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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Juggling Ethics and Income In Computer Writing Field

The computer magazine writer exists on the edge of some very awkward moral territory. You report, primarily, on what different companies are selling: what's new, what's interesting, what's desirable. Yet either directly or indirectly your wages are paid by those same companies. A big chunk of a glossy computer magazine's income comes from its glossy advertisements.


Pressure to write about particular companies and make those reports favorable can be explicit or subtle. In the West a common ploy is to give a favored scribe a flashy new computer "for testing." The company then does not actually ask for the machine back. Instead the recall is left open in the hope that each time the writer types the name of this company in his articles he is aware of the consequences of negative comments.


Companies also resort to gifts, and sometimes you can see the effect in action. I remember reading a piece in Computer Shopper magazine. The author explained that after having been given a new Apple computer he had written several glowing articles about it. Having done so, he now felt that his conscience was clear. There then followed an article on why the computer was, in fact, no good.


The big U.S. computer titles are now rich and well respected enough to be able to pull in income from enough sources for them to police their editorial independence.


Russian computer magazines, however, are mostly small and survive on the advertising revenues they get from a relatively small community of friendly computer firms. While a Western writer might be risking his free gifts with some negative stories, negative coverage in Russia can seriously threaten a publication's cash flow.


The relationship factor is very important. Companies often talk about particular writers as "our friend." Friendship usually translates as large positive articles in return for a slice of the company's advertising budget.


Computer companies can also threaten to turn off the information flow as well as the money. In Moscow, press conferences are the lifeblood of the computer media. However, the press conference circuit can be a double-edged sword. The public relations companies which organize many press conferences collect all articles written after the event. I overheard one company telling its public relations firm not to invite anyone who failed to produce (I assume positive) articles after its press conferences.


Yet computer magazines have also learned horse trading. Some companies complained to me that last year some journalists had a tendency to write negative articles about firms which did not advertise with their magazine. Companies then received oblique hints that coverage would become more positive once advertising bookings began to flow.


Last year a group of computer companies complained to IDG Magazines that its Russian titles -- most notably PC World -- were charging higher advertising rates to foreign companies than Russian companies. Though not just for this reason, IDG has since purged its local joint venture and is re-launching two of its titles with a new management. "We want to reaffirm our commitment to IDG's traditions and the guidelines of its publishing policy: no priorities, no preferences to some at the expense of others," says Mikhail Novikov, the new publishing director of IDG's Russian joint venture ICE.


Writing what you really want to say is still a new habit here. For computer journalists the pressures are all the greater. When a writer sits down, he has computer companies looking over one shoulder and his advertising department looking over the other.





Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia. Internet e-mail: farish@sovam.com, fax: 198-6207.