Reporters Covering the Digital Era Assess the News Business’s Struggle to Transform
What a reporter like me could see was only what a man in a small boat can see of the ocean – ripples or whitecaps or great breakers, the surface as the wind moves it, not the powerful tides nor, underneath them, the irresistible sea currents.
History is all those things – waves, tides and currents – and like the sea, no matter how tranquil the surface, it is never still. A sequence of events is like a series of waves, one crest following upon another; and the trick, for statesman and reporter alike, is to tell which crest is a surge of the tide and which a mere accident of the wind.
–Theodore H. White, 1978
“Justice League of America” was what they’d call themselves.
In October of 1999 while covering a conference in Scottsdale, eight of America’s top technology reporters – from Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Wired – agreed on a plan that a pair of them hatched. They’d quit their jobs and using their collective smarts, contacts and connections they’d build the world’s premier site covering the digitalization of people and products.
That evening, a leading venture capitalist, bumped into at the Phoenician resort’s bar, presented them a multi-million dollar term-sheet written on a napkin. By the next morning the reporters’ abandoned their dream.
Our grand plan rapidly unraveled in the light of day, of course, as most of the group realized they had incredibly great jobs and didn’t want to mess with that.
Now only one member of the Justice League remains at what was then “a major media company.” The rest are at startups.
As digital disruption buffeted and transformed media over the past quarter- century, there was one group paid to stand close and yet be apart. These were the reporters and commentators assigned to cover the technology industry, its evolution, its reach and its products. Interviews with 20 of them in fall 2014 paint a pointillist landscape of a transformative, tumultuous era.
They were charged by their bosses to be the telescopes closely tracking the tech meteor streaking through the heavens. That the rock would crash into the news business is something many of them – though not all – say they saw coming. Their predictions, they feel, went largely unheard including in their workplaces.
What you see depends on where you stand, and these reporters realize they’re on one of the journalism beach’s few stretches that hasn’t yet been washed away by the digital wave. Many began when tech coverage was “back of the book,” a few columns in the business pages. Since then they’ve seen a huge influx of money and talent, begetting conferences, special sections and websites that provide critical revenue lifeblood for media companies in precarious health.
They count themselves lucky to have been witnesses. They feel they did a “pretty good” job covering this era and what it wrought. Having traveled in the same circles for years, they aren’t above talking out-of-school, exchanging bits of trash-talk and being garrulous, rather than close-mouthed, about their journey.
Most tellingly, almost all remain optimistic about the future of journalism in the digital age even if they shy from concrete forecasts and are flummoxed how their successors will earn salaries akin to what they’ve been paid.
None discount risks ahead. Technology companies providing direct financing for those covering them can erode needed journalistic distance. Time once spent reporting may now need to be spent engaging social audiences. And reporters, under pressure to become “brands,” may need to devote time to self-promotion.
It is a new calculus, far more complex than the past occupational arithmetic based on column inches or minutes on air.
The group’s educational pedigrees range from high school diplomas to Ivy League degrees. About half of these reporters who covered the early days of tech always knew they wanted to be writers, with the others stumbling into it by accident or coincidence.
A few found the door to the new career opened easily, but more were forced to make opportunistic use of whatever entry ramps were available – switchboard operator, fact checker, copy editor or angry phone-caller to editors. No one’s footsteps quite followed anyone else’s.
All their paths crossed covering tech.
For almost 30 years after Byte magazine launched in 1975, technology and its ads became a major revenue source for magazine publishers. Bill Ziff’s Ziff-Davis and Pat McGovern’s IDG Communications battled for dominance by launching new magazines with stunning regularity. By 1989, by one accounting, IDG alone had launched 170 publications over the previous two decades, or an average of one every two months.
As Harry McCracken noted in Time last year, computer magazines at their peak were some of the greatest success stories publishing ever saw. The first issue of PCWorld in 1983 was the fattest debut issue of any magazine up until that date. PC Magazine, a competitor and ultimately top dog, was at one time listed in the top ten magazines by revenue. Computer Shopper ran more than a thousand pages in some issues. Only PCWorld remains as a print publication.
That growth led to waves of hiring. Other news organizations, seeing the booming consumer interest and advertising revenue, turned their attention and reporting manpower toward tech as well. The media lighthouse that for a century had serially cast a spotlight on steel, on railroads and then autos, found a new focus.
Among the first generation of reporters who gravitated toward tech coverage, a number came with a predisposition to find this new beat engaging. Some lived in northern California and had friends and neighbors getting involved in digital’s early days. Others were hobbyists and taught themselves to program early on. But tech hadn’t yet taken hold of everyone, even in San Francisco.
What they talked about in this small club was their curiosity, their sense that “something’s going on here.” It tied them together whether they were at the trade press, regional newspapers or among the tiny group of reporters that national newspapers had dispatched to keep an eye open.
