Hey, Alex Payne, Get Off Your High Horse

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I was reading some stuff I found on Techmeme from my iPhone (beats staring at the ceiling by a long shot) and stumbed across this blog post from a Twitter engineer called Alex Payne titled “Towards Better Tech Journalism”. I don’t consider myself to be a tech journalist, but I am a tech blogger (also for TechCrunch which is mentioned in the article), so I decided to give it a read, wondering how engineers look at tech reporting in general.

It wasn’t pretty.

First of all, I’m writing this post on my own blog so it doesn’t necessarily reflect the viewpoints of other TechCrunch people, much like Alex points out that his opinion may differ from the one Twitter management has about this.

Where to start? At the beginning, of course.

Rarely does technology journalism produce informed, correct, relevant, and readable content. This is a sorry and damaging state of affairs.

A strong opinion from the get-go helps get your point across for sure. But if this isn’t a big sign saying ‘AXE-GRINDING OVER HERE’ (which Payne later denies), I don’t know what would be.

I’ve been drafting this post in my head for ages, and bringing the topic up to friends and colleagues ad nauseam. One approach I could take is to rantingly provide example after example of miserable technology journalism. For anyone immersed the culture of high tech – that is, those of you who care about this issue and have read at least this far – those examples are practically unnecessary. Most technology professionals I know roll their eyes at our industry’s press. “What are you going to do? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t get publicity for new products without ’em” seems to be the mindset. To ask for truly superb coverage of anything more than the latest gadget is asking too much in today’s tech media landscape. As an engineer, a consumer, and an avid reader, I’m unsatisfied with this.

Wait wait wait. I see examples of bad engineering on a daily basis too, but I don’t point them out every single time either. But I also don’t make any petty generalizations about the State Of Engineering or quote ‘most technology journalists I know’ about this because it would be very dangerous and wrong on so many levels to do so. But don’t let this stop you, Alex.

Before I dive in, I’d like to clarify that this is entirely my personal opinion, and in no way reflects that of my employers. To maintain focus in my job, I ignore any and all press about Twitter that I’m not forced to read while strapped to a chair with my eyes pried open, Clockwork Orange-style. My personal projects have been covered with reasonable accuracy. This is not axe-grinding. Moreover, my agenda is not about ensuring that technology business and research gets a pass from the press; if anything, our industry should be regarded more critically.

Yes, it is axe-grinding, I’m not fooled by the fact that you claim it isn’t. And dude, if you really ignore “any and all press about Twitter”, that would make you one very dumb engineer. Twitter is what it is thanks to tech bloggers and journalists, but most of all thanks to the people that use it. Not taking into account the feedback that you get from those who report on it, as well as the people that comment on their stories, is a disgrace, pure and simple. Start listening and you’ll find that you’re not always right about everything. A shocker, I know.

With that said: instead of harping endlessly and unproductively on the culprits, I’ll briefly feature two recent examples of inept tech reporting. Then, I’ll expand on the problem and offer some potential solutions.

Example One: “TechCrunch Are Full Of Shit”

That phrase has been a rallying cry in the web community of late, urged on by a post on Last.fm’s blog. Long story short, the popular web-oriented technology news site TechCrunch reported on a rumor, something the site does seemingly as standard operating procedure. Generally, companies and individuals don’t bother to retaliate when slandered by TechCrunch, as to do so would lend an iota of legitimacy to to the site, while reducing the victim to their level of pettiness. Last.fm bucked this informal policy and took a stand. They were quickly validated for doing so. The damage to the company’s reputation, though, is done. In an industry where ending your consumer relationship with a company is one click on a “delete my account” button away, misleading and false press can utterly undermine a business. TechCrunch hardly count as “journalists” or “the press” by any reasonable definition. They’re a tabloid masquerading as a legitimate news outlet, a sort of Drudge Report for nerds; they lack even the sense of humor of actual tech industry tabloids like Valleywag. While TechCrunch may have started out as a blog, free of the restrictions and expectations of traditional journalism, their content is now syndicated by the Washington Post. TechCrunch’s is one of the most widely-heard voices in technology reporting. This should be considered an embarrassment to our industry.

