How to get from apps development to writing for one of the best-known blogs about Apple? How works international team located over several continents? Who could replace Tim Cook? Our second interview with foreign speaker – John Voorhees, editor of MacStories.net and a passionate podcaster.
John, from 2015 you are acting as an editor at MacStories.net. How did you get in touch with Federico Viticci, founder of MacStories from Italy, in the first place?
Apple has an affiliate program that pays a commission on every sale generated from links to apps, music, movies, and all the other digital media it sells. I built an iOS app called Blink that takes iTunes URLs and converts them into those affiliate links. It’s an app that is used by many writers including the team at MacStories.
Federico beta tested Blink so we knew each other from that, though not well. Initial sales of Blink were strong, but as with many apps, they dwindled after that. I was looking for a way to increase awareness of Apple’s affiliate program as a way to help drive sales of Blink.
I decided to write a guide to the affiliate program and was looking for a place to publish it that would get the most exposure. I was explaining this to Myke Hurley who suggested I pitch the story to Federico. I was skeptical that Federico would be interested, but Myke knew him better than me at the time, so I emailed Federico describing what I had in mind. He agreed to publish the article, which came out in late 2015.
After the article was out, Federico asked me if I’d like to write more for MacStories. I said yes, and my role at the site has expanded over time since then.
How difficult is to run an „american blog“ (because it is in English) as your colleague is from totally different timezone than you? How often do you meet in person anyway?
Thanks to technology, the distance that separates everyone on the MacStories team doesn’t create many difficulties. We use Slack, which works well to coordinate coverage on the site and our other projects. Also, Federico is seven time zones ahead of me, but his work hours are closer to an East Coast US schedule than they are to Rome, and I tend to start my day early so our schedules are typically only off by 1-2 hours.
WWDC is the only time each year that Federico and I can count on seeing each other, although the past couple of years we’ve seen each other more. For example, last year I was vacationing in Rome and we got together, and Federico spoke at the Release Notes conference in Chicago where I live, so we saw each other three times. There is definitely a benefit to getting together in person, but unfortunately, distance, time, and cost limits how often that happens.
Are there any services, tools or apps that you can not imagine your worklife without anymore? For writing, communication or for your team work?
Slack and Trello play a large role in coordinating among the MacStories team members. Anytime more than one person is involved in a conversation, Slack is the best way to communicate. We also use a custom Slack bot to assign and track news coverage on MacStories.
Trello gets used heavily every week to organize each of our Club MacStories newsletters and is integrated with Workflow to keep on top of each issue. We also turn to Trello during the busiest times of the year such as when updates to Apple’s OSes are released to organize and balance who is covering what.
For writing, I rely primarily on Ulysses. The best part about Ulysses is the incredible power hidden just below the surface of its simple interface. I also use my app, Blink, to generate affiliate links that appear in articles I write.
For podcasting, I use several different tools. Skype and Audio Hijack to record, Adobe Audition and iZotope RX to process audio, and Logic and Forecast to edit. I tried a lot of different tools after we began AppStories, but over time have found these to be the best for the way I edit the show.
Besides writing you are also a developer. Who was first: John the writer, or John the developer?
John the developer came first. I released Blink in the spring of 2015 about nine months before I started working with the MacStories team. Blink is still being developed, but primarily by my son Owen now. I still work on development of the feature set, marketing, and other business aspects of the app, but Owen is the lead developer, which works out well because he’s a better developer than I am and I don’t have as much time to work on the app these days.
You are behind a Blink: Better Affiliate Links app. I suppose that this app was made mainly for your personal/work needs, is that right? How does the app do in terms of sales?
At the time I built Blink, I didn’t have nearly the use for it that I do now, but I had many writer friends who did, which is why I built it. Sales followed the typical iOS spike followed by a rapid decline in sales.
Users seem to like Blink a lot, but the number of people who use the iTunes affiliate program and write on iOS is limited, which in turn limits sales. Now that I write at MacStories, I build the app primarily for myself and our team, and I view any revenue I earn as a nice bonus.
I’m excited about Blink right now because next month, we are launching a big update to the iOS app along with a Mac version. The Mac version will do everything the iOS version does along with some other new features, and affiliate and campaign tokens will sync across both platforms.
How many apps do you currently have installed on your iPhone?
Thanks to Federico on AppStories, I’m notorious for having hundreds of apps on my iPhone. The number has been over 500 at times, but I’ve been weeding them out lately, so I’m down to 322. I may get it below 300, but once it feels less cluttered, I’ll probably just stop there.
What type of an user are you: the one that is using the same set of fundamental/important apps long term, or are you constantly changing your apps and trying new things?
I’m a little of both. I’m always trying new apps because that’s at the heart of what we cover on MacStories. I’m also willing to switch away from a long-standing app at any time if something better comes along. There’s an advantage in the familiarity of an app you’ve used for a long time, but I’d rather go through a learning process with a new app that promises to provide greater benefits in the long term. I also tend to try new apps more frequently when the workflow at MacStories slows down a little. With my summer travels coming to an end, I’m currently looking at which apps I’d like to revisit and searching for new ones to try.
Is this behaviour any different on iOS and macOS in your case?
