Q&A: Walt Mossberg on the future of the tech beat

Photo: Asa Mathat

Walt Mossberg was on the tech beat before most news outlets even established such a beat. In 1991, he ditched one of the most sought after jobs in political journalism—covering national security for The Wall Street Journal—to found a weekly “Personal Technology” column. People thought he was either crazy or had been demoted. It turns out he was prescient. Since then, tech has become essential subject-matter for any self-respecting news outlet, having expanded beyond the consumer reviews of its early beginnings to encompass in-depth criticism of the role tech plays in daily life, and its potential influence on the future of both humanity and the planet.

Perennially ahead of the curve, Mossberg also was native on the web before it was considered a wise move for journalists. He founded a news-making tech conference called AllThingsD with Kara Swisher in 2003, they launched the AllThingsD on the web in 2007 as a WSJ vertical, and co-founded Recode in 2014. Mossberg has had success in new formats that capitalize on the potential of digital distribution—notably as host of the Ctrl-Walt-Delete podcast. After a 47 year journalism career, Mossberg, now 70, is set to retire in June from his roles as executive editor and columnist at The Verge, and editor at large and columnist at Recode, both now part of the Vox portfolio.

CJR caught up with Mossberg to get his take on the impact journalism has had on the tech industry, the biggest stories coming up on the horizon, and what’s next for someone who has digital baked into his DNA. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

You founded and wrote the Personal Technology column in the WSJ from 1991 to 2013. What got you interested in writing about tech just as consumer technology was taking off? What did you sense that others didn’t at the time?

Around 1981 or 1982, I bought my first little computer and learned to program. I did that for about 10 years and it helped convince me that this was going to be a huge deal. Now, I wasn’t writing about it at the very dawn of personal computers, but it hadn’t really penetrated into the hands of average people. One of the things I realized as a hobbyist was that it was hard work; it was complicated. It took me, I’m sure, thousands of hours over those 10 years to figure out how to use my first computer, and so it occurred to me that very soon there were going to be a lot of people who were going to get these things in their homes, and they were going to be completely befuddled by it. It was my observation that the computer industry was really making stuff for people like themselves and not for average people.

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There were a bunch of computer columns in a lot of other newspapers, and certainly there were computer magazines, but these were all written by geeks for geeks. My pitch to The Journal was that I wanted to write a column that didn’t use a lot of jargon, that treated people with respect for their intelligence and that did two things. One, it helped people figure out how to make this journey into technology by telling them what was good and what was bad on the market, explaining when some new development happened what it meant, what it was, who it might be for. That was one of my goals. The other one was to the use the power of the platform and the voice that I would have in this column, because it was an opinion column in a way, was to push the industry to stop ignoring normal people and stop treating them like they were stupid. That was it. That was my idea, and it worked.

 

How do you see the divide between techies and consumers evolving as technology becomes more complex. Do you think there’s a better bridge between those worlds now with the state of tech journalism?

There is a better bridge between those two now. The companies got the memo. And I’m not saying I was the only author of that memo. Other people began to do similar types of columns in the ensuing years and there became a lot of pressure for them to make this easy. If we fast forward to today, they’ve got the message. You can give an iPhone or an iPad to a three-year-old, literally, and they know what to do with it. I think the gap has closed. The problem is, new things are coming out that are just as complicated as the PC was when I started, and those things need to evolve fast into being simple. The difference now is I’m not the only one pushing them to make these things simple, and they are trying to make these things simple, but in the early stages of all these things, they still are making them for themselves. By that I mean, they’re engineers.

 

Technology has evolved as a genre of journalism, but it has also been an agent of change within the journalism industry. On balance, how would you characterize those changes in terms of the positives and negatives?

I think the good thing that happened to journalism was that thousands of voices of people, who are just as smart as the staff of The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, got a chance… to start their own site, their own blog, their own whatever, and I think that was a great thing. There was crap, but I have to be honest and tell you that, of the 1,700 or 1,800 daily newspapers, a lot of that was crap, too. It wasn’t that all print journalism was excellent and wonderful, and a lot of what was the internet was junk. I think it was sort of similar, except the scale was much bigger. There was a much great number of good blogs, and a much great number of terrible ones. But the good thing was it allowed a lot of smart, good voices that we didn’t have. I don’t think those people made as much. Some of them did, some of them made them into very lucrative businesses. But your average journalist starting a blog couldn’t count on it for a lot of money.

The bad part is it was very easy to get lost, and it was very hard to make money. Also, there were people getting into it who, however smart they were, weren’t able to count on the help of a good editor, on the help of institutional memory in an established organization. So you saw things that were just wrong, or that were poorly written, or were off base in some way or another. They had the benefit of being freer to try things and less stodgy, but they had the downside of being on their own, and making mistakes.

 

How discerning should journalists be about what innovations and platforms they are using? Do you advocate for experimenting with everything, or is there a worry about spreading yourself or your resources too thin?

I advocate for experimenting and being creative. I think that you have to do something that would have been foreign to most of these established news organizations, which is that they rarely experimented. When Time magazine, or The Economist, or The Times would redesign themselves every 10 years, it would be a big friggin’ deal, right? They would do it very rarely, and when they did it people didn’t like it. People had become comfortable with a certain layout, a certain typeface, a certain font, and when you added a new section, or you changed the name of a section, or you dropped a section, that was unsettling to a lot of the readers. On the web, you’re like a shark. If you don’t keep changing, you’re going to die. So you have to be open to experimenting. But I think you have to be discerning. Somebody has to be able to say, on the one hand let’s be brave enough to try this, on the other hand this is nuts doing this.

