"I’d love if tech writing as a whole held itself to a higher standard:" What notable journalists are thinking about their craft

There’s an old expression that we get the politicians we deserve — ie if you don’t like it, don’t vote them into office. Over the past few months I’ve been wondering if the same is true of our tech news reporting. We say we want high quality investigative reporting and well-researched work but instead page views accrue to “articles as slideshows” and sites which do crappy republishing of press releases with little more thoughtfulness beyond sticking “what do you think” on to the end of a post.

I’m a bit of a journalism groupie myself – although my formal writer/editor years ended with grad school, good prose is an orgasmic thrill for me, and thus those who can, err, excite (?) me get a special place in my heart. Okay, let’s kill that visual and just say that I have great respect for the written word.

But who cares what I think – instead let’s ask some of the best tech reporters whether they think the public gets the journalism they deserve and whether they felt compelled to write to the interest of the masses. Or to try and get their readers to “care more” about less popular topics than the latest Apple rumor. Here are excerpts of our conversations:

Liz Gannes, AllThingsD
I generally write about what I want to read about. I always have a bajillion more posts in my head than I get out on the screen, but that’s an issue of limited hours in the day and unlimited distractions, not lack of audience. On the flip side, I am dismayed every day by the crap that people seem to find worthy of page views — uninformative infographics, sloppy reporting, gimmicky stories and the like. I’d love if tech writing as a whole held itself to a higher standard, and the readers rewarded that.

Quentin Hardy, The New York Times
There are topics which receive significant coverage, but are not being addressed in ways that I find particularly effective. That is, I think people may care about them, but they tend to fall back on familiar tropes and biases which prevent them from engaging with them successfully. “Care more” in this sense might be seen as “address differently.” [An example is] our national financial situation. Ideological biases, strengthened by a desire to avoid painful disruptions to the status quo, are preventing many people from addressing the choices we have made about revenues in and payments out. The complex tax code and the payments to social spending and the military are both treated as issues that can be addressed singly, or solved by adherence to one or another magical solution.

There are topics which are somewhat apparent in the news, but are bigger than people think. “Care more” in this sense might be seen as “address more.” [An example is] the way that technology has fundamentally undermined the nation state. Around the world, the state is failing to deliver on the fundamental promise that justifies its existence. The list of such nations — Somalia and much of Africa, the ‘stans, Mediterranean Europe, Mexico, are only the first that come to mind — are failing for reasons too diverse to find a single cause. I suspect that a new political form is evolving.

Jessi Hempel, Fortune

There are certain categories of stories that are challenging to sell to readers, for sure. The privacy story is great example. Privacy is a complex topic, but it’s hard to address that complexity and harder still to convince people to read those stories.

I also struggle with how to tell stories about people who are doing social admirable work in the world. I think readers would say they care a great deal about social issues—and often very interesting people are game to talk about the social issues they support. I think the work is worthy of coverage because it validates the work and offers examples to a broad audience of people who may build on it in their own work. But often these stories aren’t well read.

International stories rarely do well either. This has shifted in recent years with a growing focus on and interest in China particularly. But many of the most interesting international trends and companies go overlooked.

Also, anything related to infrastructure can be a hard sell. Why, for example, does New York City have such crappy airports? Why are they such a pain to get to? It’s a huge issue and it’s worthy of attention, but it’s hard to find an interesting way into a story like that for our audience.

Peter Kafka, AllThingsD
One of the many reasons that my job is awesome is that it’s one of the few places where you can get paid to produce stuff for the Web without having to worry about metrics. No one has ever told me not to write something because it won’t generate enough pageviews, etc.

But I *like* to pay attention to metrics, because I want to write about stuff that people find interesting. And if I write about stuff that people *aren’t* paying attention to, I want to know that, so I can either figure out how to get them to pay more attention, or think about what isn’t resonating with readers.

The “worthy v. popular” tension isn’t a product of the Internet, by the way — it has *always* been a part of mass media. The Web, and Web economics, just makes it more pronounced, immediate, and easy to identify.

