We recently caught up with Zango Group Principal Galen Gruman who provides freelance writing and editing services to clients such as Business Week special supplements, CIO, Computerworld, Cnet, CSO, Fawcette.com’s Enabling the Wireless Enterprise, Fortune Small Business, InfoWorld (where he is a contributing editor), Macworld, PC World, and PricewaterhouseCoopers Technology Center.
Having worked with Galen on several occasions and being aware of the broad spectrum of business and technical publications he is involved in, we seized the opportunity to pick his brain on some of the industry trends he sees and is working on. Enjoy!
1. What publications do you write for / Could you give some additional information about the Zango Group? I write mainly for InfoWorld and CIO magazines, but also for a variety of others less frequently such as CSO and Daily Wireless. The Zango Group is my company, referring to the group of activities I provide such as magazine writing, editorial consulting, and book packaging.
2. Areas of interest: My areas of coverage are fairly wide, but there are two common threads: 1) enterprise software issues, from adopting open source to understanding SOA and 2) wireless/mobility issues. I also tend to do security-related stories as an occasional third thread. So you’ll see me working on a variety of stories over time in these broad areas. Another commonality: Almost everything I write has a “how it works in the real world” bent, typically through strong reliance on enterprise users’ comments, backed up by consultant and analyst comments. Some publications, such as InfoWorld, welcome vendor perspectives in addition to these; others, like CIO, do not. But it’s a good bet that if I can’t speak to a vendor’s customers, I won’t be able to do much, if anything, with the vendor’s comments even in a publication that seeks to include vendor comments as part of the mix.
3. What are you working on now and what do you have coming up? What I work on changes every few weeks — the typical lead time for a story is two to four weeks — so it’s hard to say what I’m working on at any moment or will have coming up. However, in my work for InfoWorld, we are always on the lookout for strong, in-depth SOA case studies we can do. And for my work for Daily Wireless (a new online publication helmed by Wendy Taylor, formerly of PC/Computing), we seek ongoing industry Q&As and mini-feature stories on the whole gamut of wireless topics, from Wi-Fi to 3G, with an accent in small to medium businesses’ concerns.
4. What technology that you watch will have the greatest adoption or growth in 2007? I don’t see any surprises here: SOA at least in early-stage approaches, and open source in areas close to the middleware stack.
5. Any other technological prognoses’? The Web 2.0 boomlet will deflate, as people start again asking, “So what does this do for my bottom line?” That’ll lead to RSS, blogging, wiki, and other tools that go beyond the cool, geeky factor so popular now. Also, I see a continued slow adoption of software as a service in a few areas that can be isolated from the rest of the enterprise, like CRM and purchasing (SaaS doesn’t yet have a good integration story, so it can only penetrate so far); the bigger issue underlying SaaS is a general shift in power away from providers to customers in the enterprise software space, which over time will change the industry dynamics. And I think Microsoft Vista will be a bust. The world is fed up with complicated technology that changes for its own sake.
6. Can you explain more about being the principal of the Zango Group and a contributing writer to so many publications? Are there certain trends you follow? Do look out for/accept proactive pitches…Do you pitch editors with ideas…Do you wait for an assignment to come your way? Anything else you would like to share? I’m fortunate that I’ve been in the editorial business for more than 20 years, and I was there at the beginning of the PC revolution, the Web revolution, and the high-tech revolution. That’s exposed me to a lot of technologies and trends, which help a lot frame current developments. That’s one reason I’m able to coiver a variety of topics for a variety of publications.
The stories I work on more often than not come from my editors, who of course are trying to keep their readers ahead of the curve and so will ask me to explore something emerging for them. The assignment is usually vague, since it’s up to me t figure out what the underlying story is for the trend they’re noticing. That exploration can lead to me covering that topic for a few years while it goes through its hype cycle and, if it succeeds, gets boring until something reinvents it again. Maybe a quarter of the stories I do are my own ideas that I pitch to my editors, and they come from the usual sources: talking to people, following the news, and PR pitches.
