Better tech writing

Brian Lam does technology writing differently at The Wirecutter. Instead of writing about every single dodad and gizmo, he writes “a list of great technology,” aiming to only tell readers what the best thing in a category is. Of course he wrote about the new iPhone:

These things are always the same. But better in small but meaningful ways. That’s all I remember from today’s news, really.

It’s also pretty much the same thing Apple says on their website and on the website of every other publication that writes about this stuff. It’s also pretty much what I wrote for the 4s and the 4 and the 3gs and the 3g, too. I feel despair when I am forced to write words that provide no service or additional value, but there’s a balancing act between saying what I think is useful and saying what people want to hear, so here we are.

Should you get one? If you want, sure.

His post is short, to the point, and not breathless, all of which is, sadly, refreshing in the world on online-gadget writing.

How I became Amazon’s pitchman for a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant on Facebook

My career as a personal-lubricant pitchman started with a favorited tweet on Stellar that linked to Amazon where, for just $1,495, anyone could purchase a 55-gallon drum of Passion Natural water-based lubricant (and save 46 percent off list!).

“What are you going to do with all this lube?! Wrestling match? Biggest adult party ever?” the pitch for the 522-pound tub went. “If you are looking for a simply jaw-dropping amount of lube, Passion Natural Water-Based Lubricant is ready to get the fun started with this 55 gallon drum! With its superb formula you will have a natural feel that keeps you moist longer and also works great with all toy materials. Easily washes away with warm water and mild soap. You may never run out of lube again!”

While it isn’t eligible for free Amazon Prime shipping, freight is a reasonable $20.95. There were entertaining customer reviews, often the best part of the odd products for sale on Amazon, and, since it was Valentine’s Day, it was timely.

Amused, I posted it to Facebook with the line “A 55-gallon drum of lube on Amazon. For Valentine’s Day. And every day. For the rest of your life.” And then I went on with my life.

A week later, a friend posts a screen capture and tells me that my post has been showing up next to his news feed as a sponsored story, meaning Amazon is paying Facebook to highlight my link to a giant tub of personal lubricant.

Other people start reporting that they’re seeing it, too. A fellow roller derby referee. A former employee of a magazine I still write for. My co-worker’s wife. They’re not seeing just once, but regularly. Said one friend: “It has shown up as one on mine every single time I log in.”

I’m partially amused that Amazon is paying for this, but I’m also sorta annoyed. Of course Facebook is happily selling me out to advertisers. That’s its business. That’s what you sign up for when make an account.

But in the context of a sponsored story, some of the context in which it was a joke is lost, and I’ve started to wonder how many people now see me as the pitchman for a 55-gallon drum of lube.

How to not come off looking like a total jerk

If you’re a media executive who’s at least partially responsible for a newspaper in one of the last remaining two-paper towns, it’s a hard to make yourself look good as it is. If you do the following things, it will only make it harder to avoid looking like a jerk:

See? Easy.

Treated like an adult

Earlier today I tweeted:

It's refreshing to be treated as an adult who can handle the uncensored title and passages of "Go the Fuck to Sleep." http://bit.ly/li6CFw
@bergus
Nick Bergus

The Guardian doesn’t give the book’s title until the fourth paragraph, but when it does, it doesn’t shy away from treating its readers like adults and using the full title. Then, for good measure, it quotes a few passages. In full. (The Guardian‘s online bookstore sells the book as Go the Fuck to Sleep, as well, while Amazon sells something called Go the F**k to Sleep.)


The book’s cover uses slight of hand to obscure the title, but if you happen across one of the PDF versions floating around the Internet, you will see that the cover does, in fact, carry the full title.

Too often, we go through bizarre contortions to create these ugly euphemisms and stand ins for grown-up words. Please, treat me like an adult.

Boxing and newspapers

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, two long-time newspaper men with the Washington Post, heading into an ad break for their ESPN program, Pardon the Interruption, on Monday, May 23, 2011 [mp3]:

TK: Here’s whats over: boxing and newspapers.

MW: Yeah. Maybe not in that order.

TK: And horse racing.

MW: And horse racing!

Notes on The Daily

I’ve been reading The Daily, the iPad-native magazine, for the last few weeks, at least flipping through it almost daily. I find it a nice take on tablet news reading, though not without frustrations or room for improvement—it is still version one after all.

Others have shared their thoughts on The Daily. Here are mine. (I also provided these to the staff there.)

