An interesting rant on the state of tech (mostly computer) journalism.
The Failure of Tech Journalism
Posted by steve_gilliard
(August 26th, 2001, 12:54am)
As I write this, I'm watching a documentary called Breaking the News, commissioned by the Museum of Radio and Television. It's about the exploits of the big TV anchors, who, for some reason, seem to always wind up close to combat. I.e., Ed Bradley asking a Klansman whether black people should vote. The general question seems to be: "how close can you get to combat and not get killed"?
Journalism is serious business. It may not seem that way some days, but it is. Too bad the online journalists, with their big parties and their fancy offices, never got it. In the real world of journalism, people report from their homes, from foxholes, from hotels without water. No one needs $60 million in leases to be a good reporter.
In theory, there is no reason that a publication can't cover IT, make money and still function. The only reason that they didn't (Red Herring is about to chop half their staff) is that they forgot what business they were in.
As Online Journalism Review columnist Ken Layne says: journalists are fucking idiots. I would add, especially when it comes to money. Journalists are not good with money, don't much like it. Send them a paycheck and they'll kill for you. Journalists are most happy when they are kicking up dirt. And that is how it should be.
The hacks and weasels who worked for these sites filled their magazines and web sites with completely unaggressive, pathetic coverage of some of the biggest criminals of the last decade. They should hang their heads in shame. The reality is that everyone had their heads up their asses because they thought they were going to be rich. Call it the Almost Famous syndrome. They thought they were part of the news. Not even on his worst days did Dan Rather think he worked FOR the White House. He knew Nixon didn't sign his checks. Journalists, as a rule, are not to be trusted. Which is why I never got the whole "let's suck the dicks of the people we cover" ethos of these magazines. What did they think they were going to gain? Favor? A taste of a Friends and Family's IPO? There is never going to be anything gained by not asking hard questions or trying to be the house jester.
The only people who will EVER make money online in journalism will make it being outsiders. I get all the conventional wisdom I can handle every Monday afternoon when the trades arrive. If you have this tool, the Internet, and you use it to serve up the same old insider crap, you have to be kidding yourself. No one is going to pay for that over time. You need to read Tom's Hardware or Sharky Extreme. Even PC Computing (best for long flights, bird cages and darts). Tom's and Sharky's does the kind of detailed, intensive reporting that most magazines avoid.
So, with that preamble, let's go start some fights:
1) The partisan news
Try and find an agnostic view of Linux or MacOS. The sites which cover them are in the business of preaching to the converted. While Mac evangelism is as silly as worshiping a dead Sci-fi writer, Linux evangelism seems to expect everyone to rely on the belief of miracles with no further evidence needed. To read Slashdot, only the lack of intellectual fervor is standing between you and the nirvana of Linux. The fact that you need a million work arounds and training sessions to get it to function on the desktop is always downplayed. Mention this and you're a "luser who uses Windoze". Which is a mature, intelligent way to settle an argument among adults. Raise an objection: get flamed.
Well, two Mexican engineers tried "the Linux can be used by anyone" solution and well, nobody knew what the heck to do with it. They were shocked that they couldn't magically deploy Linux and have the masses use it. Well, if you drop TV dinners over New Guinea, you'll kill people because the food will go bad because they will eat the melted, rotting food long before they get the microwaves to cook it.
Folks, Linux is complicated. Not as much as brain surgery, but without serious help, most people can't use it effectively. The people who use it say "I got my grandmother on it" neglecting to mention they have 130 IQ's and are computer professionals. Oops. Think dad the accountant is going to learn to compile his own kernel? So the failure of the Mexican project is as surprising as college kids having unprotected sex in dorm rooms.
Of course, the story ran in Wired News.
In the same way, you'll never see a story about school districts rejecting the high costs of Apple in Macaddict. You have publications who have clearly taken a side and then stick to it. Linux skepticism is long overdue, but the missionary ideologues jump on your back and kick you in the balls. The kind of independent tech journalism needed to cover Linux doesn't exist. Not to slam Slashdot, because they do what they do: advocacy. But there is a need for more than that.
