I've always considered the way those of us in the press get access to information and execs as somewhat of an "insider baseball" kind of topic. But after reading Newsweek tech correspondent Dan Lyons' diatribe about Apple and the "rotten" reporting by the press corps that covers that company, I thought it was worth touching on the slippery slope of "press access."
(It seems especially pertinent, as I still get readers asking me to "tell Steve Ballmer X" or "ask Steven Sinofsky Y".... It's just not that simple, folks.)
Microsoft, Apple, Google -- every major tech company -- has a set of policies and guidelines addressing which reporters and bloggers with whom they'll work and the extent to which they'll do so. These guidelines can and do seem to vary by product unit; the extent to which the gate keepers still think having a story about them "in print" matters; and the size of a particular blogger/journalist's audience. Some execs will talk directly to us reporters/bloggers without company sanction/middlemen, but those people are few and far between (and often slapped down if they do so).
As a general rule, as Lyons said, companies tend to favor members of the press corps who give the companies they cover positive ink. The "rewards" for good coverage can be anything from exclusive interviews, to early access to news and demo units, to top-level partipation at a news organization's conference. Sometimes it is the public relations (PR) team that decides who is on the "good" list; other times, the execs in charge of the companies tell the PR folks whom they will and won't deal with.
I've gotten good access to some Microsoft teams and execs over the years. I've also had times and circumstances when I've been blocked and banned -- either because of things I wrote and/or fears about what I might write. (For an example of the latter, I can point to my book Microsoft 2.0, for which I was granted no interviews by anyone at an executive level at Microsoft. Luckily, there are still some folks who work at Microsoft who believed that talking to someone who is making an honest effort to tell a story was worth risking the wrath of those wanting to cut off all information from the inside.)
Lyons brings up an interesting point, re: can "fans" of a company, executive or technology provide useful and impartial information about a company.
He writes in his latest Newsweek column:
"The fact is, in the eyes of the media, Apple is the corporate equivalent of Barack Obama - a company that can do no wrong. Even in Silicon Valley, where much of the press corps are pretty much glorified cheerleaders (think of all those slobbering cover stories about the Google guys) Apple's kid-gloves treatment stands out. Reporters don't just overlook Apple's faults; they'll actually apologize for them, or rationalize them away. Ever seen reporters clapping and cheering at a press conference? Happens all the time at Apple events."
I am not as willing as Lyons to throw an entire blogging/press corps under the bus with blanket statements. There's been some great Apple reporting over the years -- so great that Apple sued some of those who conducted it to shut them up. (And was successful, in part, in doing so.)
There are definitely Microsoft fanboys (and girls) who report and blog about the company. But reporters clapping at a Microsoft press conference? Maybe. Somewhere. But I hear/see a lot more jeers than cheers in the Microsoft press rooms and events where I've been present than I noticed the couple of times I've been at an Apple event....
It is possible to hate the businesses/people/products that you cover. Some might claim that kind of attitude might mean you're less at risk of being snowed. But hatred isn't the equivalent of fair. I've tried to walk the line over the years of criticizing Microsoft when I felt it was engaging in behaviors that hurt customers and partners, but acknowledging when the company did the right thing -- a behavior some readers never want to hear/read/believe in which Microsoft can engage.
Over the years, Microsoft has done a lot of things that I've considered wrong-minded -- everything from using its monopoly power to curtail the options of its PC-maker partners, to insisting that Vista, when it originally shipped, was solid (and compatible) enough for consumers and businesses to count on. (Company officials only admitted they overstated Vista's readiness a year after it shipped.)
I think it's possible to be a healthy skeptic. But to be one, you have to be in a position to have enough sources that you can continue to do your reporting even if Microsoft or Apple or which ever company/companies you cover try to punish you by cutting off your access.
Any readers out there want to field any "insider baseball" questions -- soft balls, curve balls, what have you -- about how we Microsoft bloggers/press folks try to do our jobs?