Reporting on technology topics - especially Internet technology - poses problems for newspaper and magazine editors. The editor has to ensure the journalist has pitched the technical information at the right level for the audience - should every acronym and concept be explained, or can we assume that the reader knows the basics of CompactFlash, SCSI and public key encryption?
But the bigger challenge for editors these days seems to be sourcing suitable artwork to accompany the words. It's especially hard for the editors of the computer sections of newspapers, partly because of the pressures of daily deadlines, but mainly because of the difficulty of matching artwork and some fairly esoteric topics.
For example, just what picture would you choose to go with an article about bandwidth?
You're going to need a picture "about bandwidth". Maybe you've interviewed the CEO of a telecommunications company for the article, so you could drop in a picture of said CEO. The problem is that readers get tired of the standard issue, head-and-shoulders shot of a suit. Don't take offence, fellow suit-wearers - we just all look the same after a while.
You could try using a nice colourful picture of fibre-optic cable, splayed into its light-filled strands. It's bright and suitably high-tech. You might even have a shot like this in the photo files, so you wouldn't have to pay a picture library for the rights to use it, but that ol' splayed fibre-optic cable shot is fading from over-use. You'll need something less clichéd, something to grab the reader's attention.
It is at this stage that someone in the creative process looks at the text of the article and picks out a word or two. "Pipe!" someone says. "This article mentions bandwidth pipes - let's get a picture of a pipe!"
And so it is, faced with a killer deadline and a big space on the page that has to be filled with something, that an article about Internet bandwidth is published with a picture of a toilet S-bend disappearing into a bathroom floor. Hey, it's a pipe after all.
Does this sound far-fetched? I invented this scenario but, drawing from my collection of bizarre images to illustrate IT journalism (hey, everybody needs a hobby), let's see if you can pick the image chosen to illustrate the following real articles from the IT section of a certain Sydney broadsheet:
"Book sellers prepare to take on the Amazon" - local Internet retailers TheSpot, Flying Pig and dstore plan to compete with Amazon.com to sell books over the Net. Choose your picture from: the interior of a bookstore; a person sitting at a computer, ordering books online; a policeman with a rifle escorting a herd of pigs along a footpath.
"Austar extends its offer for eisa again" - the pay TV and Internet group extends its take-over offer for eisa by seven days. Choose your picture from: a small satellite dish hooked up for pay TV; investors watching the share price board at the Australian Stock Exchange; a group of soccer players stretching their hamstrings before a game.
"Peer-to-peer makes a splash" - inspired by the Napster MP3-sharing service, interest in peer-to-peer networking is growing. Choose your picture from: a cable connecting two PCs; a teenager listening to music from a portable MP3 player; the aftermath of a fire on the pier at Manly, NSW.
"Cut and paste" - a review of Web sites about cosmetic surgery. Choose your picture from: a screen picture taken from one of the Web sites; a patient before and after a nose job; a meat cleaver lying beside a couple of sliced Italian sausages, with the caption "Having your genitals sliced and diced is neither an easy decision nor a straightforward process."
You win a cigar if you picked the third option every time.
Maybe it's a game the editor plays, sort of like a cryptic crossword, where you have to guess the association between article and image.
Or maybe it's an IT version of the game some copy-editors play, whereby they agree to slip a "word of the week" into headings and captions, regardless of their subject matter.
Either way, images of hamstrings, pigs and sliced snags add some mystery to the task of reading about yet another dot-com IPO or the latest and greatest in router technology.