By their own accounts, collegiality marked their work just as much as competition. Sure, they were pressured to get scoops but the reality was that their competitive environment was shaped in part by a hierarchy that the tech companies sought to reinforce – national print outlets, then strong regional players (like the San Jose Mercury News) and then trade publications and consumer magazines.
But in the early years the technology industry wasn’t what it would become.
Historic transitions don’t happen overnight.
Railroads need tracks built. Light bulbs require an electric grid. Cars have to have gas stations. The digital era is no different. Microprocessors, computing and connectivity had to come together to ensure that the escalator effect of Moore’s Law could take hold and compound. It took a progression of events and inventions that unfolded over time, to create the breadth of the digital transformation.
But, as Fallows says, the mainstreaming of once obscure knowledge into something essential forced change. A world populated by computer clubs, renegade hackers and garage offices began, in fits and starts, to turn into one dominated by huge digital ecosystems – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook – where each platform saw market dominance as the best path to growth and financial success.
Those transitions changed how journalism was practiced as well. The way they covered the industry and their access to sources evolved from somewhat relaxed with fairly easy accessibility, into the more disciplined model familiar in other industries.
What has also evolved is a model similar to Hollywood or Washington or any locale where “pack journalism” exists, as reporters seek ways to cover influence or wealth or power. Access becomes critical and it can become a currency to be traded.
These issues are readily discussed, even if not easily solved. Disclosure is often advocated as a tool to control the ethical risk but it sometimes may leave onlookers unnerved at the amount of overlap between those being covered and those doing the covering.
Many of these reporters gained their own Aha! or Eureka! moments covering technology, those sudden epiphanies when they realize that tomorrow will be different then today.
Many mention the introduction of PCs, the Internet, the Mozilla browser and Apple’s products and networking. Other touchstones range from being able to measure the worldwide thirst for news on 9/11 to Wikileaks demonstrating the virality of secrets unveiled.
Among these interviewees, there is a broad, although not unanimous, belief that by the mid-1990s it was clear that the news business was going to have to change fundamentally. They say they sounded alarms. They cite their own stories, discussions at industry meetings and other forums as evidence that the industry was told, but didn’t hear. Or didn’t want to hear.
A minority say they didn’t see the disruption coming to the news media. Some cite their natural optimism, others their professional skepticism or simply say that they were working too hard on day-to-day coverage of the technology industry to lift their heads and see what was coming toward them.
I think big media companies tend to be risk-averse. I just do. Particularly the ones that have achieved a lot of influence and power, whether it’s The New York Times Company or Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal or it’s, I don’t know, Condé Nast or Hearst or it’s the television network companies, whatever.
Also seen contributing to the slow response was the news media’s relationship with its audience. When many of these reporters began, readers were only heard from rarely. Audience measurements were sporadic and imprecise. Writers never knew whether readers read a story in whole, in part, or if at all.
This ignorance provided insulation and distance, which Kara Swisher says was the curse of the business. “They didn’t care to talk to readers…They liked their little worlds they had built, where they talked down to people, where there was no back and forth.”
The advent of email, social media feeds and easily attainable user metrics has toppled any hint of a belief that readership would remain at a distance. But responding to that readership has also changed the equation about how a journalist divides up the day – reporting or outreach or promotion.
There’s been another change as well. Journalism always had stars, whether they were movie or book reviewers, columnists, political insiders or sometimes just veteran reporters. But the stars were mostly fixed in a single galaxy anchored by a newspaper, a television network or a magazine. They rarely moved.
There was a compact, sometimes entered grudgingly, between a media institution and the individual. The institution argued that its standards and reputation helped lift individuals so that readers could find them (but the stars should not outshine the galaxy). The stars – lacking their own printing presses, trucks or antennas – seldom had an opportunity to prove their independent strength.
A, B, C, D, or F
Grading yourself is never easy.
Asking these journalists how they think their craft has done covering the digital evolution of the last thirty years gets a range of answers. Using different individual yardsticks, they variously give the craft a C+ or so, with a few graders pushing the group higher on the curve.
James Fallows eschews grades altogether. He argues that the best tool might be one he uses when he travels. If after reading about some locale in the press, you arrive and find things fundamentally different from what you’ve been led to expect, journalism has failed.
Are there recurring weaknesses? There are many cited. Among those cited are “cheerleading” as the newest gadget gets disproportionate coverage, outsized competition for tiny scoops rather than more probing inquiries and a certain lack of nuts-and-bolt coverage of how these firms do business.
Split Future: Journalism and the News Business
No one interviewed claims to know what might be a next, more lasting iteration of the news business.
While a handful have left journalism behind, the rest are still practicing their craft. Most are no longer with their old employers, but have instead struck out with new owners to test new platforms, tactics and approaches in the hope that one may prove durable.
