Tech, media, and what journalism is for

Update: After writing this, I felt that the entry had wound up sufficiently long that it was worth having a friend read it before I shared it publicly. So, I published it and sent it to her for notes. However, before I could edit in her comments, a few folks found it and shared the post. Techmeme also linked to it. So, I’m leaving it up unedited in the spirit of fairness. Long live thinking out loud.

If I wrote this post today instead of yesterday, I’d do something much shorter. Like this:

  1. Several members of a wealthy, powerful industry are asking the media for more positive, more kind coverage.

  2. No.

Alex

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It’s a day of rest at the house, so I’ll be as brief as possible. As always, I don’t have an editor for this personal blog, so please send all typos to yourself. Let me know when it’s updated. - Alex

Over the last few years it has been impossible to miss rising anti-media sentiment in the technology industry. The trend has proved even more concentrated in the world of startups. The sentiment shift has occurred as tech, writ-large, has seen its influence and wealth expand. 

It is not a coincidence that a rich and powerful industry finds media coverage increasingly discomfiting; it’s a standard result. The more power that a person or group has, the less they think of the media unless they are trying to craft their own image directly (on the record), or impugn the reputation of others (on background, deep-background, or off-the-record).

I bring all that up as we’re back, yet again, to Technology vs. The Media. The argument on Twitter has spilled over into my personal texts and DMs, not to mention my Twitter timeline. It has even begun to spawn some published articles. And if Hunter Walk is going to weigh in, how can I stay out of it?

Hunter’s post is good for a few reasons, while also missing some marks. I’ll let investors vet his notes to them, and focus instead on what he has to say to my profession. Before, however, I’ll disclose that I occasionally eat food with Hunter, like him personally, and think that he’s writing in good faith. 

His post is worth reading because intelligent criticism of the media is good and useful and welcome. I have a lot to say about The New York Times, for example, despite it being a generally good publication to read. You can find journalists talking shit about each other on Twitter every day, if you’d like to watch the media police itself. Or, for a more direct line, have a drink with a reporter and ask about their field. You’ll get notes. 

All that is to say that while criticism is good, quite a lot of what I’ve read on Twitter from members of the world of technology about journalism has been half-baked at best, or presented in either malicious bad faith or ruthless ignorance at worst.

Putting the hammer to Hunter as he’s taken a public stab at the matter, I found, for example, his notes on anonymous quotes to be somewhat off. Here’s his paragraph to the media world on the matter:

2. Overgrant anonymity, especially to direct quotes. I’ve written “you can always find an anonymous former employee to trash the founder.” There’s a school of thought in some journalism circles that anonymity is a precious privilege to be given out only when the information being secured is so important to public good, and the person doing the speaking is putting themselves in such a compromising position, that it’s worth robbing the reader of their ability to judge the information in context of who is saying it. This is the school I subscribe to. Every day I read articles which give full anonymity to almost anyone while also do direct quoting of what they said. “We wouldn’t get the good quote otherwise” some reputable reporters tell me. Well you know what, then maybe don’t get the good quote. If you want to grant anonymity, don’t use direct quotes. And if you must, at least provide context. “…said ex-employee” is meaningless – was this a VP there for eight years with intimate knowledge of the situation? Or a low level individual contributor there for two months and now talking out of their ass? Reporters want to say “well, you need to trust us on this sourcing” but I’m sorry, that’s a lot to give over for 95% of issues. If you can’t get people on the record, maybe it’s not a story. If you can only get a handful of low level people to comment anonymously about a 50,000 person company, maybe it’s not yet a story. Do more work.

I have never yet met a reporter who prefers anonymous quotes, even if they are at times a critical tool. Mostly they are used in two circumstances. First, when it’s important to protect less-powerful individuals from retribution from more-powerful people and institutions. This recent Vice piece on gig-economy workers at Shipt is a good example of this. If Vice named all the people it was quoting, they could be exposed to retribution, something that, given the experiences of the workers in question, seems quite possible.

The second time in which quotes, ideas, experiences, thoughts, and other bits of information are stripped of their personal context is when it’s forced by the individual in question. This is the case when people have been coached to speak only on background, for example. It’s now incredibly common for companies to only present information on background, forcing reporters to obfuscate where they learned it if they use they decide to use it. 

Nearly every technology executive wants to speak on background at most if you’d like to have a conversation these days, if they even deign to take your call. And don’t even think about talking to a startup employee on the record without approval -- that’s one hundred percent off limits and could result in their termination.

This brings us back to anonymous quotes, naturally. If you want to get anything other than canned lines, scripted by PR and approved by seven other people, about what’s up at any particular company, you’ll need to talk to people on background so that they can tell you what’s up without risking their job. And if you do only listen to what the company will serve up, you’ll never get closer than about a mile to the truth.

Hunter is correct that, at times, the media overuses anonymous quotes. The political media is particularly embarrassing in this way. But to argue that without on-the-record quotes a story might not be a story is to at least partially demand that working-class folks welcome the ire of the wealthy, that workers stick out their neck and risk their employment to critique the capital classes for something to be a story. Fuck that. 

This brings me to another point of media criticism -- not from Hunter this time, mind -- that I find particularly lame: That the media is full of haters who are out to take down the powerful for sport or profit. This argument is often undergirded by the presumption that members of the media are jealous of the wealth of others -- that once a startup becomes successful, the media comes after it to enrich themselves (via the traffic that such coverage infrequently drives), and to tear down the successful to make themselves feel better.

It’s not true, but it does provide good fodder for thin-skinned men to attempt Zoomer clapbacks at ‘haters,’ along with space for all sorts of Twitter personalities to complain that the media sucks and that they know how to fix it. (An aside: Please, please put your money up and build a publication that you think is better. If it is, it will thrive and the business of media will become slightly more healthy. Good luck!)

I promised to be as brief as I could, but please allow me two quick notes on this attempted argument. First that if one thinks that there is still ample money in advertising (the ‘clicks’ in clickbait) incomes for digital publications, they are wrong. 

Second, if the argument is true, then coverage of companies would universally tilt negative as they mature. This is not the case. It is true that rising scale (financial, cultural, technological) will result in rising scrutiny, but that does not necessarily imply rising negative coverage. Slack, for example, has been a media darling since its early days and still attracts mainly positive coverage because it’s a company doing well that isn’t sending waves of ex-staffers into the world, scarred from their time working for it. (That I’ve heard of, at least.)

The clickbait argument is financially illiterate in a macro sense (no single story is going to drive material advertising revenue, and startup coverage is not very popular to begin with), and the hater point is belied by the fact that most huge companies get majority-positive coverage throughout their lives.

Which brings me to a concluding point: Aren’t things good enough? Most startup coverage is positive -- every funding round piece is a gift, for example -- most conferences treat technology executives as far smarter than they are, and on and on and on. Tech companies have armies of PR staff, huge ad budgets, their own conferences, publications, and more! And yet journalism is the target? 

The media is at a local minima, not maxima, while the technology industry is the opposite. To see the latter incensed at the former feels upside down.

But, again, no one likes to be criticized if they have money or power. The President is a good example of this. So perhaps the Trumpification of the tech industry was always coming, and is now merely here.