Wired Magazine is congratulating itself on its own exercise in radical transparency. The San Francisco magazine, which this month spotlights Microsoft's effort to be more open, has posted up the briefing document prepared by Redmond's public relations firm while the article was being reported. The dossier, which summarizes Microsoft execs' efforts to plant the story, and gives tips on how to handle the magazine's reporter, Fred Vogelstein, makes for astonishing reading. But it's more embarrassing for the Conde Nast magazine than it is for Microsoft: the author appears to have promised Microsoft that he'd show them the article well before publication, which is against the policy of most magazines.
Chris Anderson, Wired's editor-in-chief, one of three senior execs lobbied to write the story, wonders on his personal blog whether he was spun by Microsoft's PR machine. And Vogelstein, one of Wired's star business reporters, a veteran of Fortune, was surprised, on reading the memo, that there were about a dozen people in the background: transcribing his interviews with Microsoft execs; looking for clues on what he'd ask next. In a self-deprecating touch, he says his wife might agree with the characterization of his interview style, in the briefing, as long-winded.
But read, not just the Wired summary, but the whole memo. There's much worse than that. Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft's long-time PR agency, is breathtakingly confident about its control of Vogelstein's schedule and his storyline. In fact, they sound considerably more engaged in the process than his own editors would be.
Now, conceivably they're overstating their influence in order to impress the clients in Redmond. But the PRs quote Vogelstein as promising that the story will be "very favorable to Microsoft's efforts." In preparation for a final interview, the memo urges a Microsoft exec: "The goal of your call is to do a check in with Fred to get a final guage on where is head is at and reinforce one last time that we want to avoid any surprises with this story."
The most shocking assumption: Waggener Edstrom assured Microsoft executives that they would get sight of the article weeks before the radical transparency issue hit the newsstands. "We should have a look at it early March and it should run late March for the April issue," writes the Waggener exec. Even if a source can't force changes to a feature, an early look gives them time to prepare their own spin, and puts a reporter under pressure to tone down criticism in a piece; which is why most periodicals have a policy that, at most, they'll fax over a copy as its about to be sent off to subscribers.
Says an editor at another tech publication: "It makes my flesh crawl: the degree to which they are orchestrating and controlling Wired."
It would be too easy to interpret all this as a sign that Microsoft's arrogance persists; that they're openness is phony. The subject of a story is only as controlling as the reporter, and his or editors, allow. It's Silicon Valley's tech press corps that bears responsibility, long way too cowed by big companies such as Microsoft and Google, and venture capital firms such as Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins.
Vogelstein is far from the archetypal pushover tech journalist: if only to make up for his earlier over-the-top praise of Yahoo, he wrote a devastating portrayal of Terry Semel's management failures earlier this year. And Wired, which relies neither on everyday access to big tech nor their advertising dollars, is much less in their pocket than other publications. If even Wired is sending drafts of articles before publication, what of other magazines? [Update: see comments for Anderson's assurance that isn't Wired's policy and, hopefully, clarification from Vogelstein whether he acted alone.]
Wired's decision, to post up an embarrassing memo, is commendable. But radical transparency is supposed to serve a purpose. It shines light on practices that may go against a company's declared mission; and the embarrassment is there to prod reform. We'll see whether the Waggener memo has that effect.
Valleywag contacted Chris Anderson, to ask about the magazine's policy on sneak peeks of sensitive articles. His response:
No, we don't send drafts weeks in advance of publication. We typically send them a fax as a courtesy a few days before on-sale date (i.e., weeks after it's gone to press). That must have been what WagEd was referring to.
I don't think we'll change anything specifically in light of this dossier. But we're constantly thinking of new ways to report and research and making the process more transparent is a big part of that (see Assigment Zero and my various writings on what radical transparency could mean for us and other media).