What’s Wrong With Tech Folks Who Attack The Tech Media. And What’s Wrong With Tech Media Today.

Lots of mutual bad faith. Reporters I respect indulging themselves in screenshotting and quote dunking tech folks, performative for their tribe. Executives, investors and other prominent SV personalities believing they’re Martin Luther tacking 95 tweets to the doors of establishment media shouting down supposed hypocrisy and calling out errors. I’m a tech industry bro who also is a journalism fanboy, and the above just makes me sad. So let’s do this and get both sides mad at me….

My friends in the tech industry, here are things you do/say about the media that I believe you should rethink:

  1. Not all critics are “haters” and please stop adopting the language of our President to deride reporting. Fake news, online hit job, MSM, a takedown — these glib characterizations (even if you believe them to be true) bring so much nonsense and baggage along with them. Read the negative coverage and decide what’s legit, what’s a misunderstanding and what you want to reject/ignore. Then just move on.
  2. You are not as much of an underdog as you think you are. Over the course of my career in technology, we’ve moved as an industry from scrappy underdog to dominant incumbent. Industrial capitalism has given way to technology capitalism. The largest public companies are tech-related. Many of our skills are in deep demand from labor markets. I know – especially at a young startup – it can feel tenuous and risky, but compared to almost any other industry, in every other geography, we are structurally empowered right now. And we – as an industry – have continued to build some wonderful stuff, but we’ve also had examples of fumbling the football with regards to appropriately understanding and prioritizing the secondary impacts of the work we do. And of looking at the culture of our own workplaces and building spaces that can be healthy and inclusive. So just as you think the media is “punching down” when they critique us, they generally see it as “punching up” and hold power accountable. Sometimes they fuck this up – don’t worry, I’m going to yell at them in a bit too – but you’re not some precious hothouse flower which needs protection, so spare me the “man in the arena” quotes.
  3. You want to content market yourself but then think follow-up questions from the press are not worthy of response? The media isn’t looking at your github pull requests and asking glib questions. They’re reading your blog posts, your tweets, your podcast transcripts. If every individual, VC firm, startup is using these platforms to build their brand and puff their chests out, please spare me the indignation when reporters want to ask you for comment. It doesn’t mean you have to respond – no one owes anyone this – but realize that when you put yourself out there for purposes of self-promotion (and it’s all self-promotion – me included!) that you are inviting a magnifying glass.
  4. Pay for media. You care about reporting? Make sure you are paying for it. Even if it’s not perfect. You think there’s truly a market for “unbiased evidence-based reporting?” Write a $100,000 check to a reporter and let them try to do it. Put some skin in the game if you want to critique journalism.

Ok, my reporter friends. Here are specific things that some of you – or your industry colleagues – do that I believe undermine your credibility in specific instances.

  1. Red Team” yourself into a biased corner. A reporter I know told me that their job is only to Red Team vs tech. I felt sad for them. It’s not that a reporter’s job is to write “both sides” of the story, or to balance their negative coverage with positive stories, but I do fear that over time this type of newsroom (and culture) narrows its perspective. And also applies the same level of Red Teaming outrage equally to very different circumstances. For example, highlighting a young individual who made a stupid tweet or blog post vs truly speaking truth to power.
  2. Overgrant anonymity, especially to direct quotes. I’ve written “you can always find an anonymous former employee to trash the founder.” There’s a school of thought in some journalism circles that anonymity is a precious privilege to be given out only when the information being secured is so important to public good, and the person doing the speaking is putting themselves in such a compromising position, that it’s worth robbing the reader of their ability to judge the information in context of who is saying it. This is the school I subscribe to. Every day I read articles which give full anonymity to almost anyone while also do direct quoting of what they said. “We wouldn’t get the good quote otherwise” some reputable reporters tell me. Well you know what, then maybe don’t get the good quote. If you want to grant anonymity, don’t use direct quotes. And if you must, at least provide context. “…said ex-employee” is meaningless – was this a VP there for eight years with intimate knowledge of the situation? Or a low level individual contributor there for two months and now talking out of their ass? Reporters want to say “well, you need to trust us on this sourcing” but I’m sorry, that’s a lot to give over for 95% of issues. If you can’t get people on the record, maybe it’s not a story. If you can only get a handful of low level people to comment anonymously about a 50,000 person company, maybe it’s not yet a story. Do more work.
  3. Blame the media business model or editor for your content or the headline. “We’d love to do more [longform; sourcing; data gathering; fact-based headlines] but [my editor, the social team, the business model] doesn’t allow us to.” I’ve heard enough variations of this from enough good reporters. And I feel for them. But please, some accountability. I’m sorry if these pressures are putting constraints on how you want to do your job, but you need to own it. And try to change it. Just as you might ask tech workers to not be part of companies or systems which compromise their values, I ask you to consider the same.

So what to do? The tech industry needs to understand that a challenging press is important component of society. And some in the tech press have developed a number of habits/assumptions which I believe weaken their own impact. And I generally wish more reporters could experience the other side of the table – Jessica Lessin’s observations as she went from newsroom to startup have always struck me as the type of self-reflection that I wish we could make more common. Maybe I can figure out how to let a journalist embed in Homebrew for a week….

2/16: Besides some good Twitter chat, two people wrote longerform about this topic: TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm’s “Tech, media and what journalism is for” and Chris Anderson’s “The problem with tech media is not that they don’t understand tech. It’s that they don’t understand business.”

2/17: Another good addition from Toni Cowan-Brown called Tech vs. Media: A Simple Solution, But A Difficult Path.

2/20: MG, who has actually been on both sides, writes Both Sides.