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Covering technology: People, field visits, documents

By G. Pascal Zachary

Three types of resources nourish technology journalists: people, field visits, documents.

CES companiesHow they take advantage of these resources depends chiefly on time. If they’ve been assigned full-time to a tech beat, contacts and knowledge build over time. The journalist becomes, if not a specialist, then adept at brokering between his readers and specialists. One resource often leads to many more, making the hard work of mastering the tech beat a form of personal investing.  If a journalist is tossed into the tech fray only occasionally, the task is much harder but expectations are naturally lower.

For any reporter-covering tech, either for a day or a decade, the most important resource is people. Some of these people are formally-trained experts; others are self-taught “hackers,” who’ve acquired immense knowledge on the fly. These two kinds of experts serve the same function: they translate technical concepts and jargon into plain English; they teach reporters the essential lingo of the field; they stand ready to help a journalist fact-check the technical aspects of a story on deadline.

Experts alert reporters to what’s significant and new in the blizzard of information about mature and emerging technologies. They help reporters decode new “buzz words” and evaluate competing claims about similar products and services. Experts also help reporters check the veracity of claims, and help them fix mistakes – before they are published.

Best tech sources

The best tech sources are people who work close to the cutting-edge, with a front row seat to view what’s coming next out of the lab and into the market. Good tech journalists will maintain a list of dozens of these people, often “checking in” every week or even every day. Over time, a small number of stars will emerge: experts with a commitment to helping the journalist present a balanced and accurate picture of both established and emerging technologies.

Games at CES

Photo by Flickr user Pinguino

Universities are one place to look for them. Professors are valuable because they see the “big picture” and usually are independent, without financial ties to companies who market technologies. Find profs with a flair for clear, simple, and accurate explanations. Product designers and strategists at companies also can provide clear explanations and valuable assessments of rivals. Public relations people, while often inflexible, self-serving and simplistic, sometimes can quickly provide guidance and even inside dope – on deadline. A rare PR person can even become a trusted source.

Gadflies, insurgents and trouble-makers also are important, perhaps more so in tech than any other area of reporting. University dropouts and social rebels have a long history of success in high-tech fields. Some insurgents are kooks and time-wasters of course, but a select few can strip away hype, putting technical advances in accurate and fair context. They also can provide inside sources willing to speak knowledgeably about urgent issues.

Reports

Published reports on new technologies, especially from U.S. government agencies, are valuable background, to be read at the outset of reporting on a field. Marketing companies produce scads of technology reports, but many are commissioned by the very companies whose products they tout. These reports should be used with caution. Suppliers of new technology can also usually provide clear, reliable and relevant information about how their technologies work and what they deliver. But companies often fail to highlight how these technologies fall short of expectations and how they compare to similar technologies offered by rivals. Investors, and especially a special class called “venture capitalists,” who assist “early stage” and private companies with obtaining funds, talent and strategies, can sometimes provide timely guidance about new markets and innovations.

Conferences

One easy way for tech reporters to meet many plugged-in people fast is to attend industry conferences. The tech industry is organized around product categories; each has periodic gatherings, such as Demo and TechCrunch Disrupt, where executives show up new stuff. University researchers also hold confabs. Because of the cost of attending conferences, reporters must choose them carefully – and look for those happening close to home.

Final, read the competition, especially trade journals who specialize in following closely specific companies and technologies.

G. Pascal Zachary reported on Silicon Valley and business technology for the San Jose Mercury and The Wall Street Journal (1987-1995). He’s been an innovation columnist for Technology Review, Spectrum, and The New York Times. He is the author of two books on technology: “Showstopper” about the making of a software program at Microsoft; and “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century.”

About the Author

The Reynolds Center, created through generous grants from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas and operated by ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is dedicated to improving the quality of business and economics coverage through training programs for business reporters and editors.

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