The inalienable right of journalists to freebies

So Apple are coming to take the G5 back. I’m gutted. After life with an 800MHz G4 iMac, a Quad G5 was something else altogether. I’m going to be holding a small memorial service on Sunday, if that’s all right.

The impending repossession has set me thinking though. Why is that hardware vendors expect their hardware back after you’ve reviewed it, when software vendors don’t?

Think about it: Quark 7 will cost you £800, Adobe Creative Suite 2 a similar amount, yet neither Quark nor Adobe will want their software back once I’ve reviewed it.

Indeed, they have good reason to want me to keep their software: I write software tutorials all the time. Tutorials not only help existing users to use their software more effectively and to learn about features they might not even know exist; they help others to see what software can do and perhaps make them want to invest in the software. That means more money to the software vendors if I keep the software.

The other benefit of letting reviewers keep the software is that they get to use the software every day. They get to understand both its flaws and its strengths. By the time the next version comes out, they’ll have a better comparison point, a better understanding of what’s changed and be able to advise readers better.

It’s not even as though the vendors could sell the software afterwards, once it’s been through my grubby fingers and I’ve ripped the packaging off. Everyone wins, nobody loses.

All these arguments are true of hardware. Think of it: tutorials on how to upgrade RAM; tutorials on how to replace hard drives; better “Helpdesk” responses since you’ve had a chance to deal with the idiosyncrasies each day; the ability to run the same benchmarks on the next model at the same time; and so on.

Yet despite this, Apple want their G5 back. What are they going to do with it, do you think? Give it to another reviewer? Hmm. I’ve had the G5 for nearly three weeks now and I bet there aren’t any magazines left who want to review it, particularly since I’ve had my mitts all over it. They can’t sell it, except as a refurbished model. So that means they’re going to use it themselves. Are they strapped for computers? Is there a Mac shortage at Apple UK? Have, in fact, Apple misplaced their billions in cash reserves down the back of the sofa and they’re now hoping to flog their assets on eBay to make up for the shortfall? Or are they just taking it back because it’s theirs and they want it? Will it, in fact, sit in a storeroom, ready to be chucked out as soon as the next Power Mac gets released?

UK journalists don’t get paid much. Tech journalists get paid even less. Consumer tech journalists get paid frighteningly little. The only way we can afford to cope with this salary shortfall and to get new kit is via freebies. I know one journalist who only ever wears T-shirts he’s been given by tech companies (his girlfriend works in fashion PR so I imagine there are problems at home about this). If we don’t have the kit, we can’t write about it, we don’t get paid and we starve to death and die.

As a result, we feel quite aggrieved if we go to conferences, launches, lunches and the like and don’t get freebies (particularly, incidentally, if we’ve been promised them. PR welchers – you know who you are). We get equally aggrieved if we’re given stuff to review and we’re not allowed to keep it. Effectively, we’re not being given one of the few perks of the jobs: imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t get paid your commission, or given your free gym membership, Christmas bonus or private healthcare plan.

Now I know this concept upsets some of my American brethren, who think our editorial independence will be compromised if we accept free gifts from companies. My counters are

  1. I only write good things about companies if they do good things or make good products. Otherwise, I’d be writing blatant rubbish and I wouldn’t get rehired to write about other things. Then I would starve and I would die.
  2. A slight misquote: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the American trade journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.” I’ve seen you lot in action and heard you yacking on about ethics. You then spend 90% of a conference “trying to establish better relationships with advertisers” before going home and writing timid, fawning rubbish designed not to annoy them. Okay not all of you. But some of you. You know who you are.

All of this, I guess, is a blatant unethical plea for PR companies to send me free things (I’m better than staff journalists since I can get my articles into more than one mag) and to let me keep them afterwards. It really won’t cost you anything in the long run, since you’ll probably make more money if you do. Incidentally, I mean decent free things, not space pens, USB keychain drives, pens with your logos on, leather binders, pens with ISVs’ logos on, keychains, pocket protectors or graphing notepads with your logos on. Unlike my friend, Ed, I don’t like free T-shirts with your logos on, either.

In particular, Apple, can I keep the Quad? Please?

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