  • I love the subtle little animations that appear on some pages. There isn’t too many or too few. Same with the subtle cues for where I can find more (turn for story, arrows down or right, for example).
  • There seems to be no way to turn off the startup sound. It plays even when the tablet is muted.
  • I’m often confused about what a “hot spot” might do or where it might take me. Sometimes more info comes in a pop-over. Other times, one whisks me off to a new place. This extends to links of all types. Is it going to kick me to a browser or iTunes or the App Store?
  • When tweeting a link, it would be helpful if the default text included The Daily‘s Twitter username, since the magazine’s username isn’t consistent across services, and the piece’s title. It would probably lead to more traffic from social, too, than the generic “check it out” text.
  • The app clearly pre-loads the next page of content, which is nice because I can move that way quickly or see the rest of a two-page photo without running into a seam. But I wish the app would leave the last page in its cache so I could just as quickly go back a page.
  • I’d love to see the carousel be more responsive. It remains laggy. The compressed JPGs look too low-resolution, too.
  • When The Daily crashes, it’s frustrating to have to go back to the beginning and find my place again. I wish it would save my place for when I returned. (This is particularly frustrating because of the carousel’s lagginess.)
  • The “viewed” indications on content are very helpful.
  • I haven’t found a way to access old issues. Even just being able to find old tables of contents would be a plus.
  • The stories seem to be the right length for the most part. I could do without the gossip stuff, but generally I feel like I can find and read the pieces I want. I would like to see more smart features, though — maybe one a day — on technology, food, world politics, etc. Something that wouldn’t be out of place in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Economist, etc. Just one would make the whole thing feel less fluffy and more substantial.
  • I wish the timers on the sudoku and the crossword didn’t start right away. I find it bizarrely stressful.
  • I would like to be able to select text for tweeting, quoting, etc. Pages with multiple stories are frustrating to share, too. I’m glad The Daily has made content available online for sharing purposes.
  • I do a lot of my long-form iPad reading through Instapaper. I wish The Daily had either a way to add pieces to Instapaper or an Instapaper/Readability-type reading view.
  • Even if I’ve downloaded the day’s issue, it take a while to get past the loading screen later.

iOS is here to save print (for a 30% cut)

The media world is on fire with news that Apple is finally allowing subscriptions in iOS apps! I want in, too, so here’s Apple’s press release and my blow-by-blow commentary.

CUPERTINO, California—February 15, 2011—Apple® today announced a new subscription service available to all publishers of content-based apps on the App Store℠, including magazines, newspapers, video, music, etc. This is the same innovative digital subscription billing service that Apple recently launched with News Corp.’s “The Daily” app.

Cupertino is where Apple is headquartered. Cupertino is headquartered in California. At least today, Feb. 15. (Note to journalism students: this is called a dateline, despite its emphasis on place.)

Subscriptions purchased from within the App Store will be sold using the same App Store billing system that has been used to buy billions of apps and In-App Purchases. Publishers set the price and length of subscription (weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, bi-yearly or yearly). Then with one-click, customers pick the length of subscription and are automatically charged based on their chosen length of commitment (weekly, monthly, etc.). Customers can review and manage all of their subscriptions from their personal account page, including canceling the automatic renewal of a subscription. Apple processes all payments, keeping the same 30 percent share that it does today for other In-App Purchases.

Apple continues to try branding generics (note the capital letters): App Store, In-App Purchases, Publishers, Customers. Don’t try to use these terms without Apple’s permission. One-click is, apparently, a compound adjective and different than a single click in Apple’s usage. Apple likely didn’t call it One Click because Amazon has patented the amazing innovation that is clicking a button to buy something. And I’m still unclear about who picks the length of the subscription: the publisher or the consumer.

“Our philosophy is simple—when Apple brings a new subscriber to the app, Apple earns a 30 percent share; when the publisher brings an existing or new subscriber to the app, the publisher keeps 100 percent and Apple earns nothing,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “All we require is that, if a publisher is making a subscription offer outside of the app, the same (or better) offer be made inside the app, so that customers can easily subscribe with one-click right in the app. We believe that this innovative subscription service will provide publishers with a brand new opportunity to expand digital access to their content onto the iPad, iPod touch and iPhone, delighting both new and existing subscribers.”

Nearly a third of a subscription price seems like a hefty amount to charge publishers for reselling subscriptions. Maybe junior-high students would be pleased with such a cut (in my day, we were given little colored cotton balls with feet and eyes glued on). But don’t worry, it’s just a philosophy so — oh it’s a take-it-or-leave it philosophy? Hmmm. Don’t forget, subscribing for things is innovative. Or maybe it’s just the charging for subscriptions? Or maybe that’s just a word Apple likes to attach to as many things it does as possible.

Publishers who use Apple’s subscription service in their app can also leverage other methods for acquiring digital subscribers outside of the app. For example, publishers can sell digital subscriptions on their web sites, or can choose to provide free access to existing subscribers. Since Apple is not involved in these transactions, there is no revenue sharing or exchange of customer information with Apple. Publishers must provide their own authentication process inside the app for subscribers that have signed up outside of the app. However, Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app. In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.

Leverage? Whatever. And “publishers may no longer provide links in their apps which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app”? Anyway, remember when the iPad going to save the old print philosophy model? LOL.

Protecting customer privacy is a key feature of all App Store transactions. Customers purchasing a subscription through the App Store will be given the option of providing the publisher with their name, email address and zip code when they subscribe. The use of such information will be governed by the publisher’s privacy policy rather than Apple’s. Publishers may seek additional information from App Store customers provided those customers are given a clear choice, and are informed that any additional information will be handled under the publisher’s privacy policy rather than Apple’s.

“Here,” says Apple, “have a bone. A small bone.”

The revolutionary App Store offers more than 350,000 apps to consumers in 90 countries, with more than 60,000 native iPad™ apps. Customers of the more than 160 million iOS devices around the world can choose from an incredible range of apps in 20 categories, including games, business, news, sports, health, reference and travel.

“Can we use ‘innovative App Store’?”
“No, I don’t think so. What’s the thesaurus got?
“How about ‘revolutionary App Store’?”

Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork, and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple is reinventing the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and has recently introduced its magical iPad which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices.

“How about ‘digital music revolution’?”
“Too techno-y?”
“Look, dude, I’m just trying to go home.”

Press Contacts:

LOL. Like you’ll get a call back.