There’s been a bit of a shitstorm the past few days over TechCrunch blogger turned venture capitalist M.G Siegler’s defense of Path, a social networking company that the CrunchFund (a VC firm where Siegler is a partner) invested in. Dan Lyons (probably best known for his alter ego Fake Steve Jobs) skewered Siegler well enough. Siegler’s rant about the failings of tech journalists is mostly a distraction, a cover for the real issue: the cavalier attitude startups, including one that Siegler’s firm invested in, have towards privacy and security of its users (who are, generally, the product and not the customer).
But Siegler did touch a nerve when he talked about the poor quality of so much tech journalism. It’s nothing new, the problem has been there for everyone to see for the past few years. AOL’s official policy was exposed a year ago by Business Insider, a company notorious for following a similar content farming model. There’s even an entire book now dedicated to helping people create reasonable “info diets” (a subject near and dear to my heart, though I’ve not yet had time to read it).
It’s a real problem, and Siegler, to his credit, admits that he was was one of the worst offenders during his time at TechCrunch. Now he’s part of a whole new problem exemplified by the CrunchFund and PandoDaily, but that’s not what I want to write about today. Nor do I want to focus on the high speed production of numerous low quality blog posts. That’s a long standing problem that’s been plain to see for quite a while, a product of a flawed business model for journalism and “content” in general. We’re trying to solve the business model problem at SiliconAngle, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play here.
Since The Verge published its best tech writing of 2011 list I’ve been thinking about the fact that no tech blogs actually made this list, unless you count VC Dave Pell’s blog. But none of the usual suspects - TechCrunch, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, etc. Why is this? Part of it may be the pressure to constantly pump out new posts, multiple times a day, which leaves little time for writers to do in-depth journalism and quality writing. But I think there’s something else to it. Jay Rosen has written about the ideology of the mainstream political press. I think there’s an ideology of tech blogging, and I think that ideology reduces the overall quality of reporting. I think it’s the ideology of “the scoop.”
There are huge pressures to post a story first. Not only does it get you on TechMeme, but probably more importantly it gets your story more traction in social media, from Twitter to Reddit to Hacker News. Speed is the name of the game. It’s tempting to blame speed itself as the problem, but I think it’s this scoop mentality itself.
Adrianne Jeffries of BetaBeat (who I worked with briefly at ReadWriteWeb) put it best to me a while back: most of these “scoops” are things that everyone is going to know about soon anyway. The Kindle Fire, a new Google feature, the latest round of funding for a startup - all of this this is stuff these companies actually pay people to promote eventually. By racing to be the first to tell the world about some companies future announcement, we’re actually competing to serve as PR people for the companies we’re reporting on.
Update: Jay Rosen has helpfully categorized four types of scoop. What I’m talking about here is the different between “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.”
I’m not opposed to chasing this sort of scoop - I do it too. But it’s not the end all be all of doing journalism. In fact, in many cases there’s little to no journalism being done. The easiest way to be first is simply to break a news embargo - something that used to be an official policy at TechCrunch (I’m not sure whether it still is). I’m not sure this really counts as a “scoop,” but it’s one quick and dirty way to approximate one, and it’s one that requires nothing but re-writing a press release and publishing before any one else does.
Most of what we think of as “scoops” are at least a bit more involved than breaking an embargo. Unless the journalist gets lucky and overhears some execs talking about something in line at a Silicon Valley burrito joint, there’s some measure of source development going on behind the scenes of a scoop. Source development is one dimension of journalism, and it’s a very important one. Still, most of the scoops I see are still pretty shallow. A source inside a company tells a journalist about a forthcoming product, service or other announcement coming from the company. The journalist writes down what the source said and publishes it. There’s little other research or fact checking going on (Mike Arrington allegedly went to great pains to verify that his scoops were legit, but that’s apparently not common practice, and I have my doubts about how he actually sourced his scoops). Maybe there’s some speculation about whether this product will actually be competitive against a comparable product from Apple, but that’ll be it. Once the source spills the beans, this sort of post can be done very quickly, in hours or even minutes. There are a few counter examples, like when bloggers dogpile on a company that makes a mistake - I guess that helps us feel like we’re fulfilling our “watchdog” role. But the vast majority of scoops are product announcements. It’s still a far cry from the “muckracking” we expect from political journalists.
Why is this a problem? It creates an artificially low expectation of the time it takes to do journalism (if you can write a post about some forthcoming Twitter function in an hour based on a scoop from an insider, why spend more than that on a “non-scoop”?), it limits tech journalists ideas of what stories are and are not worth covering and it limits the role of the tech journalist to shilling for the companies they cover. It makes our role into professional waiters-for-something-happen rather than professional investigators or explainers.
Now let’s take a story from The Verge’s list as an example: Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. There’s no “scoop” here. No new Facebook features, no juicy gossip about Mark Zuckerberg, no IPO date. But there’s tons of insight into Sandberg, into what women experience in corporate America, and into Facebook as a company. Auletta likely spent days, probably weeks, researching and writing this piece. It’s the sort of quality stuff we all say we want to see more of, but few of us actually do. Partially of course because we don’t have the time, we’ve got posts to write and post TODAY. But partially, I think, because we don’t recognize the *story* here because it doesn’t fit with our ideology of the scoop.
It might not be fair to ask daily tech blogs to do the same sort of long form journalism that high brow magazines do, any more than it would be fair to ask a local daily newspaper to be Harper’s. But I think the contrast between scoop-driven tech blogs and the way other publications handle tech stories is illuminating because it shows a difference not just in the number of words or time spent on a story, but a difference in the type of story. There’s actually an opportunity for PR here, which I talked a bit about this in an interview on Sam Whitmore’s Mediasurvey (it’s behind a paywall, alas), and have a half-written blog post waiting to be finished.
The thing I’d like to see is a greater variety in the type of story, and a shift from the scoop mindset of quick hits about a new product to a mindset that sees technology journalism as more encompassing.