silicon Valley superstar just put one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world in the dead pool. Usually, stories about Oracle tank. But Andreessen’s name in the headline, and his blunt and bold call, made this a hit.

13. GM Is About To Move 100,000 Employees To Google Apps. Nov. 4, 2011.

I wrote a lot of Google Apps vs. Microsoft Office stories at Business Insider, and they always did surprisingly well — like this one. This was an early proof point that Business Insider readers really would read stories about enterprise business software if it fit into a larger “battle of giants” narrative.

14. Berkeley Explains Exactly Why It Chose Google Over Microsoft. Dec. 23, 2011. 

Another Google Apps vs. Microsoft story that went off the charts.

15. Google Just Opened Its First Retail Outlet In London. Sept 30, 2011. 

I still think the importance of this move hasn’t been appreciated yet. Google wants to be a lot more like Apple. You can’t sell consumer electronics devices without a big retail presence. It’s just a question of how fast they get there–and whether their existing ads business stays strong enough to support a big retail push.

HONORABLE MENTION: Google Fiber Is The Most Disruptive Thing Google’s Done Since Gmail. July 27, 2012.

I only include this because it was the last post I wrote for the public site and I’m very glad to go out on a high note. I got a few emails countering that Google will NEVER build out a full nationwide fiber network, the capex is way too high, it would be suicidal. Maybe so — stay tuned. I also had a couple readers point out that even the free service comes with a $300 setup fee, which I should have acknowledged. But I still think Google deserves big praise for this.


Apart from the obvious fact that people like reading stories about Google and accomplished people under the age of 30….

* People want to read about people. I wrote about tech and business for SAI, but my most popular stories focused on humans rather than technology, money, or corporations.

* Confirmation bias. Contrary to popular belief and/or accusation, taking controversial or unpopular stands does NOT goose traffic. I think people have their narratives already laid out in their minds, and they tend to read stories that fit into those narratives. If you write a contrary story, it has to tap into a vein — something that a lot of people are thinking but not saying. (Henry is great at this.)

* Readers don’t care all that much who’s first. My exclusives and scoops did fine, but none of them went crazy. Other SAI reporters had some bigger scoops that turned into bigger stories. But overall, it seems like as long as you’re not ridiculously late, readers don’t necessarily care who got to a story first — they just want the smartest, clearest, most interesting take on it.

* If the story’s good enough, a plain headline is OKSometimes a little colorful language helped, especially if every other  publication was covering a topic with kid gloves or missing a big point, but overall the Business Insider headline-fu isn’t all it’s made out to be. Business Insider’s success is more about picking the kinds of stories to write (and NOT to write), and then writing the headlines and stories in plain English. How refreshingly obvious.

* Write what you love, forget the rest.  Many of the stories I was proudest of did OK, but weren’t smash hits. Like my conversation with two researchers who exposed how giant patent holder Intellectual Ventures does business, or my Windows 8  and Google stock split FAQs, or my predictions of which products Microsoft would kill next (7/10 so far), or the work I did on the aborted Hulu sale, or some of my really fun office tours, or the slideshows about cars, or the late-night post about Silicon Valley being the land of true believers. I never for a second regretted the time I put into them.

It’s important to keep readers in mind, but there’s no predictable way to know whether any given story will resonate. So the best approach is to write about what you care about, be frank and honest, and have fun. Do that consistently, and readers will sense it and follow along.

Anyway, a great heartfelt thanks to Henry Blodget and Julie Hansen for giving me a break and an incredible degree of freedom, and to my daily editors at SAI, Nicholas Carlson and Jay Yarow, for instilling the BI work ethic into me and busting my chops when I needed it — and getting out of the way when I didn’t.



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