2) We're all in this together
If your business fails, that's not my problem. I am not a tech booster, and the fate of Salon is irrelevant to NetSlaves. Suck went to their well-deserved grave. Our goal is to serve our readers and not some collective good will of the industry. Which is why Alley Cat News wasn't printed for months, and why Silicon Alley Review is best reserved for your dog.
The idea of journalism, especially online journalism, is about being a clear and independent voice, not some lackey for this year's paper billionaire. Donny Dipshit can run his company into the ground without your active participation. The reason the Industry Standard sank into the muck was simple: they thought they were a member of the club. No they weren't. Neither were the bankers or the whores or the coke dealers. At the end of the day, Larry Ellison would screw you all over to save his company. The reality is that the tech companies and their employees are selfish beasts. If Oracle could run MS into the ground today, they would do it. Taking sides in such a battle is a core betrayal of everything journalism should stand for.
Microsoft was appropriately nailed under a decision as clear as Brown vs. Board of Education. There was no mistaking Jackson or the appeals court language. Yet, tech columnists, as corrupt and insular as the junket schmucks who kiss the asses of movie stars and write fawning reviews of crappy movies, decided to jump in with their legally uninformed opinions.
While you occasionally see the deranged defend the guilty, many columnists acted as if the decision was some optional opinion by a federal judge. Well, they don't issue optional anything. Here's a hint: the federal government is in high tech because the law says they can be. Hell, there would be no Microsoft without the feds investing trillions in technology.
Instead of accepting that Microsoft not only broke the law, but will face some penalty, some actually bit on the company line that "so goes Microsoft, so goes computing". Which is a hollow joke. MS bullied their way into the position they have and now we're supposed to keep quiet when the cops show up? I love that logic. Why not defend poor Augusto Pinochet, who only ordered a few people to death while doing it to stop communism.
3) Technology is super cool
Well, if you get all your toys for free, yeah, technology rocks like a Rush concert. But most of us only get a few purchases at the adult toy store before rent and food take over. Consumer Reports has the right idea, but they are so stodgy that they are nearly useless to the average consumer. Oh, iMacs are so pretty, and Gandhi would have used one.
Well, for a single mom with two kids, pretty is not on the agenda. It could look like it escaped from the mind of R.L. Stine if it worked. Cheap and functional are the things which should count here, not pretty and cool. Besides, what are we, 16 year olds? Cool is for people with nearly unlimited disposable incomes. Elton John gets cool, the rest of us need functional. So many reviews are baffled and bullshitted by design issues over function.
Take Windows ME. What a piece of crash-daily crap. ME was a horrible OS. It barely worked, yet the reviews concentrated on the design and the look. Look and work are two different things. Jaguars look great but unless you spend every weekend under their hoods, they run like crap. Ever seen a repair bill for one? Why is it so hard for anyone but Walter Mossberg to figure out that the stuff has to work and work simply? The editors can deny it all they want, but the proof is in the reviews.
This is the review PC Magazine gave Windows ME when it was released (excreted is more like it).
The name says it all. Microsoft Windows Me-short for Millennium Edition-is designed for individual home users, not for business. Available as an update package ($110 street) and expected to ship on many desktop and notebook systems in September, Windows Me is the most radical upgrade yet in the Windows 9x family.
According to our benchmark tests, Windows Me is not an overwhelming improvement over Windows 98. On our Business Winstone 99 tests on two desktops and two notebooks, each equipped with both Windows Me (with IE 5.5) and Windows 98 Second Edition (with IE 5.0), the latter OS scored higher on all tests on all machines. And on i-Bench, Windows Me showed only a slight improvement on both page-loading tests and on the Java Virtual Machine test, but it was slower on the XML: CSS test, once again on all of our test machines.
We then upgraded the Windows 98 machines' browsers to IE 5.5 and reran our i-Bench tests to see whether the newer browser would affect performance. We found that it did, indeed: With IE 5.5, the Windows 98 PCs bested the Windows Me systems on page-loading tests on all machines, as well as on the XML: CSS test (on all but one machine).
