We need a new model for tech journalism

Photo: Howard Lake

A lowly tech employee was trying to do some simple task online and found out it was really hard. Inspired by that difficulty, he—and it was almost always a he—used his spare time to build a better way to do it, and then were amazed at how quickly it took off. So he quit his job, set up in his parents’ garage, and watched as the business took off to be worth hundreds of millions.

This is the clichéd narrative that characterized tech coverage in the 1990s: light, generally upbeat, and generally something to counterbalance the “serious” news of the day. Over time, the personal hero narrative begat the corporate hero one, usually in the form of the upstart taking on the establishment. In 1999, an Ad Age piece on Pets.com opened with how the retailer was “taking its branded Sock Puppet to the Super Bowl, drawing the line in the kitty litter that it means to be the toughest competitor on the block in 2000”—just months before the site became one of the highest-profile victims of the dot-com crash.

A few of the companies would not only become the establishment, but their products and people would cross tech into pop-culture stardom. CNN’s coverage of the first iPhone launch talked about how “iPhone mania was in full bloom,” while engadget ran a worldwide live blog from lines outside Apple Stores. This soap-bubble light coverage would then trickle it into the final five minutes of the TV newscast, geared toward consumers and tech fans. (“They’ve been queuing around the block since 4pm yesterday for an event that doesn’t begin until 10 today, but it’s not a pop star or celebrity they’re waiting for—it’s a new phone!”)

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These narratives, of course, were either not true or were incomplete: Dot-com founders who built multi-billion dollar businesses did not to wander into anything by accident—not even Mark Zuckerberg. These origin myths scrubbed out the edging out of co-founders, the legal disputes, the early fight for venture capital, and the deliberate efforts to circumvent existing laws and controls for the potential of bumper profits.

 

It’s easy to see why some readers would feel whiplashed by the current, critical coverage of Facebook and Google, which seems to come out of nowhere.  That’s our fault as journalists.

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The glossy coverage never made sense, but was at least defensible when quite a lot of the tech companies were scrappy upstarts. Those days are long gone. Yet the bootstrap narrative remains, with CEOs still treated as celebrities, and the media acting more as a cheerleader than watchdog.

It’s easy to see why some readers would feel whiplashed by the current, critical coverage of Facebook and Google, which seems to come out of nowhere.  That’s our fault as journalists: We’ve been too slow to spot how things have changed and to cover the sector as the corporate behemoth it is.  Today, the four biggest tech companies—Alphabet (Google’s parent), Amazon, Apple and Facebook—have a combined market capital of more than three trillion dollars, dwarfing anything J.P. Morgan was able to achieve in his day, and customer numbers in the billions.

Their shareholders have unusually little power (Zuckerberg, for instance, controls more than half of Facebook’s internal voting power), and they control access to media to a degree most companies would find extraordinary. To even visit the offices of tech giants—itself often a rare privilege—requires journalists to sign non-disclosure agreements.

There are a number of reasons that such secrecy has become integral to the Valley’s culture, not least the need to protect intellectual property from fast-moving rivals. But the press atmosphere around tech also made it possible. Thanks to a compliant and often cheerleading media, companies could easily control their narratives and shut critics and reporters out.

The result is the big four tech giants have a head start of 25 or more years in building their business models and laying their groundwork ahead of receiving serious scrutiny—and today, detailed scrutiny could hardly be more important. For most of the past decade, these companies were untroubled by media incident, perhaps to their own detriment: If Facebook had faced tougher questions on moderation earlier, it would have been much easier to address and build in as it scaled up—which would have helped the global information ecosystem, too.

Questions surrounding these technology giant sit at the center of virtually every major issue affecting our society, from violent extremism to political polarization to fair employment. If we are now trying to hold that power to account, we are working at a considerable disadvantage—and will need a sustained effort from journalists, civil society, and legislators across the world. While there are now more serious technology correspondents than ever before, the model of tech journalism is still bizarre and broken.

 

Let’s step back from product news and let companies do their own PR, even if this comes at the cost of clicks.

 

Time and again tech reporting gets caught in the hype rather than reality; a super-fast but impractical rail alternative proposed by Elon Musk gets tons of coverage, but it’s difficult to get real rail projects funded. Breathless reporting on Bitcoin and blockchain risks getting readers caught in get-rich-quick scams. And even in consumer journalism, the tech press often misunderstands its audience: VR and 3D television are greeted more enthusiastically by journalists than by consumers.

Tech reporters are often expected to cover all facets of the industry, writing pieces on tech culture, harassment, the dark web, the business models of Facebook, and whatever’s going viral that week. Even the best and highest-profile writers seem stretched thin: Recode’s Kara Swisher interviews Zuckerberg, reports on executive moves at different dot-com giants, appears as a talking head, and, on top of all that, tries to step back and say what it all means, too.

There is currently high-level global debate as to whether the tech giants should be broken up in the public interest. We should also have a debate about whether tech journalism should be broken up for the same reason: We need a new journalism which treats tech the same as every other major vested corporate interest—people who can sit back and aside from the tech industry maelstrom and try to see the picture from above.

Maybe we should simply scrap the idea of a “tech desk” altogether: The sector needs scrutiny, but since technology now touches every aspect of our society, keeping it siloed from the rest of the newsroom now feels artificial. Let it be covered, extensively, across desks.

For specialist publications, this will mean redefining beats. The revenues of the largest companies rival the GDPs of many countries; why not give these tech giants dedicated reporters? And it’s not just about Facebook and Google—we also need to cover their only slightly smaller cousins in depth.

There will always be another product launch, another set of results, another patch or redesign, another international conference, to keep the beat writers, well, beaten down. Different, younger reporters should cover that kind of incremental change; it’s a way to cut their teeth, but one they should be able to move on from. Or, better yet, let’s step back from product news and let companies do their own PR, even if this comes at the cost of clicks.

Ending technology journalism as we know it won’t save tech, let alone the world. But it might be a good first step.

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James Ball is a journalist and author based in London, UK. His latest book is Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World.