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I Started Tech Reporting 20 Years Ago

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Sometimes I joke about working my way down from editor to reporter. In autumn 1993, I was employed by a now defunct general interest magazine, commissioning, editing, and processing stories—the whole gamut right through design and pagination. For five years a note hung over the light switch to my workspace: “What’s the point?” It’s the question I asked when reading every story, many of them from academics who never seemed capable of making a point or just getting to one.

My career path changed after reading “The Future is Now” by Kate McKenna in what was then called Washington Journalism Review. The lede cajoled: “The last time newspapers were this interested in new technology, they were looking for ways to keep the ink from rubbing off on their readers’ hands. Now they’re exploring how a newspaper can survive, even thrive, without ink—and maybe without paper”. She convinced me the Internet would irrevocably change publishing. 

LAN Party
Kate truly identified an emerging trend. In October 1993, there were no commercial web browsers yet. Mosaic 1.0 released a month later. Netscape Navigator 0.9 hit public servers a year after her story published. But I believed in the future she foreshadowed. In January 1994, a computer reseller friend built my first home PC, on which I learned how to use Windows 3.1. I would write about tech, which I knew almost nothing about.

I changed jobs just before my daughter’s birth in August `94, assuming editor’s role at a popular medical devices newsletter. I cut the position short six weeks after the manic, micromanaging publisher returned from abroad. As Thanksgiving approached, I desperately searched for a new job and found myself on a Friday afternoon inside the offices of Life Association News, which wanted to hire a tech reporter. Trade organization National Association of Life Underwriters published the monthly. Since then, both names have changed: National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and Advisor Today.

What I didn’t know that cold, autumn day: Mine was the obligatory last interview, and the decision had already been made to hire an earlier interviewee. Perhaps my desperation and honesty made an impression. The editor asked for a proposal of stories, which would launch the magazine’s tech coverage, and I spent the weekend preparing just that. On Monday, I arrived before the staff to hand-deliver the material. Action means something. The following day, after phoning my wife from the FDA offices in Rockville, Md., I learned that the editor called to offer me the job.

There is never enough thanks I can give to LAN editor Jeffrey Kosnett for hiring me and setting in motion my tech writing career 20 years ago this month. I have known few men as decent, fair, and responsible. He came to the magazine from Kiplinger’s, where he later returned and works today. Jeff is senior editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. I would later go on to work for Government Computer News, Computer Reseller News, CNET News, JupiterResearch, ZDE/eWeek, and BetaNews—all starting from a trade association seeking to guide its members on how to use tech to improve their life insurance and financial advisor practices.

Basics Matter
My beginning at LAN was humble. Many days, my learning curve kept just steps ahead of the insurance agents my monthly column, Technology Bytes, and feature stories advised. But somehow that process added authority to the advice, which was never wrong. If you follow the reporting, write what you know to be true, your stories will almost always reach the right destination. That is audience trust, and responsible reporting, as your compass.

Newspapers are hard-hit today by the online publishing phenom that Kate McKenna wrote about 21 years ago. But in my experience, news organizations steeped in journalistic traditions rooted in newspaper ethics steer the straightest course to audience trust, particularly by their sourcing practices. Jeff Kosnett, who once reported for the Baltimore Sun, is good example. To LAN writers, he imparted solid sourcing and reporting habits from his newspaper days mixed with experience crafting storytelling features from Kiplinger’s.

When joining CNET News in May 1999, I was one of very few writers who hadn’t worked at a newspaper. My magazine heritage brought longer, more analytical style to tech news reporting. But the newspaper way dominated newsroom ethics, where scoops mattered much, sourcing had to be impeccable, and editors merged traditional content practices to the new medium. For example, on the latter, the landing page refreshed at select times during the day and editors often packaged together related and breaking stories with separate hed, dek, and art.

Something many people may not remember: There were virtually no news-oriented blogs at the turn of the Century and very few mainstream news publications independently and regularly covered tech. CNET didn’t compete with rumormongering blogs like it does today. Comments? What were those? Readers emailed reporters. Social networks? There were no Facebooks or Twitters in 1999. MySpace only launched in 2003, same year I left CNET News. Meanwhile, the search-driven ad economy didn’t yet exist, with pressures to put Google before readers. CNET News brought rich, news-reporting tradition to the new online venue, because the staff steeped newspaper reporting ethics—and there was little competition to do anything less.

The tragedy today is how online news sites like CNET rely so much on contract bloggers and journalists, rather than just trusted staff, to produce content. Of course, CNET employs writers. I refer to a transcending trend seen there and elsewhere. The rise of news blogs is a separate crisis, which I first opined about four years ago: “The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism“. Then there is the Google free economy, which encourages aggregation; I assert it’s plagiarism, which contributes to a content glut of similar stories and reduces even more the value of limited advertising—limited because there is more ad space than can be filled.

Trust Whom?
As I look to my 21st year covering technology, I sigh and lament. The sector is the poster child of bad journalism. A year ago, I exchanged emails with Clyde Bentley, who is a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He was in the process of conducting a study specifically about sourcing in tech reporting. He didn’t respond to later queries as I wrote ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. Professors are busy, and I should be least of priorities behind students and research. But I do wonder what he uncovered, because my analysis is a news sector in chaos. I will update the book soon after the turn of the year and will reach out to him again beforehand.