Despite these concerns, PC Magazine gave Windows ME a four out of five rating. The users who rated it gave it a 1 out of five rating. Even with the grumpy gus factor, the original review should have been much less laudatory based on the words in the review. Win98 loaded pages faster with Internet Explorer 5.5 than with WinME? Now call me stupid, but when you note a flaw like that, I think it might be worth more than one star off. The flaws they describe are not minor ones. How in God's name can you trust a review like this? Let's say I review a car, and mention that under some circumstances the bumper will bend like a pretzel and cost you $1,500 to repair if you tap it with a rubber mallet. Now, is that a 5 star car? Is that car worthy of a high rating when the previous model did no such thing? What kind of review notes a major flaw and then says, that's OK?
This is the hallmark of editors thinking of everyone and every thing but the readers of the magazine. How could any editor run a review like this in good conscience? The writer says, in plain English, that WinMe loads web pages slower than Win98, no small thing and is not a major upgrade. If you read the review carefully, you'll find that WinME is a dog, but the impression is that it isn't. Which is a failure of basic journalism.
What is an even greater failure is the inability of journalists to escape the marketing hype of the companies they cover. Despite a clear rave for Windows 2000, PC Magazine neglected to mention that almost all apps which can run on NT or Win98 run on Win2K and this would have benefited most users immediately.
Windows 2000 isn't perfect: Upgrades are often problematic, and it still doesn't support the wide array of devices that Windows 98 and Windows Me do. But in Windows 2000, Microsoft finally has a stable operating system for desktops, notebooks and servers that supports Plug and Play, file synchronization, advanced power management, and improved security. It was worth the wait.
Instead of pushing the "WinME, now, XP later" theme Microsoft was selling last year, a journalist would have told the other side of the story, which is that Win2000 was a viable solution for most users in most situations and its stability was well worth abandoning all of the Win9x OS's. Instead, these companies invested a great deal in supporting ME, complete with reviews and features. No editorial decision was made to be as brutally honest about WinME as anyone who had the misfortune to use it would have.
4) Ethics? What's that?
Many dotmags were as ethically challenged as a Mexican policeman. They were going to the conferences, trying to hold them, sell the ad space and rarely raining on this parade of confluence. How could these companies cover people they were entering partnerships with? They couldn't.
Salon has been a prime example of the diminished standards of ethics online. Ruth Shalit was exiled for repeatedly plagiarizing while working for the New Republic. Not just fired, but forced to work in advertising. Yet Salon hired her to write about advertising. A reporter whose work is proveably plagiarized is covering her own industry, a clear and total conflict of interest. The editors at Salon can defend this however they like, but note that Ms. Shalit's work has never appeared in a major newspaper since her firing. A person with this kind of track record is probably best suited for advertising, where a respect for facts is not part of the job.
I don't know the woman, but it simply amazes me that she is allowed to have a byline anywhere. I don't see Janet Cooke or Patricia Smith doing articles for Vogue or Elle.
But if that were the only case, there would be no point in mentioning it. Salon repeatedly let interested parties write about subjects they were involved in. But that is really small change compared to other, grosser ethical breaches. It seems that tech publications regularly slant their coverage to appeal to advertisers, giving them amazingly favorable coverage despite every indication that these companies were grossly mismanaged.
For every decent story on a dotcom, like Wired's story on Razorfish, there were hundreds which should be collected and used as evidence. Not a negative word about so many companies was written until they started to crash and burn. How could a reporter walk into an office and look at 100 Aeron chairs, listen to bullshit and write a glowing piece on that company? They weren't profitable, they weren't going to be profitable and this was widely known. Yet, the happy talk stories continued.
We were among the first people to question the conventional wisdom with our story on APBNews and it was a revelation to the print press that you couldn't save a dotcom by working really hard. Except for Chris Byron, who predicted the fall of these unprofitable companies from day one, you never read a negative word about these people until the Seattle Weekly told tales from inside Amazon. But this well-deserved skepticism went unnoted in the daily press.
Because these were stories about their peers, about the rich. They dated dotcom people, their editors were willfully blind to the worst, most insane IPO ponzi schemes. No one wanted a bad news story. Things got so corrupted that Chris Nolan thought it would be OK to participate in a friends and family IPO because she was "friends" with the CEO and didn't cover the company. So would it be OK for Dan Rather to consult with the Labor Party because he isn't English? Or would people wonder that working with a political party might taint his opinions? Once you cross the line, how can anyone trust you?
