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The unspoken problem with technology journalism

Having written for technology publications for over a decade I have had the displeasure to witness first hand the decline in the quality of technology journalism. Others, far more experienced and smarter than I, have talked about the possible reasons for this but in my view the underlying factor is a willingness on editors and publishers to cater to the herd mentality.

Technology journalism has always been a pretty exciting job for young people who grew up with electronics such as games consoles, personal computers and the Internet. At least in the UK, technology journalists are well catered for in terms of free drinks and many technology companies pay for flights and hotels out to interesting press events, sometimes in exotic parts of the world.*

Journalism isn’t well paid. A former editor simply said of the writers “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” – this is an example of the sad state of editorial attitudes in technology¬† journalism. Many professions do not provide a fair compensation and one of the problems with journalism is that you really need to devote your life to the subject matter if you want to provide thoughtful analysis and perhaps most importantly, nail a company when they are peddling marketing guff.

The reason some people cite pay as a problem is that low pay results in the best qualified journalists to leave the field, or not get into it at all. However in my view pay isn’t the problem, neither is the wider education system as a whole, no the real problem is editors and publishers that simply want a quick buck rather than take the opportunity to build a brand.

News aggregators such as Google News, Techmeme and others are resulting in editors looking for an easy way out of paying for proper journalism. What some editors and publishers have done is fallen into the trap of believing these websites are far more important and valuable than having a regular readership that associates a title with a particular trait. Just as traditional broadsheet newspapers are known for certain specialisms such as the Washington Post for American political coverage or the Wall Street Journal and/or the Financial Times are respected for their financial coverage.

In theory there is nothing wrong with the service news aggregating websites provides – it is a single source of information that combines multiple sources. Techmeme claims to use editors while Google News is automated but the problem is that editors use these websites to see what others are writing, presuming that writing the same content will mean readers will come to their publication as the topic is popular. Fair enough, a popular topic is always worth investigating.

Investigating is the key word here. Editors and publishers have now gone into a mode where investigating or even pushing the story forward (that is, to find something new about an existing, reported topic) has gone out of the window. Instead the editor, perhaps pushed by the publisher, is now telling their writers to simply do a “me too” story in order to pick up straggling readers that visit news aggregator websites. I’ve seen this happen while working at one publication and it is devastating.

It is devastating for writers, some of which want to do real work rather than churn out the same stuff everyone else is doing, and it is devastating for the publication, which loses its identity. What news aggregators do is anonymise and de-brand news. That’s good for the reader, a reader shouldn’t solely rely upon one publication for their news comsumption, but for publications that follow this herd there’s little opportunity to build up a regular readership. It also shows that the editor is not doing their job and is devoid of any creativity or vision.

A regular readership is vital to any publication for two reasons. One is the basic business of publishing; a well defined regular readership is what helps the publisher ink the big advertising deals, but perhaps more importantly, the writers gain respect with readers and vendors for covering a particular field well. This not only helps the writer to develop their knowledge of their beat but increases the chances of news tips being sent in.

Editors and publishers need to realise that a good publication isn’t something that is built in six months by doing what everyone else is doing. Building up a respected publication takes time, guts and above all supporting your writers rather than seeing them a pieces of meat.

* I am aware that many US publications do not allow this for fear of bias, but if journalists are so easily persuaded then perhaps they shouldn’t be in a field where, over the course of their career, their impartiality will be tested with far more than an economy class seat and a three-star hotel room.