Some of the ventures are backed by deep-pocketed investors with Silicon Valley connections, others are relying on investments from big media companies trying new tactics (Yahoo, Medium, NBC) and some are funded philanthropically (ProPublica). All of them have hopes. None see the future as assured.
“The purposes and the coverage areas and the financial models have all split this thing apart,” Esther Dyson says of the news business. She believes business journalism may provide one path because accuracy is worth a monetary premium. “A premium about the philosophical, ontological state of the world? It’s harder to get people to pay for that, partly because everybody’s competing to provide this for free.”
Among the interviewees there is broad agreement that there won’t be one business model but a variety based on what’s being covered and for whom. Niche interests and audiences may gain loyalty and a following willing to subscribe. There may be a broader audience and advertising revenue for celebrity coverage, sports or humor. As for public service journalism, that’s where philanthropy and wealthy backers play a role.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, a greater optimism prevails about the outlook for journalism, which they view as being distinct, if not completely separate, from the travails of the news business. They’re bullish about their craft.
Some will say they’re optimistic by nature. Others cite historic precedent (the bloom of muckraking journalism in the early 1900s) to demonstrate that truth- telling and inquiry will always find a market. And more argue that the new tools the digital age has made available for journalism will lead to a blossoming, not a withering, of public-spirited inquiry.
A few mention a need to refocus their craft. As computers gain the ability to write police reports, cut-lines, and the like, a few see a potential to shift journalism toward fuller inquiries and more ambitious stories. Others hope that to differentiate themselves from computers, past journalistic imperatives will reawaken – the old “get out from your desk and go find sources” admonition.
None of this is to imply there aren’t risks, or that events don’t, at times, give them pause. In many of them, expressions of optimism can be followed quickly by a journalistic “yes, but” reflex. They worry about readers, how they’ll pick reliable sources of information. They worry that new publishers won’t necessarily know how to, or want to keep journalism credible. And they worry about themselves.
I just spent a year on an [Artificial Intelligence] book. Watching the pace in these automated systems and what they’re doing to intellectual work, why should journalism be protected? If you can do sports and you can do the city hall and you can do entertainment all very well by machine, what’s left? Right now, Narrative Science and a couple of other companies are taking stumbling steps, but I expect more. That forces us, as human journalists, to be more creative and maybe spend our time turning over rocks, but there might be fewer of us too.
Whether it was the evening tabloid 100 years ago people could read in the subway or whether it was, when I was a kid, the Los Angeles Times was 500 pages per day because it was the only real way to reach the advertising market of the southern California basin. Even my hometown was 70 miles from Los Angeles but still it was the main advertising vehicle.
That continues to change and a new host body needs to be figured out. We’re in the process of that. I think the craft of describing the world may actually be improved now. If you have a combination of professional reporters (as you can find ways to pay them with the skills they have) and real-time, opportunistic video and reportage.
Technology journalists did a good job covering the birth of the digital age. That doesn’t mean it was perfect.
Journalism has always put a premium on “what’s new.” In covering an industry undergoing historic, wrenching growth, it isn’t surprising that more reflective reporting often took a back seat. A focus on what’s coming down the road directs attention away from examining what exists today or what’s been left behind.
So gadgets probably got too much coverage. But there were articles written, many by the reporters interviewed, on the economic and societal changes wrought by the birth of the digital era. There could have been more but it is uncertain, given the nature of the change, if the news industry would’ve been any better prepared for its future.
Reporters are paid to be witnesses, not oracles. Their prognostications may sometimes be right, but their prime responsibility is to accurately describe what’s taking place. They’re meant to stand apart from the melee they’re covering.
And they stood apart too from the business operations of the companies they worked for. Media companies each had their own unique anthropologies, but reporters occupied a common position in all the corporate constellations – they were insulated from the commercial side.
This need to shield journalists from business pressures created a constant organic tension within every news organization and may have also created a hierarchy of internal stakeholders. While the entity’s survival mattered to all, the business side alone had the day-to-day commercial responsibilities. The news side was viewed as unschooled and unskilled in making business decisions.
One result may have been that the reporters’ prognostications resonated less inside these media companies than they did outside. But that may be more an anecdote from a rosy past rather that a prescription for a new future since none now profess any great insight about what a viable business model for news might be.
That missing “what next” makes the current Journalism-In-Crisis discussions different from those that have punctuated professional gatherings for the last century. Common traditional themes – professionalism, commercialism, audience and credibility – still fuel discussion, but a tangible undercurrent of uncertainty flows throughout the interviews.
There is only one bet they’re all willing to make. The news business may dissolve, but journalism won’t. Journalism that isn’t polemical, that represents a good faith effort to get to the bottom of things, is what democracies, individuals and businesses depend on to make decisions.
It will matter more in the future simply because more information demands better guides and interpreters.