Evelyn Richards was one of the first journalists to cover Silicon Valley: in the early 1980s she worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, and as a stringer for the New York Times. She began covering Apple in 1980, and continued to write about the company as it released the Lisa and Macintosh. In the weeks before the official unveiling of the Macintosh, Richards was one of many reporters who tried to break through the company's firewalls of publicity and confidential sneak previews to learn about the new computer. As a result of her efforts, days before the launch, the Mercury News ran a front-page story by Richards on the Macintosh.
Richards is now an editor at the San Jose Mercury News.
The interview was conducted by Wendy Marinaccio at the San Jose Mercury News offices, on 17 May 2000. The interview was transcribed and edited by Alex Pang, and reviewed by Evelyn Richards. A final transcript was produced on 10 July 2000.
The original recording (a cassette tape, with an interview of John Markoff on side B) has been deposited with Stanford University Library's Department of Special Collections.
The transcript has been broken up into several pages, each of which deals with a particular subject. A full transcript is also available that contains the same content, but presents it on a single page.
Marinaccio: Let's begin with what you were covering in the early 1980s, how you got involved in the Apple launch, and what you covered since then
Richards: In the early 1980s I was one of maybe two or three reporters covering technology at the Mercury News. My beat was computers.
So Apple was one of the companies on my beat, and I had actually covered Apple earlier in my previous job at another paper, and I had written about their IPO, when they first went public. In about 1984, we started the Sunday computing section at the Mercury, and I was the first editor of it.
Marinaccio: Can you explain what the field of high-tech journalism was like then?
Richards: Well, it wasn't very high-profile. It was just like covering any other industry-- steel, or automobiles. Actually, it wasn't even as prominent as automobiles. It wasn't an industry that made the front pages, or had any household names in it. In the early 1980s, the New York Times didn't even have a technology reporter out here. I was a stringer for the Times here in 1981.
Marinaccio: Whereas today, that's very different.
Marinaccio: How did Apple deal with the press?
Richards: Mac was clearly very orchestrated. I think you're onto something in saying that it was really a landmark in event marketing and press relations. They certainly tried to hype up the publicity. Through conscious or unconscious leaks to the trade press, they got the press interested in Macintosh. The Lisa had already been out. So the people who cared about it-- which was a small group-- had an idea that there really could be some easy-to-use computer.
And I would say with the idea of the sneak previews, they were really able to drum up interest. In terms of the press coverage there were just little things here and there in the trade journals, as I recall it, little leaks about Apple's machine that's being made in this different building under Steve Jobs. There wasn't very much material about the Mac in the general press as I recall.
Marinaccio: I'm interested in how Apple dealt with the press before the introduction of the Mac, and whether their dealings with the press were more polished, and how that affected you as a journalist.
Richards: With the sneak preview, they really took product introductions to a new level, by really trying to get hype, trying to get exclusive coverage in national magazines, giving exclusive interviews, playing up the personality of Steve Jobs. And by using all the hyperbole he used about a computer for the masses-- talking about a bicycle for the mind, being like a telephone for your house, and so on.
So I would say in the high-tech industry it was a turning point in trying to market for the masses, trying to market technology in a consumer way, and trying to get the press hyped up about it.
Marinaccio: How did other high-tech companies deal with the press?
Richards: Most product announcements were very techie: they focused on bits and bytes and the operating system, and how many megabits of memory a machine had. Their press releases were pretty unreadable. There were huge trade shows like the National Computer Conference. It's like what Comdex is now. It was just industry insiders; it wasn't really consumer-focused. There were of course consumer companies like Commodore and Atari, but somehow Apple managed to create this panache around themselves.
Marinaccio: So how did these companies that had been doing very techie introductions change after the Mac introduction?
Richards: I think everybody went to the sneak preview idea, and to the idea that you would give certain press preferences. You really want to get it in Time magazine, or in Fortune, so you give them a preview a month ahead of time, while everybody else gets two weeks, or one week. There were also the embargoes. But it was really only the companies with money, like IBM and Apple, that could stage big events. It wasn't like every company could do this. From the press point of view, it got really complicated with all these sneak previews. Our position was not to participate in them.
Marinaccio: You mean the embargo process?
Richards: Yes, the embargoes. It just ties your hands too much. So I don't know what our policy is today, but at that time we did have discussions about what to do. In most cases we decided not to participate until right before the release date. That was our policy.
