Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.

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The “hands-on area”: tech journalism at its busiest, not its finest

BERLIN–Three days into IFA, I’ve spent a disturbing amount of time at this tech trade show standing around and looking at my phone. The distractions of social media explain some of that, but I can blame more of it on the “hands-on area.”

That’s the space next to a gadget product-launch event, kept roped off until the end of the press conference or the keynote, in which the assembled tech journalists get to inspect the new hardware up close.

I enjoy the chance to pick up a just-announced gadget, see how it works, play with its apps and settings to see if any surprises emerge, and grab a few quick photos that are hopefully unblemished by glare, fingerprints or dust.

But increasingly, this requires waiting as each scribe ahead of me whips out a camera or phone not to take their own pictures, but to shoot or even livestream a video recapping the highlights of the product. Often these are not two-minute clips but four- or five-minute segments, but that’s not obvious at the start–and professional courtesy mandates that you give the other journalist a chance to finish his or her job.

Many of these video shoots are also one-person productions, which leaves me looking on in some frustration at bloggers who are literally talking into one phone about another. If only one of them would burst into song or something to liven up the scene!

Instead, an overseas show like IFA or Mobile World Congress provides the pleasure of hearing people run through the same basic script in a dozen different languages. Eventually, this may teach me how to say “the phone feels good in the hand” in German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Hebrew and Japanese… if the news industry’s lemming-like pivot to video doesn’t first force me to start shooting these clips myself.

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I can stop trying to keep up with Walt Mossberg

After 23 years or so of writing about consumer technology, it’s time to slack off a little: Walt Mossberg’s last column ran today, so I don’t have to keep up with him anymore.

That was never easy, starting the day the Post somehow gave me my own tech column. I can only recall two times when I beat or tied Walt to a story about Apple, then as now Topic A among tech writers. Once was a review of the first shipping version of Mac OS X, when a guy at a local user group handed me a copy of that release before Apple PR would. The other was a writeup of iDVD that benefited from my willingness to stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. a couple of nights in a row.

In the summer of 2000, the Post ran a front-page profile of Walt; being a guy in his late 20s with more ego than circumstances warranted, I took it poorly. But I always liked talking shop with my competitor at tech events around D.C., the Bay Area and elsewhere. (Does anybody have video of the 2006 panel featuring myself, Walt, the late Steve Wildstrom, Kevin Maney and Stephanie Stahl in which we shared an airing of grievances about tech-PR nonsense?) And when I announced my exit from the Post in 2011, the guy with one of the busier inboxes in all of tech journalism took a moment to e-mail his condolences and wish me good luck.

Since then, Walt has remained a must-read writer, provided the occasional column idea, and been one of the people I enjoy running into at conferences. He’s a mensch–or, to translate that from the Yiddish I know almost nothing of to my native Jersey-speak, a stand-up guy.

Enjoy your retirement, Walt. But please try not to taunt the rest of us too much when we’re off to yet another CES and you can finally spend that week in January as normal human beings do.

Mike Musgrove

This hasn’t been a good month for the extended Washington Post family. Last week, we lost Bill Walsh, and Wednesday inflicted the news that my onetime henchman Mike Musgrove died Monday.

Mike and I both started at the Post as copy aides, which meant we both had to ask ourselves at some point “did I spend four years at college to sort mail and answer phones?” Not long after I stumbled into my escape from mailboxes and then somehow got anointed as an editor (it remains unclear what exactly possessed management to do that), I realized I’d need an assistant.

Mike had been kicking in reviews for months, and this St. John’s College graduate wrote a marvelously un-self-conscious cover letter that name-checked C.S. Lewis and “Baywatch” and ended with “Give me the job.” His references checked out and the other applicants couldn’t string words together like him, so I gave him the job.

Mike wrote with a sly wit, an awareness of the fundamental goofiness of much of the tech industry, and an interest in life outside of gadgets. He had the idea of reviewing the tech-support soundtracks of computer vendors, he had a sideline testing recipes for the Food section, and he reviewed concerts (including Vanilla Ice) for Style.

His insight on the e-book experience, the product of reading Monica Lewinsky’s 1990s testimony on a Rocket eBook, still resonates today:

If the eBook or a product like it ever gets cheap enough, this could definitely fill a niche: beach reading, airport books—books that you only read to kill time. Books that you would only ever read once and don’t particularly want taking up space in your bookcase—books like Monica’s Story, in other words.

He introduced Post readers to the Diamond Rio, the first mass-market MP3 player, and later gave them their first look at Gmail–a piece that I was delighted to see resurfaced on the tenth anniversary of Google’s e-mail service.

Along the way, Mike graduated from moving words to moving the freight, ensuring that reviews would still run when I was out of town. That led to him playing an unwanted role on the worst day of my life.

