A Yahoo on Yahoo!

I'm a technology journalist at a resurgent tech company. How do I cover my own company's event?

Jason Gilbert
Yahoo News
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by Jason Gilbert (@gilbertjasono)

NEW YORK -- Yahoo! News was invited to cover Yahoo Inc.’s big tech announcement. So here is a completely biased opinion of how things went. If you are looking for an even-handed, equanimous, journalistic-ten-commandments version of this story, then you are on the wrong website. I have no intention of even attempting to cover the latest raft of announcements from Yahoo -- the enterprise whose very existence ensures that my next meal will not be a Hot Pocket mooched off an old college roommate -- with anything approaching impartiality.

It’s a fool's errand to cover a company you have a financial interest in, and owning the stocks of companies you cover is verboten for any journalist with even a Wheaties shred of ethics.

But since I was invited by Yahoo’s benevolent PR wing to write about the event as a pugnacious reporter -- as opposed to, presumably, being invited to gawk at the stage like a yokel, to gulp down a few gratis Amstels, and to applaud at the appropriate moments -- I thought I’d give some general impressions of the the evening. As a technology journalist who has attended dozens of these pageants, these trumped-up live action press releases, I feel like I have something to offer, through purple-tinted lenses or not.

On Monday evening, Yahoo! (of the aforementioned ethical quagmire) held a press event in New York City’s Times Square, to announce a major, mobile-minded redesign to the Flickr photo-sharing service; to make official its $1.1 billion acquisition of the social network Tumblr; and and to publicize its forthcoming move to the old New York Times building, the namesake of Times Square in Manhattan.

The specifics and ramifications of these actions have been spelled out in great, thorough and occasionally accurate detail by the swarms of technology publications that cover these sorts of announcements. You can find some fact-packed, aspirationally non-biased reportage here.

What I can say about the Yahoo event -- based, again, on a qualitative comparison to others like it that I have attended -- is that it was reasonably successful. That may sound like a qualified endorsement, but it really is not: “Reasonably successful” is about as high on the journalistic praise-o-meter that an event like this can ascend.

As a technology company, to score anywhere above “reasonably successful,” you have to cause an entire room of cynical journalists to lose their minds, to forget their oaths of impartiality, and to hoot and holler like apes. You only get to introduce the first iPhone, or cut away to skydivers plummeting toward earth wearing futuristic spectacles on their faces, about once a decade. For all the other press conferences you give, “reasonably successful” is your ceiling.

Yahoo’s Flickr press conference, then, was reasonably successful. It did not commit any of the Cardinal Sins of Ineffective Press Events: It was not boring, or overlong, or unnecessary, or redundant, or pretentious, or overhyped, or incomprehensibly geeky, or desperately unhip, or sexist or racist or insulting or condescending; it featured sturdy Wi-Fi and operational air conditioning, with microphones that worked and product demos that didn’t sputter. The music played at an appropriate volume; nobody committed an unforgivable, eternally meme-able faux pas that would taint the company for years to come.

After the event, the chatter among the reporters I talked to didn’t center on how dreadful the event was; instead, the debate concerned the merits of the products themselves. That’s the hallmark of a reasonably successful press event. If you have reporters kvetching -- and, really, kvetching is a reporter’s instinctive mode of communication -- you have lost.

I didn’t hear any reporters complaining on Monday night. Maybe they were being polite, knowing that I worked for Yahoo. Honestly, though, I just think that all parties -- the product team who re-designed Flickr, as well as the event planners -- did an admirable job.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: It wasn’t racist? The music wasn’t loud? Reporters were talking to each other like human beings, and not like robots programmed to complain about the lack of deodorant in the room? These seem like easy challenges for a corporation with billions of dollars to spend.

History has shown us, however -- essentially every month for the past several years -- that accomplishing all of this is harder than you would imagine. Many technology keynotes and presentations, I can assure you, are hilariously, hallucinogenically awful, as though planned by the lead characters of “The Producers." And more often, too, the announcements being hyped aren’t worth the Wi-Fi bandwidth it costs to upload the write-up.

Yahoo’s Flickr redesign was, this Yahoo employee is happy to say, none of that.

History will judge this press conference, like the company, on the success of its products. Will a terabyte of storage and a thorough redesign entice online photographers away from Google, Instagram and elsewhere? More broadly, does the Yahoo/Flickr/Tumblr-palooza (to be celebrated on May Twntieth hencefrth) represent a new bellwether of Yahoo's acceleration under Marissa Mayer, or will it be regarded as another hiccup in a decade of them?

Early reports from pixel-stained wretches far less biased than I seem to favor my home team. But then again, I’m on the sidelines with a Yahoo! badge, cap, T-shirt, underpants and jockstrap, and my first order of business upon returning home, two Amstels in my gut, was to create a Flickr account and upload some photos.

Being a technology journalist at a big technology company is going to occasionally create quandaries like this one. When it does, I’ll leave the real punditry to the folks whose salary isn’t delivered in light purple envelopes each month. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my good bartender, I’ll have one more Amstl, if you please.

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