This week, I spoke to a group of media students at Auckland University of Technology, a great bunch of people who were curious and asked some very thoughtful and really quite hard questions.
There was one question in particular that I don’t feel I answered well enough.
Actually, there were probably more than just that one, but the question about how technology reporting has changed over the years made me think and take stock of what’s happened, and I’d like to expound a bit on that.
Like with other streams of journalism, the tech beat has developed in a boiling the frog fashion. Gradually, some pretty drastic changes in how tech journalism is done have appeared and we’ve come to accept them while the water temperature is slowly being turned up.
I mentioned the ever-tighter deadlines as one aspect of change – in some ways that’s good, because an experienced journalist can report news almost real-time with the help of technology such as smartphones and the internet.
You’re lightweight, mobile, and capable now. Much as I found it awkward to start with, adding video, audio and images to your reporting makes it more relevant and richer than text-only stories. Basically, you’re your own printing press and production house now.
That doesn’t mean you’re always better off being a one person lean and mean media machine.
There’s rarely sufficient time to think about stories before you wrote them, discuss them with colleagues, check and double check on things, and let drafts sit for a while after filing and then read through them again – all of which “make things better” as subbies would say.
Stories have to come out, or they’re old and die. The shelf life of news has shrunk heaps and now, if it happened more than a few hours ago, you’re usually too late to the party – unless your experience and knowledge picks up something in the story that’ll give it a fresh angle.
The opposition, public relations and communications people, know this well and truly.
They often try to stall, delay, and avoid answering even the simplest question, especially if the company you’re reporting on is a multinational and you go through the local office.
As a journalist, you’re told to go through certain communications channels, staffed by people who send polite responses asking when’s your deadline (now!) and what your phone number is (you already have it, and you won’t call me anyway.)
Govt departments are easily the worst offenders here, with large communications departments that work hard to bury inconvenient news and prevent access to ministers and civil servants.
If you call people, they will insist on emailed questions, to further stall the process.
Government departments are easily the worst offenders here, with large communications departments that work hard to bury inconvenient news and prevent access to ministers and civil servants. Tech companies are a more exposed, especially if they’re listed, and usually have to respond sooner rather than later, or analysts will pick up on things going wrong short their shares.
That doesn’t mean you’ll get good answers out of tech companies.
Instead, it’s either a bland, meaningless holding statement, or some unverifiable off the record “background information” attributable to nobody.
If as a journalist you have enough verifiable material to go on, you can work around this lack of transparency with the “publish fast, patch later” method. This is a reference to a certain large enterprise software house, which would famously release code as quickly as it could, and afterwards fix it up and add features with patches.
Publish fast, patch later, puts pressure on vendors (and government departments) to respond and makes it that much harder to bury inconvenient stories. You also get input from knowledgeable readers (you are lovely people, can’t thank you enough), the story can develop in a really interesting fashion too.
It would be better for everyone involved, journalists and the companies and people they report on to have more transparency and timeliness…
The drawback to that method is of course that you might not get the full picture to start with, and publish a piece with not enough detail and information, which is risky for a raft of reasons. It also makes it difficult to write a good story, if the juiciest bits of information arrive late in the game.
It would be better for everyone involved, journalists and the companies and people they report on to have more transparency and timeliness, but don’t forget that in 2017, anyone can publish on the internet, vendors included.
Rather than responding to your questions, comms staffers might write a blog post on the issue, send out media releases, which is quick and easy and finds everyone thanks to email. Other times they’ll leak the story to an unscrupulous content farm publication that cares about impressions for ad revenue, and nothing else, hoping if the bland piece runs early, it’ll prompt better, more detailed ones.
There are many more ways tech and other forms of journalism have changed than the above, including data analysis and visualisation of massive information troves that just wasn’t possible before, and all those earnest and targeted leaks that pop up now and then.
The above mentioned fun and games is the tech-supported journalism mod that reporters will come to curse on a daily basis though. I hope this “speak first, patch later” column answered the AUT media students’ question a little better about how things have changed in tech journalism land.