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David Strom

Being blacklisted

By David Strom

(Appeared in the Computer Press Association Network News newsletter 8/95)

The iron curtain fell years ago but we in the computer trade press still have yet to experience any dÚtente of our own. I'm talking about the twin evils of blacklisting sources and writers and preventing distribution of our work to our competitors. The time has come to end both practices, and begin to promote a sense of openness in our industry.

I've come to this conclusion after many years of working as both an editor and now as a freelance writer and consultant. I've seen way too much wasted energy maintaining these two practices, and with little or no benefits. Maybe my motivation is more out of a sense of pragmatism than politics. Or maybe it comes out of seeing my name on an actual blacklist.

These lists certainly are common in our industry. While no one I spoke with at various publications would go on the record, all acknowledged they exist. Sometimes they can be just an informal collection of people that the publications' editors don't want to quote, to deal with, or recognize in their pages. Sometimes they are more explicit, such as the copy of the one I saw from Network Computing with my name on it.

I was its founding editor-in-chief and many of the original staff that I hired at the magazine are still working there. You would think it would be a natural thing for some of them to call me for a quote every now and then. Never did these quotes ever get published in the magazine, and I didn't think there was any conspiracy at work.

But I am on such a list, along with about a dozen other people that are among the more respected networking experts in the field.

I was saddened by this turn of events, mainly because it is infantile and small- minded, and generally doesn't much to add to the reputation of a publication, especially one that I helped to bring into this world. Even the fact that I had confirmed this "conspiracy" didn't do much to lift my spirits.

How did this happen? I admit that some people at CMP Publications, where the magazine is published, weren't happy about my departure several years ago to start my own consulting and freelance business. At the time, Network Computing was CMP's most successful startup and in the black (financially-speaking, interesting how the color is viewed as a positive in that part of the business). But that was almost three years ago.

To make matters worse, I have my own blacklist of sorts. When I agreed to do a column for Infoworld, there were five publications that I couldn't write for mentioned in my agreement. I wasn't happy about that restriction, but I went ahead and signed up. And many of you have similar restrictions placed on your output as well. I can see some value in preventing a full-time employee from writing for the competition, but a freelancer?

Taking the publications' side for a moment, it is annoying to see your competitors quoted, I'll agree. And many publications would prefer that their columnists, which have special status that goes beyond just freelanced piecework, stay close to their own nests. In addition, many editors that I know look upon this blacklisting as a necessary evil, something that they do only because the publisher or corporate management has asked them to.

Blacklisting does seem to be more of an artifact of our corner of the industry rather than journalism as a whole. Does the New York Times not quote something that the Journal or the Washington Post scooped them on? Sometimes they even put the name of the competitor's paper right in the story! How about that. I can't recall ever seeing such a thing happen in our industry.

But other than the nuisance factor, do the readers really care, or even notice about these blacklists? Most don't. To them, they are just trying to do THEIR jobs -- to purchase and deploy technology. That is hard enough.

Let's move on to my second issue, that of difficulties in getting your competition's publications. Many of us have been through the drill of trying to stay on controlled circulation lists: we write for PC Week, can't get a copy of Infoworld. Or we get quoted frequently in Network World and then can't obtain a copy of Communications Week and so forth. I've heard rumors of algorithms at the circulation departments that scan through the mastheads of the editors and sales people at the competition, and search for these names in the circ file to eliminate them. It is a competitive market, and that's the game. Publishers say each issue costs them money, and they don't want to pay to send these issues to their competitors.

I know Infoworld and PC Week both each week send a box of their current issue over to each other's offices -- but for those of us that work on the other side of the country from headquarters, that doesn't help much.

So it becomes tiresome to try new and clever ways to get around these restrictions (I remember once signing up my wife, who has a different last name from mine, on a few qualification cards. I was that determined to read the competition.)

And what counts as competition these days is almost so broad as to be silly. Certainly we would agree that PC Week, Infoworld, and Computer Reseller News are big competitors. But how about Infoworld and Computerworld? (Interesting question, since they are both published by IDG. But their respective staffs consider themselves competitors.) Or LAN Times and PC Magazine? Interactive Age and Interactive Week used to be competitors -- but now that the former is repositioned is that still true? And on it goes.

Every stop to wonder if all this energy that went into this silliness could be directed into improving our collective editorial quality? I have. If we could read (and write for) the competition, don't you think that our work would improve by being better- informed? Of course, that carries the assumption that the competition is worth reading and has content relevant to your own work, something I know that many publishers wouldn't want to admit in public.

So it is time to get rid of both of these foul practices, or at least try to have some industry-standard mechanism in place for both blacklists and circulation restrictions. I do think the time has come for our own version of dÚtente. After all, if the Berlin Wall can fall, so can some of the virtual walls in place in our industry.

David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA +1 (516) 944-3407