Jason Kincaid, TechCrunch

There are a couple that come to mind. One is that I wish more people cared more about hot new startups. Obviously TC tries to feature a lot of them, but if you compare the traffic numbers, it’s very rare for a new startup launch to come close to the popularity of, say, a random Apple rumor (which I think are the lowest form of tech reporting, btw). If the traffic numbers were higher for startup posts, I think it would be good for everyone involved. That’s obviously sort of wishful thinking though — by definition these startups aren’t going to have nearly the same brand recognition as the tech giants.

As for privacy, I’m concerned about the ‘shrug-your-shoulders’ attitude people seem to have to successful hacking attempts, data leaks etc. that have led to millions of credit card numbers, addresses, and other personal info getting into the wrong hands. It seems to happen so often that people are becoming numb to it, and that worries me. The Playstation Network breach got a lot of attention in tech circles, but how many ‘regular’, non-gamers remember it? Or really cared in the first place?

I’ve always been anxious that there’s going to be some kind of massive data breach at Google, FB, or another large service provider that is going to completely screw over peoples’ lives (personal email exposed, etc).There isn’t much end-users can do to protect against that, but they’re not even taking the simple steps of safeguarding their information with strong passwords. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t any solutions coming in the immediate future for this (I think NFC-equipped phones will probably wind up being involved, but those are still a long way from ubiquity). Basically the safety of our online data stinks, and nobody cares half as much as they would if they heard some robbers had broken into their local bank and stolen a bunch of records.

Also (and this is sort of a tangent), I think that the focus on Apple news that drives the tech press these days is bad. If you want to get page views, you write about Apple: a new product, what Apple should do, how they’re better/worse than a competitor, etc. 

The huge amount of attention given to these topics makes some sense, because Apple is one of the world’s most valuable companies and fundamentally changed how a lot of people look at their phones. But Apple only releases a few new products and services every year — each of which has dozens or literally hundreds of articles written about it (not to mention the endless rumors). All of these stories get hashed and rehashed so many times that they get boring, and they take attention away from the exciting innovation that’s going on every week (like from startups!). Google/FB/etc. get a lot of coverage too, but they also ship more products.

Sarah Lacy, most recently TechCrunch and author of Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky
I see it as my challenge as a reporter and a writer to make someone care. To me, that is the art of journalism. Everyone can write about the sexy stuff and get page views, but when I can do it about seemingly dry subjects like funding terms or education or enterprise software or obscure companies halfway around the world then I’ve really done my job. And frequently, stories that fit into those categories have been my best read and most commented on. It certainly doesn’t happen all the time but I try not to value my work based on metrics like these. I look at them less than most bloggers. But again– I’m old school.

Om Malik, GigaOm
Om and I discussed journalism (and the business of news) over coffee and since it was a chat of a personal nature I’ll instead point to his own reflections on 10 years of blogging which touches on some of the topics we covered.

Reporter for international periodical who wants to remain anonymous
We can’t ignore what our readers want (AppleAppleApple, slideshows of fancy homes, tiger mom), but we also give them what we think they need (mistakes in European monetary/economic policy, proliferation of insider trading in the U.S., etc.) and that they’ll eventually be happy to read about that as well. That might mean pounding home the idea that there really isn’t much privacy online thanks to Facebook and many other cookie-loving tech/ad companies, or that the BP disaster didn’t just happen but was the result of a long series of blunders.

Those don’t always translate into tons of online clicks, but if we put them on the front page of our publication/site it means we think they’re pretty important.

I can’t recall how important the debt ceiling issue was to ordinary Americans, but it frustrated me to no end that people weren’t more outraged about the ineptitudes of politicians who were risking our economic stability for political gain.

I also think that the online privacy story is important not necessarily because people must know about the realities of the Web or that it’s some kind of threat to them, but that some companies holding private information haven’t been incredibly transparent about what they do and don’t have on all of us. In other words, their data collection practices aren’t evident unless we ask and ask and ask some more. And then the practices change without notice.

As for non-tech topics I think people don’t seem to care enough about, they’re more in the realm of politics/economics/education. I’m saddened there isn’t more outrage about the state of education in the U.S. or about income inequality (at least #OWS is getting some people to notice).

16 thoughts on “"I’d love if tech writing as a whole held itself to a higher standard:" What notable journalists are thinking about their craft

  1. That’s a very thought provoking and well written blog. Great posting.

    @ Jason from TC – it’s not that we don’t care about hot new tech startups. It’s that there are not really that many truly interesting “hot new startups”. Most of them turn out to be average uninteresting startups that are blowing the marketing whistle extra loud. That gets old after a while. A “genuinely hot new startup” – we care about.

