July 20th, 2007
Of the types of trade periodicals in Asia (e.g. healthcare, law, energy, aeronautics, chemicals), IT trade magazines probably generate the most revenue and have greatest circulation. Every company either buys IT, or makes it.
By IT trade magazines, I mean free periodicals mailed to IT professionals. The category excludes technology inserts in newspapers and consumer tech and IT magazines, which follow another business model.
The large relative market size of the sector, however, does not seem to imply quality. As a reader of one of these titles, you might learn that:
- Vendors of IT make great products, and Asia government officials in charge of IT policy are Papal in their infallibility;
- Users of IT products fall into three categories: Impressed, delighted or awed;
- A new survey shows that most IT users prefer system A over B, with nothing said about who paid for the survey.
In other words, there is not much locally-written content that is not like a press release. IT stories coming out of outlets in the Australia, Europe or the U.S., on the other hand, are deeper, sharper and more well-balanced. They are more likely to name and shame bad IT suppliers.
The absence of editorial freedom might seem an obvious cause of the quality problem. But if a genie appeared today and made all evil, tyrannical, money-grubbing publishers vanish, youâ€™d find writers cranking out the same material the next day.
Itâ€™s my opinion that compliance has been built into the Asian system, with three forces at work on the editorial team: Soft and hard control, and low career expectations.
This is the most widely used, as it creates the least amount of disharmony between parties. A key source of control is the PR organisation. Without publicists, almost all local IT content would disappear from the pages of IT magazines. This co-dependency, of course, leads to mutual back-scratching. Editors who donâ€™t honour the code can find the news tap suddenly turned off.
Asiaâ€™s tech writers also awash in gratuities from PR organizationsâ€”junkets, lunches, drinks, gifts. In some countries, cash gifts are sent to editors for placing stories and to writers attending press events. Itâ€™s also not uncommon for Asian tech journalists to moonlight as publicists and copywriters for the same organisations they are covering.
Multinational publishing firms, with an eye on ethics, have explicit bans on gratuities such as lunches and junkets. The rules are mostly ignored in this region as publishers donâ€™t want to risk offending sponsors with by refusing of a lunch.
There is an interesting business dilemma here. Because vendors spend large sums flying writers to exotic locales, there is less to spend on ads or sponsorships. And why pay for ads when you can buy journalists?
The other source of soft control is the business manager of the publishing company. In the last decade, the pool of available sponsors has shrunk due to supplier consolidation. It would be safe to say that today, roughly 80 percent of publishersâ€™ revenues come from 20 percent of IT suppliers.
The names of these sponsors are made known in any number of office meetings. It would take an especially thick-skinned editor to ignore the implicit directive.
IT writers in other parts of the world also receive goodies from vendors and are co-dependent on PR professionals, yet their stories show much more verve and independence. Hard control is one key difference.
In Asia, editors report to a business headâ€”the general manager, publisher, editorial director, or managing editor. This business head hires and fires the top editor.
This is true even of Asian branches of US, European or Australian publishers, even though back home, editors report to a chief editor, who is supposed to make editorial decisions independently, and who may report to an editorial board. I also believe that trade journalists in the West seem to be more protected against dismissal compared with Asia.
Asia editorial heads do not usually report to a global editor. They report to the regional business head, formalising the system of hard control.
Contrary to the stereotype that publishers tell editors what to write, hard control in the form of agenda-setting is rare. It shatters the illusion of editorial independence and the editor loses face in front of staff.
Most times, the business head will drop hints. The consequences of ignoring the hint puts this method firmly in the realm of hard control. But since the editor is usually handpicked by the head of business, hints are enough.
Itâ€™s also interesting to note also that Asian publishers are no different from their Western counterparts in citing editorial independence as a virtue they possess in vast amounts. The perception of independence is good for business: It wins reader trust, and sponsors want to ride on that trust.
Low career expectations and standards
True story: To an editor, a publisher hints, in a very roundabout way, that a vendor has a large ad order and hopes journalists will be sent to the press event. The editor gets the message and a reporter is sent. The vendor then cancels the order, saying heâ€™s changed his mind. Angry publisher suddenly drops the veil and tells editor to kill the story.
To save me from any possibility of a libel suit, I should mention that the publishing firm is not based in Singapore.
Low job expectations â€“ that the job is all about writing to please the paymasters, not the reader â€“ leads to a lack of initiative in looking for stories not generated by PR. This leads of more reliance on PR, which leads to more soft control, which leads to even lower expectations.
The picture painted thus far may seem bleak, but itâ€™s no bleaker now than it was 10 years ago, when the boom in IT publishing started in tandem with dotcoms. A win-win solution for everyoneâ€”publishing firms, PR organisations, journalists and sponsorsâ€”will come about if sponsors expect more from publishers.
Asian publishers typically balk at the cost of using accredited circulation agencies; a push from sponsors is needed. Circulation is a useful indicator of editorial quality. If readers consider a magazine spam, they will decline to be put on the mailing list.
Marketers should also ask quality-control questions such as: How much content is local and how much is lifted from other sources? How large is the editorial team and what are their roles? What are their qualifications?
Rather than relying on numbers supplied by publishing firms, marketers could seek independent confirmation of reading preferences. For example, if it becomes apparent than Asia readers prefer U.S. web sites for IT information, marketers could vote with their dollars and advertise on the U.S. sites instead, and make it clear to local publishers that they had better raise their game.
Itâ€™s my opinion that in recent years, the roles PR (creating goodwill) and marketing (understanding consumers) have changed, at least in the IT industry here in Asia. Both groups are now responsible for new salesâ€”helping the sales division notch up higher numbers.
This is both sad and wasteful. Sad because it has increased the use of soft and hard control, and wasted the talents of PR and marketing people. If a story is run, you canâ€™t tell if it was through good PR or the indiscriminate use of hard control. Any fool can threaten to withdraw sponsorship, burn goodwill, and cause people to quit.
By returning PR, marketing and sales to their original roles, a virtuous chain reaction could result, benefiting everyone.
â€“ John Lui (email@example.com) has been a journalist in various IT publications for seven years. He is a freelance writer today.