The ‘e-smerging’ UK Tech media landscape

This post has been coming a while. Sometimes it takes some time to stand back from the pixels and focus on the emerging picture. However several recent events have led me to believe that Tech Journalism is dead. In fact, what precious little there was has now smerged into the realm of online advertising.

Not that there is anything wrong with advertising, that, plus a good World War or Two*, are how great brands are made. But it is not what many in the UK call journalism; investigative, free-from-commercial considerations and provocative. And this revelation demands a new type of response from those of us who work in the ‘earned media’ B2B space that stubbornly resists being rebranded as anything other than Public Relations. First the evidence:

EXHIBIT ONE

TechTarget acquires Computer Weekly – 28th March 2011

When a $270m giant, whose business is to repackage and distribute content built by advertisers to a highly qualified audience, swoops in to buy the UK’s leading technology title for small change, this is a seminal moment. TechTarget’s admirable business model (slogan ‘Where serious tech buyers decide’) is built on selling eyeballs to advertisers in much the same way that broadcasters sell slots between programmes. With one difference; almost all of the content has been pre-created by the advertisers themselves. It is too early to see what that means for Computer Weekly’s readership and long-term editorial direction, but no one is claiming this move increases the freedom the UK tech press enjoys. In fairness, it is the case that ‘free’ content, mostly whitepapers written by tech vendor product marketing teams, is very compelling, more technically detailed, if a lot less objective, than much UK tech media output, which all too often focuses on IT consumerisation and gadgets (as previously ranted about).

EXHIBIT TWO
Nasty US tech journalist spat Tom Foremski v Michael Arrington – April 2011 (ongoing)

There are few things more wrongly compelling than observing two girls fighting at close range – except for two grown tech journalists bitching. In the fascinating and deeply personal battle for the moral high-ground which followed failed media empire AOL’s surprise purchase of up and coming blog Techcrunch, the winner was not so much the truth, as the status quo. As both sides slung mud about whether investing in the companies they were writing about clouded their judgement – it was easy to see both sides. It got really bitchy when writer’s partners and their employers were cited, in a row that even the UK red tops would relish. Bottom line – there is a conflict of interest in writing about and investing in companies. This seems to confirm that there is a new code of ethics for those who create commercially beneficial copy about companies whose profits they ultimately share.

To recap, so far we have the cream of the UK’s tech media working for what some unkind souls might call a ‘content farm’ and reporters who describe themselves as well-paid by their employers, writing copy which may also contribute to their personal wealth. Confused? See a ‘smerging’ of roles here? Here’s more proof from another recent personal professional experience.

EXHIBIT THREE
‘they are not a PR firm’ – May 2011

OK, hands up there are some journalists who thanks to many years of careful nurturing, preferential treatment on stories and possibly the odd expensed refreshment, are ‘friends of the family’ here at Positive Marketing. On the other hand, we like all PR companies are entreated daily to submit copy for titles either too lazy or too cash-strapped to provide their own content. That is the status quo. So when we recently saw a competitor given a regular blog slot by a leading UK B2B tech title (who we agreed to keep nameless), we were intrigued at the possibility of getting in on the act. A quick call to a normally hard-to-track-down editor (coincidentally a former colleague) and then three rapid-fire email volleys disabused us of this possibility and I quote “X isn’t a PR firm as such = it’s a consulting firm”. According to this editor, the blogger in question did not work for a PR firm, so why would its hyperbolic Linkedin description be “the only PR and communications consultancy to specialise in the enterprise software industry”?

It seems the best of us can get confused in this new ‘smerged’ new world order. But rather than bleat about it, we at Positive Marketing are getting with this new charade and turning into a consultancy too, it’s just that some of our paying clients want to call what we do PR.

Hopefully these three examples confirm what many have said for some time, tech journalism, advertising and PR are ‘smerging’ together to become, well, just plain tech marketing. When editorial can be replaced by product literature [EXHIBIT 1], when journalists can promote companies they invest in [EXHIBIT 2] and when PR companies are the new journalists [EXHIBIT 3], the rules of the game really have changed. In some ways that puts us all into competition for the same vendor dollars that have always fuelled the information opportunity which surrounds the IT industry. Whether we have to change the name of our services, literally invest in our clients, create more Whitepapers (or even all three) we still love this sector and treasure its dynamism, so maybe it is better that the hypocrisy around editorial independence needs to die. Or maybe it was just a myth to start with.

In subsequent posts we will look at the repercussions of this new advertorial honesty and why with content as king, contacts as commodity and relationships the new currency, we like our position in the market for ideas more than ever. If you want to learn more about how we think, work and deliver results daily, leave a comment, email us at contact@positivemarketing or, if you can be pithy, send a tweet to @positmarket.

* If you have not yet you have to see the excellent BBC Three series ‘Secrets of the Superbrands’ where Alex Riley sees, amongst other things, the rise of Coca Cola and adidas as being aided by their roles in supplying opposite sides in World War 2

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One response to “The ‘e-smerging’ UK Tech media landscape

  1. Yes, there are fewer journalists around and companies are stepping in to advertorialize to a degree. That’s one type of marketing that has been around for many years, there’s nothing new here.

    As for Arrington, he is one exception and the only exemption at AOL. I don’t know any other editors or reporters that invest in companies they write about. One data point doesn’t make a case that there are new ethical standards in the new media.

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