As in, Mike learned that my dad had died before I did. In that innocent time, I had flown to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding without a cell phone (because 1999). My mom called my desk line and then Mike, and he left an urgent voicemail to me that I happened to phone in to hear (because 1999). I called Mike, and he suggested that I not get the news of the day from him. “Call your mom,” he said.

Mike’s last role at the Post was a coal-mine canary. He hit the ejection seat a year before me, burned out by too many demands for inconsequential stories and hit with a cruel review that led him to think his odds looked better away from 15th and L.

He had enjoyed some years as a full-time dad, interspersed with writing the occasional book review for the Post. Then he took some classes in Web development (so, unlike me, he could code his way out of a wet paper bag) and picked up work that way.

I knew he had split up with his wife, and I knew he was looking for work after a contract had run out. But I had no idea that Mike saw himself in such a bleak place that he felt compelled to shoot himself. My understanding is that he didn’t leave a note, so I may never know what led my friend to ensure that he would never again hug the daughter he loved.

Not for the first time, I’m left with a Springsteen lyric: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world “

Bill Walsh would have made this post better

The English language is in rougher shape and the world looks a little meaner and shallower today, because we lost Bill Walsh yesterday. The longtime Washington Post copy editor died of complications of cancer at only 55, which is way too goddamn early.

I got the news on the bus from Dulles to Metro late in the afternoon, and it reduced me to a sobbing lump, slumped against the window. I’d known this news might come since Bill’s Facebook post last summer announcing the news (in which he joked about a possible upside by commenting, “I’ll never be a doddering old man!”). But I didn’t think it would hurt that bad to learn that my friend and former colleague was gone.

Bill was literally a gentleman and a scholar. He wrote with zest and clarity–see, for instance, this 2015 story explaining why the Post would switch from “mike” to mic” and allow the singular “their.” He was unflappable in the newsroom even as buyout after buyout inflated his workload. And Bill influenced my own writing: I don’t use an exclamation point with “Yahoo” or write non-abbreviation corporate or brand names in all caps, because he called those out as tricks to steal a reader’s attention.

Bill was also a cyclist, a gourmet, a photographer and a gambler. He loved tennis and travel. He and his wife Jacqueline Dupree (if you’ve ever looked for details about buildings and food near Nationals Park, you’ve probably been enlightened by her neighborhood-news site JDLand.com) were my favorite Post couple. It is vile of cancer to deprive us and her of Bill’s company.

I can’t close this without saying two other things.

One is about the murderer in this case. Cancer took my friend Anthony’s dad, robbed  journalism of Steve Wildstrom and Steve Buttry, damn near killed my friend Kate’s husband Brad, and menaced my neighbors David and Christine’s son Jason (how do you tell a four-year-old to kick cancer’s ass?) before the doctors at Inova Fairfax beat it into complete remission. There is no disease I hate more than cancer. Fuck cancer.

The other is the last e-mail I got from Bill, which was also the first message I’d received from him in months. He asked if I’d learned of any systematic glitchiness in the Galaxy S7 Edge. A week later, I sent a perfunctory, tech-focused response while at Mobile World Congress when I should have taken another minute to taunt him over my access to delicious ham sandwiches or add some other personal note to convey this idea: “I’m thinking of you, friend.” The next time somebody you care about writes for the first time in a while, please don’t make my mistake.

Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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New rule? If I can’t use your name as a company rep, I won’t use your exact quote either.

Stories usually call company publicists “spokespeople,” which seems increasingly funny given how many of them don’t want to be quoted speaking anything as a person.

Quotation/apostrophe key on a MacBook AirInstead, it can only be the company saying anything. Self-aware PR pros know to stipulate their not-for-attribution condition at the top of their reply, but others complain after the fact when I quote them by name in a story.

This widespread tech-industry practice has bothered me for a long time. What I write has my name attached, and it seems only fair that people I quote who are paid to speak for a company or client get the same treatment. And when I quote people without their name, fact-checking my reporting or holding those sources accountable for incorrect info gets a lot harder.

(People speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear losing their job or worse remain a separate issue. If you fall into that category, I will keep your name out of the story. See my contact-me page for details about how to get in touch, including two encrypted communications channels.)

The usual way to work around that is to run a quote from the publicist but attribute it only to a nameless and faceless “company spokesperson” or “company publicist.” But I’m now thinking that the more effective response is to paraphrase a company rep’s not-for-attribution response instead of quoting it verbatim.

I can’t force PR reps to go against company policy, but they can’t force me to run their exact, management-approved words. Withholding that privilege and characterizing their answers in the language of my choice seems to be the only card I can play in this situation. Should I put it on the table?