Busman's Holiday
A Note from Andy
by Steve Wood
February 15, 2000

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  I was amazed over the New Years holiday to read several newspaper articles where major metropolitan police departments were asking people not to discharge firearms into the air as part of their celebration of the new year. We've all seen television news reports of various groups firing weapons upward in celebration of this and that. I even had an experience once with this stuff when a neighbor was squirrel hunting and buckshot was raining down on the tin roof of my barn! Obviously, what goes up, must come down.A few months ago, I may have been guilty of firing my "writers firearm" into the air without adequate qualification or consideration of where and what fallout might occur. I posted a column about the problems involved in doing software and hardware reviews.The part that got me into trouble with some friends on the web was:

Let me explain what is a difficult situation for me and for any columnist. First, I don't take freebies. Accepting a free copy of a piece of software or even a hardware item pretty seriously damages your objectivity, if not your credibility. If you don't believe that one, check the reviews in some of the Mac magazines and websites of products you KNOW are junk or have a Himalayan learning curve that receive at least a passing grade review!

See! It took about 5 seconds before you went, "Oh, yeah! I remember that review in or on MacWhatever that said SuperApp was great and easy to use. It repeatedly crashed my Mac, and I never could figure it out." "Nuff" said?

I got a bunch of email on that one. I think the shot rang true with some folks, but I also wounded some pretty honorable folks as well. Also, I do occasionally use a freebie or a complimentary copy from entities for whom I beta test. So, the sound you may hear now in the background is my gagging as I eat a little crow.I still think the issue of accepting freebies is a tough one for writers. But the email below from Andy Ihnatko presents an interesting and thoughtful rebuttal to my original column. I offer it here for your edification, and offer Andy my thanks for not spanking me publicly in his column (Hmm, is Andy really into spanking...no, no...I didn't say that , did I?) 

Howdy, Steve! Thanks for the heads-up on your column.

I also read "I Don't Do Reviews!" & thought I'd add some thoughts. Obviously there are always compromises made when a writer accepts _anything_ from a publisher. There are some reviewers -- particularly in webspace -- whose primary reason for writing about this stuff is to open the floodgates to a parade of free software and hardware.

But the name of the game here is Respectability. Even if the reviewer doesn't care about that, the PR people won't give you product unless you can convince them you're For Real, which means writing for a respectable outfit (whose editors won't put up with such nonsense for long) or building up a reputation for yourself (and that won't happen, because readers are very, very good at sensing when you're full of it). And remember, PR people send out freebies in the hopes of getting actual PR, period; a write-up in Macworld, MacCentral, or another big source is PR, even if it winds up saying that the product has some bad points. A flowery, butt-kissing review in "KapTEN S00PRduud'Z K1k-A$$ webbbpayGE" is useless. Who's gonna read it? And if someone does, how credible is this review going to sound? So good luck to the "KapTEN" in getting a free copy of GoLive out of Adobe.

Consumer Reports is squeaky-clean because they take pride in going into an actual store and actually buying everything they test. Obviously, when you're talking about a $500 graphic-arts package or a $300 database program or even a $100 utility, it's just not practical for a freelancer to go out and buy everything he or she's gonna write about...and frankly, that's unnecessary anyway. I'm certain that all of my readers appreciate that I make a lot more money with my Mac writing than even the hefty list price of Adobe Photoshop, and even if I had no principles, I've got enough smarts not to chuck that all away just for some software. Ditto for the "name-brand" info sources. It took a lot of time for MacFixIt and MacInTouch to become trusted names, and there's really no interest in damaging that rep.

