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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End the CES press conference as we know it

LAS VEGAS–Around 1 p.m. yesterday, when one of the two lines to get into Samsung’s press conference had already stretched around the corner of one long corridor in the Mandalay Bay hotel’s conference center, I had to question the use I was making of a painfully long day.

CES journalists assembledPress conference day has been part of the CES routine for as long as I’ve known the show. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the day before the show actually opens, a line of consumer-electronics vendors take turns pitching their plans for the coming year. It should be a good opportunity to get a read on their priorities and see most of their new products.

But the massive crowds these events attract–and the lack of any meaningful Q&A time, usually a requirement in real press conferences–increasingly make them a no-win proposition. First you wait half an hour or longer to get in line (if you’re lucky or on excellent terms with the PR types running the show, you can squeeze in later), then you hunker down on the floor, in the back or the side of an enormous room (to get a seat, you’d need to have camped out more like an hour in advance).

You then watch a parade of executives bantering on about the company’s hopes and dreams and showing off their upcoming wares, which is good and useful–but from the cheap seats, you see no more detail than you’d get from watching video offsite. And except for Sony’s presser, which takes place in its exhibit area at the Las Vegas Convention Center, you rarely get any hands-on time with the new hardware either.

And only a lucky few reporters get to have any sort of conversation with the executives involved before everybody has to rush off to the next press conference–make that, the one happening an hour later, since the one kicking off in 10 minutes is already at capacity. TechnoBuffalo’s Roy Choi came up with an apt description of the phenomenon while standing next to me on one of these lines: “It’s really more of a lecture.”

If you’re a large and successful tech-news operation, you can work around this inefficiency by flooding the zone with reporters–CNet sent 90 people to cover CES, a fact that kind of makes me want to cry. But if it’s only you and one or two other journalists, you have to question spending a day like this.

So next year, maybe I’ll fly out on press conference day instead. I’d still have the full show itself before me–and, to rebut the “CES is dead” crowd, being able to see almost an entire industry’s worth of upcoming products and talk to the people involved remains worth the time and travel expense. And in the bargain, I’d have an extra day with my family.