Slipping standards in how Office 365 is reported and analyzed in the technology press

Those who observe the way that news is reported about developments in the Office 365 space might be uncomfortably aware that standards are slipping. The basic problem is that once Microsoft posts some information about a product announcement or other development on the Office 365 blog, it is recycled over the next few hours in an uncritical and undemanding manner. In fact, some of the reports that appear on so-called independent news web sites are so close to the original that they might almost be accused of plagiarism.

As an example, compare the reports on major web sites about Microsoft’s announcement that basic mobile device management capability is being provided in Office 365 and consider how much text is taken directly from Microsoft’s post and how much thought has been put into the topic by the author. Churning out articles by reusing broad swathes of Microsoft text is certainly a fast way to publish, but how much added value is present?

I wrote about the MDM for Office 365 announcement too, but hope that I didn’t fall into the same trap. You can make your own minds up.

I’m sure Microsoft is very happy to see this trend. Their carefully-crafted text is recycled without challenge and the marketing message is passed unaltered, all without any great effort by Microsoft to convince journalists and bloggers of the worth of their announcement.

I find this trend disturbing and regrettable. It’s important that companies like Microsoft should share information that they consider to be important with the industry; it is equally important that journalists should parse, analyze, and assess that information before reporting their view of what the information means. Ideally, the announcement should be put into context for readers so that they understand its importance and how the new information fits into the overall picture. But that just doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Another worrying trend that is now rife in technical web sites is the use of gratuitously inflated headlines that are barely relevant to the content of the accompanying article. These headlines are there to grab attention, which is fine, but it would be nice if they were in some way related to the text. A recent example is the article proclaiming that “Security survey shows Exchange as a sitting duck for attacks” (yes, I know that this is not an Office 365 article, but the piece really grabbed my attention for all the wrong reasons). The headline is startling and conveys a message that Exchange administrators ought to be worried about, but the article never lived up to the headline and petered out in a sad collection of banal observations that really didn’t amount to much. On the other hand, I’m sure that all the companies mentioned in the article were extremely happy to be featured so prominently.

Of course, I do not mean that editorial independence was compromised in any way here, but sponsored content has a habit of being presented as factual reporting. Even when content is sponsored by a company, it can be presented in a lucid and knowledgeable manner, as is the case with Paul Robichaux’s piece on “The Sony Hack: Vital Lessons for Microsoft Admins“.

The question is why standards are slipping. It’s probably not due to just one reason. Instead, I think there are several influences at work. Here are the top three that I have seen:

The need for speed: Microsoft often posts new items at 8 am (Pacific) and a race begins to see which web site is first to report the news. The site that is first is the site that gets most page views and page views are the critical factor in driving advertising revenue. The need to get something posted fast leads writers to cut and paste from Microsoft’s text and create yet another me-too report. They have no time for analysis or critical review of what has been announced, but the report is deemed successful because it appears ahead of competitors. Tweets inform all and sundry that the report is available first and the cycle starts again as writers wait for the next pronouncement from Redmond.

Poor editing oversight: It would be nice if editors reviewed the text of reports to weigh whether the content adds any value to the discussion, but most do not. Instead, editors want to see a certain amount of new content posted daily and they want that content to look good (in other words, it is nicely formatted and is accompanied by some attractive graphics). This, together with a salacious and often misleading headline is enough to keep an editor happy.

In the past, good editors would parse and interrogate copy provided by writers to hone the content into the best possible shape. Leading statements were struck down, bland assertions were eliminated, and the focus was on fact and analysis. The resulting articles were more informative, but they cost a lot more to produce and were slower to appear, something that didn’t matter so much in a world when monthly print publications were the norm in the technology world and the process was supported by lucrative print advertising. We’re clearly not going back to that world – my point is that quality is achievable if sufficient time is devoted to writing and editing.

Lack of technical knowledge and hands-on experience of the technology: Perhaps the biggest challenge facing those who write about Office 365 is their lack of hands-on knowledge of the technology. A good example is the article headlined “10 Steps for Ensuring a Smooth Migration from Exchange Server to Office 365“, which really doesn’t probe past the basics of approaching a migration. The author might have intended this to be the case, in which case they might have included the word “basic” in the title. However, as everything in the article has been recycled and regurgitated elsewhere multiple times, I suspect that a lack of experience is more the case as the article never demonstrated that the author had actually moved any mailboxes to Office 365.

If someone doesn’t understand a technology, it is terribly difficult to assess the importance of any development. You can accept Microsoft’s view of the matter, which is hardly unbiased, or you can seek advice and guidance from those who might know, which means that your report will be slower and the editor unhappy. The problem is compounded by the rapid development cycle used by the service and the speed in which features appear, are adjusted, and then made available in general release. Anyone who has followed the evolution of Office Delve or Office 365 Groups will appreciate the truth in this assessment.

Office 365 is not going to slow down anytime soon. Microsoft is not going to stop pumping out blogs and press releases to trumpet the release of new features. And writers are going to remain under pressure to report fast to help drive page views and increase ad revenue. No one is going to delay a report for an hour to allow for in-depth consideration of an announcement before deciding how best to communicate the news. Unfortunately it’s the kind of world in which we live today.

Apart from favoring sites where some degree of writing and editorial standards have been maintained (and there are a few). I’m not sure what can be done to improve matters. I doubt the problem sites will pay any attention to any protests that are made. After all, they have other things to be getting on with, such as pumping out more sub-standard articles.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna


About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
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