Speaking only of my own way of doing business, the only real damage to relying on freebies is the fact that it's an effective filter against writing about mediocre products. At any given moment I've got thousands of dollars in unopened (and unsolicited) product in my office. But I've got a limited number of columns to write every year, and (praise Tarim) I'm not Roger Ebert, forced to write about everything that comes down the pike; I write about whatever I find interesting. So if a product is just absolutely wonderful, you can't stop me from praising it in a column. If it's an unvarnished waste of money, that'll also make me sprain my pinkies trying to write something nasty about it. But what about the data-recovery tool that does an OK job, but offers no compelling reason not to spend ten dollars more for the one everyone's heard about? Frankly, I've got so seemingly few opportunities to put a column in front of people that I don't want to waste one of them on a subject that doesn't seem to _need_ to be discussed.

I do have some rules, though. I never ask for a freebie without being honest about my intentions for the request (even if I'm forced to say "I read about it on MacWEEK.com and it sounds like something I wanna play with), and when it comes to hardware (which obviously has far more tangible value than software) I don't even ask unless I'm pointing it toward a specific column. This means that (in the former case) I never have a PR person breathing down my neck asking when I'm going to give their product some press, and (in the latter) no one can say I'm just trying to acquire stuff.

I never, _ever_ sell any of the freebies I'm given, which means that a few times a year I'm loading my car with huge dollar-amounts of stuff and donating it to schools and libraries nearby. To me, it's junk that's blocking the window, but of course to a public school it's the ability to teach a course in drafting. And besides, it simply wouldn't do for people to suddenly discover that I was making a hunnerd bucks a month on eBay selling things stamped "Not For Resale."

I always make sure I mention the circumstances if they seem to be important. There's a reason why, for instance, I only mentioned XLR8's products when I wrote a column on upgrading a PowerMac to G3 parity: because XLR8 sent me their G3 and USB cards the day I phoned to ask about them, and their competitors were dragging their feet (nothing against 'em...it just happens that way sometimes). So there I was wanting to get this column in print before it became obsolete, and finally I just realized that the point wasn't to compare and contrast all the solutions out there but merely to talk about the feasibility of the undertaking. So I went ahead with an all-XLR8 column (which doubtless pleased the company no end), but added a note explaining the nature of that column.

Finally and most importantly, I _don't_ allow freebies to influence the content of my columns. Obviously, a product that came unsolicited in the mail has a better chance of getting written about than something I've never even heard of, but however it arrives it has to impress me one way or another. And dammit, if worse comes to worst, I _will_ buy something if I think it's important and the PR person in charge is being a horse's patootie about it; as we speak, I've blown about $200 on hardware for an upcoming column because I can't find the right person to talk to to get some eval units.

(Believe it or not, it's still a hit-or-miss proposition even for America's 42nd Most-Beloved Industry Personality. A big company like XLR8 sent me $900 worth of stuff for one of my Web columns before I'd finished speaking one sentence, and in the same week some one-product kitchen-table company refused to send me a registration code so I could try out all the features of their latest $20 shareware release. Even more unfathomably, IOMega refused to send me a $200 ZipDrive to test out...and _that_ was for a feature article I was writing for Playboy (circulation: 5,000,000)!)

The most valuable thing about all this is my relationship with my readers. They _have_ to have a certain amount of respect for my name, or else the things I say are just so much piffle. I'm still killing myself for not buying Apple stock at 12 3/8, and my attitude towards pelft is that if a software company is stupid enough to fly me to a so-called "press briefing" in Hawaii thinking that doing so will result in my automatically giving them positive press, well, let the $10,000 cost of first-class airfare and accommodations and daily emptying of the minibar serve as a long-lasting reminder of how wrong they were. But if either thing came out in public, it might lead even just one or two readers to conclude that personal gain had influenced what I'd put in my column...and even though that wouldn't be true, it'd be an intolerable situation.

Feel free to use this in any way you wish.

-- A.

I think I'm going to take Andy's sage advice to heart and start gobbling up all the freebies I can lay my hands on. Actually, I don't know what I'm going to do, but any way you cut it, "America's 42nd Most-Beloved Industry Figure" is a class act.

Thanks, Andy

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©2000 Steven L. Wood