We did finally attend a sneak, a day or two before the introduction. The sneak we went to was a newspaper one: it was for all the dailies who didn't want to be hamstrung. Newspapers don't want to be hamstrung by an embargo. So the Examiner, the Chronicle, the Mercury, and a couple other papers, all went. Steve Jobs did the talking, and made the presentation. It was in a small room, so it was intimate. He was polished, and all the metaphors like "bicycle for the mind" just rolled off his tongue. Sure, he'd said it 50 million times. But for people in the press, it was exciting to be able to talk essentially one-on-one with him.
Apple got an incredible amount of publicity out of this whole thing. It really worked for them. Across the board, there were huge articles in major publications. I assume that they felt it was a success. We clearly were elements in a hype process, manipulated by the company.
Marinaccio: Is that what it's like today?
Richards: Yes, now, that's just the way it is. But since I don't cover that, I don't know if there are more leaks, or fewer leaks. There was also the issue of leaks at the time. At some point, Apple made it very clear to their employees that if they said anything that they weren't supposed to-- which was basically nothing-- they would get in trouble. I don't know if that was in place at the time of the Mac intro, or later, when it became clear that the press was always trying to find information about Apple.
Marinaccio: How did you feel about Apple's relationship with the press, and the use of the sneaks and the extensive press kits?
Richards: Well, even through we knew we were being manipulated, we tried to minimize that as best we could, by not agreeing to go to an early sneak, and trying to find out as much as we could on our own, without relying on official press kits. So that's what we did. And that's what everybody was doing.
But Apple had it so hyped that the last couple of weeks before the introduction everybody was writing their guesses about the machine. If you look at the press then, everyone was spelling "Macintosh" differently: nobody knew how it was going to be spelled, because nobody had seen any of the official documents. So it was spelled with "Mc" and a capital "I" [McIntosh], or "Mac" and a capital "I" [MacIntosh], or with a space [Mac Intosh]. The whole press was full of rumors.
Marinaccio: So you were all quite aware of the hype.
Richards: Absolutely. But nobody had really perfect sources because nothing was exactly right-- until our story came out.
Marinaccio: I know this is very broad, but can you talk about some ways in which the Macintosh intro might have contributed to long-term changes in high-tech journalism?
Richards: I would say that the whole Mac thing, especially the 1984 ad, definitely had an impact on high-tech marketing: more companies used sneaks, tried to create a more consumer-oriented focus to their marketing, and favored some publications over others. Apple used to always favor Fortune and Newsweek when they wanted to give exclusives.
Marinaccio: [feigned shock] Not the Mercury News?
Richards: Well, among magazines-- They were really more attuned to magazines much more than other tech companies, because magazines can reach a mass market. I don't think any tech company, except for IBM, with the IBM personal computer in 1981, matched them. Steve Jobs got on the cover of Time right around then.
So it seemed to me they really perfected working with publications. I assume-- although I really have no idea-- that they had a larger PR staff; they also had Regis McKenna as an outside agency. So it was a very professional PR operation overall, in terms of keeping in touch with a lot of media, getting in touch with magazines, traveling back East to introduce their executives, and meeting with the top people at the publications.
Marinaccio: How did Apple present that technical information?
Richards: They did a really layered approach. The press kit was all really well-packaged. There was the press release for the non-techie people, that just talked about how wonderful Macintosh was and how it was going to change the world. Then there were techier press releases, where they talked about the RAM, or the keyboard, or other things.
As I recall, they were were one of the first companies to heavily market the relationship with applications developers. They had applications developers on board early, so they could say at the time of the launch that they had all these companies lined up to create spreadsheets, and games, and other things. Plus, they came out with their own software for the Mac at the same time.
So the way they handled the press kit was all dissected like that. Here's all the developer stuff, if you want to know about that; here's the techie stuff, here's the general press release. It was really easily digestible, and easy to use by the press. Lots of great photos, professionally done. Now all that is standard.
I went to the IBM PC Jr introduction in 1983, and that was also well-packaged, with a very complete press kit, and very professionally done. IBM at the time was-- well, there was no other company like IBM. So to have a small upstart company match that was remarkable. And now that's expected of smaller companies as well.
Marinaccio: So things have changed in high-tech journalism since 1984. Did the changes come quickly?
Richards: Yeah, in some sense that campaign was a watershed, and after that everybody else had to match the hype. Of course Apple kept doing that, with every new product introduction. They persisted, and I think they raised the standards, and the expectations. Everything is that way now. It's very manipulative.
Marinaccio: You have a Mac?
Richards: Yes-- I thought it was very neat, so I went out and bought one. They were absolutely right-on in saying it was easiest computer to use. Their marketing was accurate in a lot of ways.