  2. Very nice piece, thanks. I'm on my way out from tech writing and I'm honestly glad to get away from a lot of the stuff we've had to cover and formats we've had to use. I think as there is more pull away from free-content models, many of these flashy but unsubstantial reports will stop appearing.

  3. Interesting. As a tech journalist for the past decade, there are some problems with providing better coverage on the internet. First, this is a commercial proposition, requiring advertisers. Advertisers want to reach the largest audience. To get that larger audience, tech news sites concentrate on issues and topics of interest to readers, spending a bundle on metrics and other ways to measure an audience's preferences. Those preferences are not for the deep, well-researched pieces of journalism we tell surveyors we read, but short, brief popular topics. Do news sites concentrate on what earns money or go broke by offering news nobody reads?

  4. Great post.

    But having just gone through more layoffs at this news org, where web metrics unfortunately give management something to clutch onto as it searches for answers and direction as it no longer trusts instincts and experience, I'd better go repost a few poorly sourced Apple rumors culled from Techmeme to keep my page views up.

    Just want to be sure I'll still be around to do some real reporting if I ever find the time.

  5. Jason Kincaid wrote: “… I think that the focus on Apple news that drives the tech press these days is bad. If you want to get page views, you write about Apple: a new product, what Apple should do, how they're better/worse than a competitor, etc. “

    The bullshit from Techcrunch never ends. Here's a tip, Jason. If there are too many Apple stories, publish fewer of them.

    But you're not going to do that, are you. You learned a long time ago that the TECH internet is really the TECH HATE-O-SPHERE. It's all about the haters, and feeding them the raw meat they need to get the Apple hate out. That's where the clicks are, that's where the money is.

  6. Good journalism is a game of “hide the vegetables” which parents learn to play trying to feed their brats healthy food in spite of demands from said brats for sugar, sugar, and more sugar. The anonymous international journalist got at this a little bit. Good editors put what they think readers need to read in the midst of the garbage readers want to read (e.g. Apple stories). Some number of readers will ignore the healthy stories but many more will be intrigued and at least read a few paragraphs.

    The other issue with journalism is a distinct lack of rowdiness. When you're forced to get an MA in journalism to be taken seriously by big media outlets, and when said media outlets are part of a large massively boring chain of media outlets, it should be no surprise the journalism that results is extremely boring. Journalists need to get out more, start drinking and fooling around like the apparently did prior to the 1960s. And I'm only half joking.

    Oddly enough, I happened to be at the NY Times building last week, visiting a friend. I'd not seen the new building and was stunned the two-story newsroom had the feel of a library. Everybody was hushed and distinctly boring. No outbursts of laughter. All talking in low voices. It was way too serious. It seemed a rather good metaphor for the state of journalism these days.

    Metrics matter only in the way a mirror matters on your way out the door in the morning: you want to know your fly is zipped and your hair is somewhat neat. Journalism needs to go way beyond metrics to reflect reality, both as it is and what journalists and editors believe reality should be.

  7. as a working tech journalist, I must applaud @anonymous (one of them, anyway) for their suggestion that we need to spend more time getting out, fooling around and drinking. I intend to get started on that immediately.

    what Hunter and my colleagues didn't address however, is how many people are compensated on the web these days: by the pageview. it has become common for sites to hire freelancers to write stories for a little bit more than the cost of a happy meal at your local mcfat burgers and then offer an “incentive” for pageviews. that automatically drives out any attempt at “serious” journalism or tackling topics that are not Google friendly mainstream items that have at least a slight chance of scoring a link on Google News or Techmeme or Digg or Reddit or Slashdot so that maybe the freelancer can pay his rent this month (or buy another happy meal). that is driving the downward spiral of tech journalism as much as anything. it sucks.

    personally I am lucky in that I work for folks who still pay a living wage. I do not hold out much hope that they will continue to be able to do so indefinitely, however. not until people are willing to pay for their news content with more than just their eyeballs.

    and if you have any suggestions for how to escape this trap, I'd love to hear them.

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