Now the San Jose Mercury News (Nolan's former paper) is run by some of the most gutless people ever to call themselves journalists, abandoning their reporters when the heat is turned on them. A reporter while a graduate student at the University of Iowa got access to records normally sealed to the press, the SJ Merc ran the story and ran from the reporter. Needless to say, with such sterling support, the Merc is not exactly a paper going to challenge anything. If they had taken on Cisco or any of the major companies in the Valley, any reporter would have to look at Gary Webb, forced out for a controversial series on the CIA and drugs, and Chris Nolan and conclude that taking a risk at the Merc or making a mistake would get you tossed aside like fish bait.
How can a reporter work if their editors are spineless? Well, they can't. How could any Standard reporter go after the people who they relied upon for their conferences?
But then, you have Kara Swisher pimping for her girlfriend's website, Planet Out. The editors at the Wall Street Journal turned their backs as the reporters went to Page Six to air their grievances. Did the Journal do anything? No.
There were few ethical standards anyone took seriously online and when the collapse came, these publications were caught short and late.
5) Who do you serve?
It may seem like a sure thing to get your nose deep in the ass of your advertisers but in the end, you only serve one audience: your readers. Pimping your publication for ad sales makes you look like a whore. Now, if you want to be a whore for Microsoft or Doubleclick or whatever, that's fine. You should call yourself the Doubleclick Gazette or whatever. If you want to put your friends on the cover of your magazine and take their ad money, that's fine as well. Just don't expect anyone to ever trust you.
The one thing that a reader expects is for you to be honest. Placating advertisers to get sales is stupid. Because if you can't be truthful, no one, no one, will care to read you.
The one lesson that all these online rags never got is that if you are a pimp today, when things get shitty, people will turn on you. They will gut you like a catfish and eat you on a po' boy. People now laugh at Fast Company. They sneer at Red Herring. No one who is now freelancing or working at Home Depot and back in the basement cares what happens to those magazines, because those magazines didn't care about them. Crooked bosses, sham business plans, shitty working conditions, oops, sorry, had to get cut from that profile of the boy CEO, sorry. These rags wanted to be part of a "revolution" and they were. A revolution in theft. The grand heist didn't just steal from VC's, but average investors and employees as well.
Where was the serious reporting on Webvan, a company so doomed that any grocery store manager could have pointed out the flaws over a cup of coffee? Time and again, basic reporting was ignored for the hype. And who did this screw? The workers and the investors. Any glance at a company's public documents would have demonstrated options were a fraud.
Most of the people covering the dotcom boom failed in the basic duties of journalism by not reporting the truths about these companies. They refused to investigate, to ask hard questions and relied on PR and marketing to shape their coverage. Why in God's name should the public have trusted these publications to live up to the public trust that journalists should be held to. If PC Magazine wants to shill for every crappy Microsoft product and conform their coverage to Microsoft's marketing aims, that is their right. However, it doesn't' have anything to do with reality, fairness or the standards to which journalists should be held to.
We're not talking Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent type stuff either, but the reality of basic Journalism 101. All the people who tried to be players in tech journalism are jokes. Michael Wolff impotently snipes from the sidelines, Louis Rosetto is living somewhere, doing something, with a lot of money in his pocket. Now, John Battelle is closing shop and whining about no one investing in the money pit known as the Industry Standard. Salon is staggering. All these people wanted to be something other than reporters and for awhile, they got away with it. Because they wanted to be something they weren't while refusing to recognize that greatness lies in doing their jobs. Journalism is a noble profession when done right. And people get killed doing it every year.
All these failed sites and magazines tanked because they thought industry needed them. They were wrong, industry needed to use them. Think Mark Cuban is worried about the fate of these magazines now? He's got his billions.
If you don't serve the people who buy your magazine and read your pages, ads won't matter because no one will trust you and if they don't trust you, they will not need you. A lesson which is being learned painfully late.