The World of Hands-On Journalism, or How You Can Save Fido from Certain Death

“We’ve already been featured in top media outlets.”

Those are the famous last words I received in an e-mail today.

In some ways, it’s like telling a police officer you’ve already received enough speeding tickets. Or, explaining to your doctor you’ve already performed surgery on yourself.

In other words, it’s not the most effective way to deal with the media.

There’s a short phrase we like to use which is sort of a secret handshake in the field of journalism: the hands-on test. I might say hands-on when I need to see the thing in person. You make a widget, and I need to see if the widget does what it’s supposed to do. There’s a check and balance at play here. (Eventually, there’s also a check.)

As journalists, we’re often paid to find out, on behalf of a customer, if something really works. We’re sort of a silent oracle, the space between two realities. (Some of us take up a bigger space than others.)

Say you’ve invented a dog collar that connects to a transmitter in your kitchen. You say little Fido won’t run beyond a certain distance. I want to believe you, I really do. Something deep inside of me yearns to trust complete strangers by e-mail. And, I’m not so attached to my FedEx driver that I need to see her everyday, unless the delivery involves chocolate or coffee. In a few cases, a box cutter has turned on me, which is one of the few work injuries in my field that makes me nervous.

The thing is, in almost every instance, we have to see the thing. We have to flip open the cover and look inside. We have to see the innards. Once we strap on the collar to little Fido and send him on his merry way and see that he will not be run over by a train or a food cart because of your app, we will be more than happy to write some glowing and solicitous prose about it. We’ll be earnest. But looking at a picture and some text on the Web does not help. Fido deserves a lot better than that, doesn’t he?

After 12 years as a writer, I’ve seen quite a few interesting reactions to my product requests. Of course, it all starts with the Apple response: no. Then there’s the Microsoft response, which adds some flair: unfortunately, no. Or, there’s the response I half expect these days: the product is not available for testing yet. And, I get that. These things take time. Greatness is not easy. Still, I get a little confused (and constipated!) when I find out 400 other journalists have posted reviews about the product already. But maybe they are in a different epoch of time? Maybe there’s an alternate universe where the product is in wonderful abundance?

For most of these requests, we’re just doing our job. We’re being oracles.

I’ll tell you one of my favorite stories, which is almost completely true. There was a mystery tablet from a major tech company once. (I won’t give you any specifics about it other than to say the letters of this company start with H and P.) Things were pretty hush-hush, what with those folks at Gizmodo on the hunt for unreleased stuff. There were coded messages, whispers in dark alleys. Finally, someone admitted there was going to be a tablet, and it was going to be kind of similar to the Palm OS phone.

I used every tactic in the book: I will sign an NDA, I promise not to tell Gizmodo, I will sign in blood and offer my life in servitude if I break my silence. None of that worked, although I think the representative from this super-secret company was intrigued by the servitude bit. Eventually, the answer was no and it was always going to be no.

Then my editor got involved.

Within a few minutes, another e-mail arrived. “Why, we found one right under the desk here!” Apparently, everyone in the office of this mysterious company (codenamed H and P, shhh) was pleasantly surprised when they found it hiding under that desk. They all smiled and laughed. “We will get this packaged up for ya right away and ship that off pronto!”

In all honesty, I felt a little conned, specifically by the “hey we found one right here under the desk” trick. Part of me knows they were probably in short supply. But, part of me also thinks there are those who work in shipping departments who are standing right in front of 14 product boxes typing a message on an iPad that says they don’t have any.

But this all leads me to the most flummoxing response of all: we already have enough coverage. Isn’t that like saying we already have enough money? Or we already have enough precious jewels? Or we already have enough gold bars? Or maybe – we already have enough endorsements by famous supermodels? Oh, we would be interested in that coverage but we already have like a billion dollars because of the Gizmodo write-up. We can’t take any more money because our bank is not big enough.

I’m probably missing something here. I know that selling too many products can be a problem. Which, thankfully, is one of the few things that BlackBerry doesn’t have to worry about. But isn’t all press coverage good press coverage? Putting this stuff into the hands of a journalist is a good thing, depending on the cleanliness of the journalist? I’m not saying just mail stuff out willy-nilly to anyone who has a WordPress account. That would not be wise, and would also involve the phrase willy-nilly (lame!).

But there is never really enough major media coverage. There’s Apple and there is everyone else. (Lately, even Apple has been happy for the coverage.) At the end of the day, this is just a happy exchange of goods and services. Some guy in Minnesota tests your stuff. It’s not that complicated. The customer is the ultimate winner. And, poor little Fido.


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