I think a good rule of thumb is, can we make our journalism more exciting, more accessible, more interesting? Various kinds of video, infographics, and data-driven stuff falls into the category of making it better. For example, on Facebook you see a version of a story that’s been made into a video that plays silently because you put words across it and they scroll. That for me is a way to tell the story to somebody who might not otherwise see it, and that’s a good thing. I think this new trend on all the social platforms, the so-called “stories,” it’s ephemeral, and it has to fit a certain mold, and that’s probably too limiting for a lot of stuff.

 

What do you see as the biggest stories coming up in tech journalism over the next few years?

Well the biggest story, period, is artificial intelligence. I guess the first place people began to see it in a very crude way was Siri on the iPhone. Everybody has a Siri-type thing. Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Google Assistant, there’s the Amazon Alexa platform. I think we’re about 10 years out, at least, from when that will be something that you could remotely compare to the Starship Enterprise computer, which could tell you everything from who was on the ship at any one moment, to carrying out commands like “navigate us to X place.” And the computer understood your idioms and your inflection. I think that’s the big story. And that has fantastic potential for changing everything. I mean everything. Not just your phone or your gadget, but your whole life, your home, your workplace, your work itself. It has the potential for a lot of harm, and danger, and scary stuff. There’s been a narrative about robots that goes back at least to Isaac Asimov, and possibly before, about the robots turning on us. And actually people like Elon Musk are worried about that, Bill Gates is worried about that, but they also see the benefits of it. Your car is going to drive itself. You can go today, right this moment, to a car dealer and buy a car that has enough intelligence that if you allow it, it will park the car for you. That’s the biggest thing in technology right now, and we’re at the very beginning of it. If I were starting out right now instead of retiring, I imagine I’d be spending a lot of my time following that.

There’s other things. There’s virtual reality. Personally, I think VR is not the most important new kind of visual experience. You could certainly use it for journalism, and it is being used for journalism. Seeing a 360 degree story being told in front of you about refugees is very powerful. It’s just that hardly anyone will see that because it’s expensive and complicated and you have to wear this thing on your face. I think the much more interesting thing is augmented reality. Pokemon Go is a very simple example. But there’s no reason that it can’t also be used for infographics on steroids for journalism. For example, explaining what happened when Trump fired those cruise missiles into that airfield. Here’s a photo we have of that airfield, either from the ground or from Google Earth or something. Here’s what happens when a Tomahawk explodes. You can see that. But the problem with augmented reality right now, even though I think it’s more promising because it’s a mixture of the real world and the virtual world, is that that has to be shrunk to basically the size and weight and thickness of eyeglasses. Or even contact lenses. And I honestly believe it will be. I don’t know this for a fact, but I believe Apple has at least a thousand engineers working on it right now, and they’re not alone. Google is going crazy on it. Facebook is working on it. Microsoft is actually a little bit ahead, I think, on it right now.

 

Can you share any great memories or stand-out moments from D: All Things Digital conference, now the Code conference, since it started in 2003?

It was a very weird thing. Kara and I were entrepreneurial inside of a traditional media company. We started, essentially, an independent business unit separate from The Journal. We were both columnists at The Journal, yet we had this big thick contract where we had lawyers, they had lawyers, and we worked out a thing where we were in charge of a business unit. We hired some business-y people to help, and then Dow Jones had their business-y people helping us, but we controlled all the editorial. And so we put on these conferences and there were a lot of highlights. For instance, Siri was introduced at the D conference before Apple even bought it. Slingbox was introduced at the D conference. The most famous moment of the D conference was when we convinced Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who had been rivals all their careers, to appear together on stage for an hour and a half, and that video is used in business schools to this day. Mark Zuckerberg made one of his first big public appearances there. Tim Cook, when he took over Apple, was introduced there. Satya Nadella, who runs Microsoft, was introduced there. So we have a lot of great memorable moments there. It would be very hard to pick all of them, but obviously the joint Jobs/Gates interview was the big one.

 

What will you miss about tech journalism? After more than a quarter of a century covering tech, will you continue to keep up with it? I imagine it’s baked into your DNA at this point.

I will miss getting to test out some of these important new products first, or early, and getting to offer my take on it. I’ll miss that. I’m not going to stop following technology. It is pretty baked into me. It’s just that I’m not going to owe someone a column, and a podcast, and a TV appearance every week, which, by the way, I want to make it clear, is not like mining coal. It’s been a wonderful job and has made me very happy, including now. I’m probably as happy now as I’ve ever been working at Vox Media, which is a company that never had its roots in any traditional media, and always was a web-native company. And it’s wonderful working with these younger people. It’s fabulous. So I’ll miss that, but I am definitely going to keep up with it. I’m just going to find some new adventures.

One of the things I’m excited about is being able to put more time into a passion that I have, which is called The News Literacy Project—an organization that has been around for seven or eight years, started by a Pulitzer prize winning investigative journalist from the LA Times named Alan Miller. I’ve been on the board for a couple of years, but work has made it hard to pour as much of myself into that as I would like, and now I’ll be able to do that.

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.