Friday, October 21, 2011

Personal technology and the media business: outsiders have no idea how bad things really are: a few tips on how you can keep your personal publishing tech up-to-date

One memories I have of working in the publishing industry as a publisher in the B2B industry is the seemingly never-ending battle for improved technology.

Back in my newspaper days we didn't worry about the age of our laptops simply because we didn't have any. The first computer that entered Hearst's Los Angeles Herald Examiner that wasn't part of the front end publishing system was a Compaq Desktop computer that sat in the ad director's office. Because I was the only one that the ad director knew actually owned his own home computer (an Apple IIe) I was asked to come in and turn the thing on. No one else was allowed to touch the machine, so fearful was he that something would go wrong.

By the time I move to Chicago and worked at a smallish B2B publishing firm it was common to give publishers, editors and sales people their own computers – Macs for the art directors, PCs for everyone else. It wasn't until I moved to Cahners (which changed its name to Reed Business Information while I was there) that I realized that I was doing things wrong.

Missing from this photo is my iPhone, my MacBook Pro, my 3 external hard drives, 2 printers, scanner, etc.

You see my father was an auto mechanic. He was a damn good one, apparently, because auto dealers would try and steal him away from other dealers – always Ford. His rule, and the rule of most mechanics, is own your own tools – they are your lifeblood.

Most people in the publishing industry use whatever garbage is given to them by their company – and it is usually garbage. A few years ago this was a real problem when the computer industry was churning out more and more powerful computers and the software industry was upgrading their wares each year. Today, this isn't quite as much a problem unless you are a designer – nothing is worse than working with the first generation of Creative Suite when you really know you need CS 5.5.

As an example, my ten year old MacBook Pro is still functioning fairly well. A year earlier, when they were not released with Intel chips, and the computer would be all but worthless.

But today's mobile and tablet products are caused havoc with editors, publishers and publishing executives. I can't tell you how many stories I have read about a new magazine or newspaper app that does not contain any screenshots other than the ones handed out by PR firms. A few paragraphs in and one can tell that they actually don't have their own iPad or iPhone to work with – they are just winging it.

The problem, of course, is that if you wait until your boss approves you for new technology you might be of retirement age. So what do you do, other than win the lottery (in which case you'll stop working in the media business anyway)?

First let's talk about computer hardware. Why do you really want to own your own? Maybe you don't, even today my wife continues to deal with Dell's that break down and need to be replaced (she's have a half-dozen PCs to my one Mac). But if your company won't, or can't supply you with a workable model you may need to take action.

If you are a PC user you are in luck, they're cheap. Even a decent Sony Vaio, which tries to replicate the MacBook Pro look in plastic, can be affordable. Best Buy routinely offers zero finance on new purchases – with 18 months to pay off a $700 or $800 machine you might feel this is not that painful.

Macs, of course, are a different story. But a decade ago, if you were an art director, you would need to buy a top end Mac. Today, the only ones who really need a Mac Pro are in the film or music industry – if I can run CS on my mini I would think an iMac or MacBook Pro will work for anyone in publishing. (If are on a Mac Pro, don't show this story to your boss.)

Both Best Buy (and other retailers) and even Apple (though a deal with Barclays) offer financing deals. But the computer I'll be buying next, a 13-inch MacBook Air is still over $1650 when you add in the Apple Care – and you'll want that Apple Care because you'll be on your own otherwise. Zero percent financing is nice, but making those payments on what your boss pays you will still probably be painful, right?

Many publishers, though, have wisely begun to compensate their employees who go it alone, figuring that this is a cheaper route than buying new equipment themselves. Often you can get a portion of the money you spent back each month through your expenses, sometimes up to 50 percent or more of what you paid. Take advantage of these programs if they are available.

Of course, any expense like this may be a tax deduction as long as you can prove that you really did need to have the equipment for your job. If you maintain a home office you are probably already claiming unreimbursed employee expenses, if not you will be now. One word of warning, though, keep good written records.

Mobile and tablet equipment is a whole other can of worms since most employers won't provide for this type of hardware, or compensate you for buying it yourself. Today an iPhone, or at least an Android phone, is a must. If you are walking around the office with a flip phone I'd suggest hiding it.

A tablet, though, would be considered a luxury by most media executives – they aren't. How can you write about the media business, or really understand where it is going without one?

Apple is not much help, though at $499, at least an iPad is competitively priced. Look in the refurbished section of the online store if you are desperate – a first generation iPad will cost you $399 (right now they say "special limited time price", which either means "until they last" or "watch for a new product soon").

Amazon's new Kindle Fire is only $199, but if you own an older Kindle there is even better news: Amazon has started a trade-in program that will give you back up to $37.75 on a Wi-Fi 6" Kindle (if it is in new condition) or up to $135 on a Kindle DX.

To find the trade-in store, search for Kindle trade-in program on

I'd talk about software except art directors know just how expensive this area is. My only advice is to save up your pennies and hope for the rare, or not completely unknown, discounted upgrade offers that occasionally come down the pipe. A year or so ago I was able to upgrade my copy of Creative Suite for a significantly discounted price. I'm glad I jumped at the chance because the software shipped by Adobe came with all new licenses.