As I disclaimed above, I’m a writer for TechCrunch so this obviously ticked me off a bit more than the rest. I’m not going to comment on the specific example, as I was not the author and I don’t know the rest of the story well enough. Neither does Alex, of course. He assumes the post he cites as an example is the end of the whole story, and sees it as an opportunity to bash the blog, which he viciously hates for some reason. Thing is, it’s incorrect. We don’t report on rumors as a standard operating procedure, although we do report on rumors occasionally like any other tech blog or news site. And calling us illegitimate, petty, a tabloid without a sense of humor, embarassing, etc. doesn’t help your cause, it just shows your view is clouded by your personal feelings about TechCrunch. It’s a shame because you could have made some valid points, but you failed at that big time.

(I’m not goint to comment on the second example)

The Problem

The scary truth of information technology is that it’s just too huge a domain to be an expert in, even if you’re a full-time engineer. I’d wager there’s just a handful of people on this planet who can claim expertise in everything from silicon up to human-computer interaction. Even if most engineers were halfway-decent writers, most engineers aren’t equipped to write about technology in the large.

This is not a technology journalism ‘problem’, you could argue the same for any journalism ranging from sports to politics and exotic birds.

The majority of technology journalists are even less equipped. Many have no engineering background. They’ve never built anything like the things they write about. Or, if they were once engineers, they haven’t written a line of code or soldered a circuit in years. In a fast-moving industry, professional engineers get left behind the state of the art all the time. How can journalists without any engineering expertise possibly hope to keep up?

Simply tapping expert sources isn’t enough. A reporter can’t simply string together quotes from PhDs and CTOs and end up with something cogent, accurate, and informative to a non-technical reader. We shouldn’t be content to trust the public record of high technology to individuals ill-equipped to report on it accurate
ly. In an age where new media have enabled the people who make technology to produce a dynamic record of its creation and use, the role of the technology journalist is to tell a story that reaches outside our industry and community. It is, then, partly our responsibility as an industry and as a community to ensure the quality of that shared story. The worth of accurate technology journalism produced by qualified professionals is unquestionably high to the technology industry and the public it serves.

This is arrogant and self-serving. It’s also plain idiotic. Newsflash: reporters aren’t supposed to be experts in what they write about, they’re supposed to report about it, preferably accurately of course. You may think it is unfair, but it’s like saying sports journalists should only cover baseball if they’ve played in the Major League. Or saying political news reports should only come from people who were once elected officials. I can simply not believe Alex is not smart enough to know he’s making an ass of himself claiming that technology journalists should have an engineering background or coding experience, so I’m assuming he just wrote it to validate his earlier points. Or am I supposed to apologize for reporting on tech with a business and online marketing background, something that genuinely comes in handy most of the time and something only a handful of engineers could have too.

(I’m not going to copy-paste the ‘solutions’ because they’re supposed to solve a non-existing problem. I’m not implying there’s not a problem with tech journalistm, but I’m saying Alex Payne failed to determine what they are in a way only an engineer with no journalism experience could).

In conclusion: I’m not going to judge Payne’s specific engineering work. He should probably conclude that it’s not up to him to judge our work.

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2 thoughts on “Hey, Alex Payne, Get Off Your High Horse

  1. I didn’t have time to read the entire article (who has, these days), but regarding your sports journalism analogy: a sports journalist usually does have to know the rules of the game, and its dynamics. She won’t claim ‘I can’t believe that soccer player missed that shot! That’s because his shoes are purple-with-yellow dots. That’s not the color a shoe should have!’Regrettably, I do see tech journalists making such claims in the tech field.

  2. So do I. But what Alex is trying to say is that a sports journalist should know everything about every kind of sport as well as have been good at all of them in order to report about it decently.

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