There is little tech news I honestly trust looking into 2015. Original sourcing is dividing line for what isn’t trustworthy and what might be. Even then, as the separation between church and state blurs—e.g. advertising and editorial—and more non-staff writers contribute content, there is less clarity and transparency about what is curated news and what is advocacy or promotional content. Readers often can’t tell the difference because publishers make little or no distinction between this or that.

Whom do I trust? No one. But there are tech news organizations I trust more than less, and most of my tech news comes from RSS feeds or social networks. Stinkers: I rarely read anything at Business Insider or Huffington Post, on principal, and because there is so much content clutter and the mixing of sponsored posts with editorial content. That’s tech or any other news.

I keep Gizmodo in my feeds because the headlines make me laugh, but too much content isn’t tech-related and clearly is linkbait/Google-search evergreen. Recent examples: “Here’s how stunning the night sky looks if there were no lights”; “How delicious bourbon whiskey is made”; “This is what it looks like to build a new subway”. Like Giz, I keep Engadget, GigOM, and The Verge, among others, in my feeds, for the occasional gems. But I rarely go to the websites directly.

CNET News reporting is largely still good, but stories often are boring. Objective reporting shouldn’t be absent voice. Matt Taibbi, who contributes to Rolling Stone, writes with authority and panache, and he is the model many younger online writers should follow  for originality, storytelling, sourcing, style, and snark!

ArsTechnica delivers dynamic news analysis and some startling investigative journalism. TechCrunch, for all the conflict-of-interest gripes, is quick on the draw and largely right on the target. The news analyses and commentaries, like Ars, are some of the best anywhere. ReadWrite (now without the Web) and Mashable are credible. RW is too geek for me, while Mashable delivers one of the most appealing layouts with catchy headlines on meanginful merits. Who could resist “This ‘Hallelujah’ cover is a gift from the a cappella gods above” or “White people confess their unpunished crimes with #CrimingWhileWhite“, both of which have high share counts.

I only looked at recode, because of this post. The landing page is just awful. It’s cluttered to the max, obscuring much of the good reporting lurking behind the links. Most of the stories don’t personally interest me. I don’t care that “Former Hulu CEO Andy Forssell Takes Over at Showyou”, “Dropbox Hires HR Head From Google”, or “Wired’s Honan Hired to Run New BuzzFeed SV Bureau”. Yeah whatever, I’m not that interested in these people or Silicon Valley news, which TechCrunch also overdoes for my tastes.

Like BI and Huff, I don’t dignify PandoDaily with a link, in part because editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy put aside any sense of responsible journalism in pursuit of Uber. Pando is top of my distrust list based on the two principals’ recent reinvention of facts about alleged Uber threats. Disgraceful. Irresponsible. BGR also is on my shit list. The Boy Genius has lost its smarts, pumping out rumors and aggregated posts where once there were frequent, legit scoops. BGR is a content factory now.

The Register consistently has the wittiest headlines and deks, and the stories behind them. Today’s perky example: “Google is Coming for Your Children” with dek “Plug them in, say goodbye”. Meanwhile The Guardian‘s tech reporting is among the best sourced and most reliable anywhere. These two, both in the United Kingdom, top my trust list.

In addition, I monitor many niche blogs on Apple and photography, for example, or individual bloggers. Often the best news news comes via social network posts. Strange, eh? The rule is: Trust no one and so be well-read.

Now What?
My profession’s assessment is grim and leaves me wondering what I should do next. Tech journalism is in a sorry state of ill-repair. I am due for a change, so ponder. My role at BetaNews is more for exposure than pay, but more money would be welcome. I don’t earn like I did before the econolypse started last decade.

But age is a consideration, particularly when youth is associated with online content (think cheap bloggers who can work long hours) and technology (who consumes it).

The day before Thanksgiving, my wife and I took her dad, who turns 93 next week, to Denny’s for holiday lunch. The back cover of the menu startled, reading that I now qualify for seniors pricing. Yikes! Where did 20 years go?

I chuckle sometimes in retail shops, when the clerks presume ignorance about email receipts, social networks, and the such. I’ve been on the—what we use to call—Internet Information Superhighway longer than most of them have been alive; longer on Facebook, Twitter, and God knows what else, too. Hell, not only is my original Yahoo handle intact, it’s just three letters!

Old tech journalists like myself aren’t valued in the rush to post rumors (or news) first and check the accuracy later. Yet we bring deep institutional knowledge that adds context to the changes taking place right here, right now. Most seasoned, responsible reporters I know aren’t even employed any more. They freelance or work on contract.

As the new year approaches, change fills my mind. Audience, and rebuilding it, is front of my mind. Where? By what means? Perhaps in 2015, I must look to the future, like I did in 1993.

I am ready to move on to something else. If you’re hiring and don’t mind taking on a 55 year-old tech journalist, with much broader skills (just let me show you), please contact me,  Or if you’ve got a suggestion (can we not troll, please), or are looking to back some project, I am intently listening.

I don’t even need continue this career path. Good reporters, vibrant storytellers can produce content about anything. But for good or bad, this month I join the 20-year club of tech reporting, and I’m not even a geek. Rather, I shifted with the winds and lifted my sails to them.

To my long-term readers, thank-you. You’re the best part of this journey.

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