No, I am comfortable experimenting with new apps on either platform. The volume of new iOS apps is heavier though, so I try new apps there more often.
What about you and iPad-only life? Are you in a similar position as your colleague Federico, or are you still using a Mac?
No, I still use a Mac. There’s a lot of good reasons to pick one platform over another, but I enjoy using both, so I do. Also, there are certain tasks I do each week that can’t be done or would be harder on an iPad.
For example, I use MailChimp’s web app to assemble the Club MacStories newsletters, and it doesn’t work reliably on iOS. Also, I find podcast audio production to be much easier on the Mac. Part of that is because I’ve invested a lot of time into learning the toolchain I use, but iOS’s handling of audio also requires more hoops to be jumped through to record and edit audio on an iOS device.
On MacStories, you dedicate a lot of time for app’s reviews. Quite often to that extent that it is more of a book review then a blog post in terms of words written. What is your goal here? Why are your reviews many times so in depth even though the app looks pretty simple at first sight?
I don’t set out to hit a particular length when I start a review and they do vary quite a bit. What readers come to MacStories for though is comprehensive, thorough coverage. The App Store doesn’t permit developers to provide free trials in the way they have traditionally been available in the software industry, so our reviews are a substitute for that for many of our readers.
We want readers to understand not only what an app can do, but its limitations, any pain points, and most importantly, what it’s like to use the app. That last point is probably the most important. We could list all the features for readers, but they can get those from the App Store. What we try to do is provide a sense of what an app is like to use and our personal opinion of it.
Your focus on apps even lead to a birth of a new podcast called AppStories last year. How is that thing going?
Federico and I created AppStories to complement MacStories. On the one hand, we are a small team and writing often takes more time than podcasting, so AppStories is a way to cover more in the limited time we each have. On the other hand though, AppStories goes beyond much of our typical coverage on MacStories to tell the stories behind the apps and discuss their cultural impact.
We’ve been recording AppStories for a little over a year and have been very happy with the response. We’ve been doing interviews with developers and others in the Apple community about once each month, but for the App Store’s tenth anniversary, we released a series of six interview episodes chronicling the history of the App Store. That series has been well received too.
I think the key to the show’s success has been that we try to keep it to 30 minutes. Federico and I could get on Skype and talk about apps for hours each week, but keeping it short, makes it easier for listeners to add to their listening queue and forces us to focus on a carefully thought-out topic.
As we are talking about podcasts and other projects around MacStories, we have to also mention monetization because it is a complicated yet important topic for all media projects. You are running a paid subscription on MacStories with a weekly and monthly newsletters based on exclusive content. But could your podcasts be another possible way how to make money?
AppStories has earned revenue from the start of the show through sponsorships. Although I know some shows are listener-supported, I believe sponsorships are still the better alternative for most podcasts, which is why we have gone that route.
As far as MacStories goes, we do not run display ads. Instead, we have an exclusive weekly sponsorship that respects the reading experience on the site. We also offer a subscription to Club MacStories that has additional content that goes beyond our coverage on MacStories. Members receive weekly and monthly newsletters, plus other perks throughout the year. It’s a way for the biggest fans of the site to get more of what they like the most about MacStories.
Are you devoting your time to any other project than MacStories right now?
We just finished our week-long coverage of the App Store’s tenth anniversary, which was a big success and lots of fun to put together. Next up, is the fall OS release cycle. In addition to reviews of each OS, we will have reviews of a bunch of new and updated apps that take advantage of the features of the OS updates.
You’ve attended WWDC in San Jose this year. How many times have you already been to WWDC? What does WWDC mean to you?
I have been to every WWDC since 2013. Over those years, it’s become the most important week of the year. It’s where I first got to know many of the people I work with now and the place many projects like AppStories have their origin. It has also become an important week for keeping in touch with the developers whose work we cover and meeting with prospective sponsors for MacStories and AppStories. Most importantly though, WWDC is the one time each year that I have a good shot at seeing many of my friends who are scattered all over the world.
If you should briefly evaluate the Tim Cook’s regime at Apple, eg. in terms of products you love or use, how that would sound?
When you pull back and take a look at what Apple looks like today compared to what it was like when Steve Jobs passed away, you see two very different companies. The growth of Apple has been so dramatic over that period that it’s hard to grasp. There have certainly been growing pains and missteps along the way, but I think Cook has done an excellent job. Macs aren’t where I’d like them to be, but it looks like they may be turning a corner, the Apple Watch is dominating the wearables market, and the iPhone is still going strong to name use a few products. Apple’s size is probably the thing that concerns me the most because the way the company succeeded in the past may no longer be feasible at its current size.
Last and hypothetical question: if you would have a chance to choose Tim Cook’s successor at Apple, would it be someone who is already inside the company or would it be someone completely different?
It would definitely be someone from inside Apple. I don’t know who, but I think one of the keys to Apple’s success has been its strong identity and internal culture. It would be hard to preserve that culture by bringing someone in from the outside that hasn’t lived it for a substantial period.
John is an editor at MacStories.net, co-hosts AppStories, a weekly podcast exploring the world of apps, and handles sponsorship sales for MacStories and AppStories. John is also the creator of Blink, an iOS affiliate linking app for the iTunes Affiliate Program.