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By G. Pascal Zachary
The technology beat is approached in four main ways, each of which is linked to business and the economy. Most tech reporters do all four types of stories, though some succeed by concentrating in a single area.
Covering personal technologies: the “artifacts,” or gadgets or high-tech “stuff” that consumers depend on. A common approach is to report on how well new gadgets work. The emphasis is on what’s new and improved. In doing reporting of this type, journalists do not stray very far from how the “latest and greatest” gizmo compares with the current model. Reporters compare and contrast features, learn how things work (and sometimes don’t) and try to scoop one another on the shape of future products. These tasks are difficult. Some reporters become “power users” in order to gain an edge, while others rely heavily on expert opinion to evaluate new products.
Covering of the companies who create and market new technologies – and the economic impacts generally of these innovations. The method of judging the performance of high-tech companies, while generic to business journalism in general, has some unique qualities. Because of the tendency for new technologies to destroy the value of their existing products and business lines, “tech companies” need to constantly innovate, invest heavily in R&D and acquire frequently outside research groups or companies that possess important technical knowledge or complementary products. While all businesses to a degree experience the forces of “creative destruction,” tech companies often experience these forces more dramatically.
Covering the social effects of new information and communications technologies. Because they possess specialized knowledge and have many sources on technological change, tech reporters are often asked by editors off the business and tech sections to report on trends and even news about social and even cultural trends arising from technological change.
Covering the people who create, promote, and market popular technologies: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergei Brin, Bill Gates – these people draw as much, or more, coverage than the technologies their companies promote. Humanizing a tech story often means presenting the personality as central. Reporting on the people behind the technologies is as important as understanding the technologies themselves, and sometimes easier. But access to celebrity technologists is usually tightly managed: interviews are difficult to obtain and critics often suffer retaliation in the form of loss of access.
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.”