Most PR pitches lead nowhere, mostly because they break the cardinal rule of a successful story: being useful to the reader. 90 percent are basically product or company pitches, with no regard for why a particular magazine’s reader would care about it. If I see a trend in these pitches, that might lead to a story pitch of my own. (My editors often come up with stories this way, by seeing the pattern of what’s being pitched, rather than the pitches themselves.) Of the remaining 10 percent, at least half are story ideas sent out willy-nilly, useful to a readership somewhere but not to the ones I serve. That leaves a handful of pitches that really make an effort to understand what my readers care about, and then frame their client in that perspective — knowing of course that any story will not focus on any one vendor but hoping that by being a good fit the vendor client’s perspective will get a better hearing. These are successful pitches, and typically form the main examples in stories in their topic, and occasionally stand-alone case study stories.
This dynamic also plays out when I’m seeking contacts for stories. 70 percent of the responses have no regard for the audience or story, 15 percent have a regard the story but not the audience, and 15 percent actually are a plausible fit. (There’s no controlling for whether the source actually delivers, of course, so about a fifth of the interviews fall away as not useful in this group. But they were at least appropriate to investigate.) I do try to respond to everyone who replies, since I know there are tough expectations for coverage by clients, but I draw the line at those who are so far off base it’s clear that they’re autoresponding to every pitch or have no idea at all about the topic. Fortunately, that’s a small percentage.
7. What publications to do you read? Business Week, Newsweek, Smithsonian, various newsfeeds online, and of course the publications I write for.
8. Do you read a lot of blogs or listen to podcasts? If which ones? I don’t, except for NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcasts when I’m traveling. They take a lot of time and most are just amorphous and unfocused. (It’s hard to be a useful, relevant, consistent pundit, which is why I don’t try to be a blogger myself.) I know others get string value from some blogs, and I cheat a little by relying on people sending me the choice bits via email rather than do all the slogging myself.
9. What’s your take on PR people and how do your recommend they best work with you? PR people are all over the map, like any other group. A core few really get their clients, their clients’ products and market, and the publications’ needs and readership. I turn to these people frequently and welcome their input. There are many who are more like traffic cops, flowing requests between writers and sources; they’re useful if they can manage the request flow but add nothing to the mix otherwise. Then there are those who confuse spamming with contacting; that’s what e-mail filters are for.
One thing is a clear no-no, and I’m always surprised when I hear it: Sources do not get to review or approve any story I work on. It’s just not done by reputable publications. Sometimes, the source asks for approval despite the PR person saying it won’t happen or without asking the PR person up front — that’s not the PR person’s fault. Sometimes, the PR person knows the answer but is relaying the client’s request nonetheless — that’s also not the PR person’s fault. But I would suggest that the PR person explore this issue early with the client or customer, so the issue can be avoided. This year, I’ve had a few interviews I’ve ended in the first few minutes when this “requirement” was mentioned at the beginning of the interview, and I’ve had a few where people asked when the interview was done (sorry, too late, and no I won’t withdraw my notes at that point).
The best way to work with me specifically is to approach me via e-mail (so I have a record of our conversation and can refer to it later, if something is unclear we can talk by phone as well, of course), explain succinctly what you have to offer and why it would (really) benefit my readers. Then deliver on any promises (to the best you can, of course — we all know things happen unexpectedly). If there’s not a fit, move on — don’t waste my or your client’s time “scoring” an interview that isn’t a fit. After all, it’ll do you no good when the story comes out and that interview isn’t there, and now you have to tell a client why a customer they worked hard to secure didn’t lead to anything.
Sometimes, PR people are defensive or self-deprecating about themselves or their profession. That’s really offensive, as it says they don’t believe in what they’re doing. The best PR people value what they do and are trying to serve their clients’ interests — and realize the best way to do that is to look to see where those interests and the publications’ interests coincide. That’s a win-win that leads to more wins.