Covering Tech

March 19, 2021
(Photo via Pixabay user PhotoMIX-Company)

By G. Pascal Zachary – Updated by Yael Grauer

Journalism about technology spans a few broad but distinct areas, most of which share a common origin in digital electronics. Once known as “high-tech” and now increasingly simply called “technology,” the subject covers computing, software, consumer electronics and telecommunications; the Internet, social media; parts of bio-medicine and biotechnology that rely heavily computational tools; some military technologies such as drones; surveillance technology such as automated license plate readers and cell-site simulators, and some parts of energy technology, especially batteries and solar cells. It increasingly also covers algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

Technology journalists also cover the world of scientists and engineers; and the inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs who imagine, build and market new instance of the technologies cited above. Technologists can work in industries or universities, in privately-owned enterprises, non-profits or government-run programs.

The tech beat also includes aspects of economics, including coverage of the financiers, venture capitalists and government agencies who fund digital innovations, as well as crowdfunding. Additionally, tech coverage includes cryptocurrency and coverage of the blockchain and its uses. The tech beat may also include coverage of the marketing, engineering and management executives who define the projects and products that turn broad innovations into specific products and then bring these products, and future iterations of them, to consumers and the market, not only in the U.S. but around the world.

In recent decades, technology has spawned many important news and analysis stories, about business, economics, society and even politics.

“Tech reporters” often work out of the business desk of a news organization, though sometimes they are grouped together in their own section or as part of the science section. Technology stories sometimes lead the news, and the since the practice of journalism is being reshaped by new information-technologies, leaders of journalism often learn a good deal about the subject.

No matter where tech reporters work, they are recognized as breed of their own, with a distinct set of skills, knowledge and experience.

This primer aims to provide the basics of technology journalism – and instill an appetite for learning more about it.

Covering Tech: Four Main Elements

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. Review sites, which compare and contrast products on a wide variety of criteria such as usability, trust, transparency, cost and privacy features, are also proliferating. Reporters analyze 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 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. Sometimes the companies are leading the disruption themselves.

The gig economy, a free market system that typically relies on independent workers for short-term commitments, is a subsection of companies that create and market new technologies. Companies such as AirBNB and Lyft have worked to disrupt the hotel industry and the transportation industry, respectively.

Gig work is a fundamental component of today’s economy, and is predicted to increase with technological advancements. Companies can increase their profits by adjusting their workforce through gig work, but gig workers generally have fewer workplace protections and employer-provided benefits.

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. This can intersect with both legal and sociopolitical issues, as tech companies decide whether or how much to cooperate with government requests for data, for example, or to grapple with their role in stopping the spread of disinformation. Companies are also increasingly being called to task for algorithmic bias or other unintended consequences of both software and hardware product and tools.

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.

COVERING TECHNOLOGY: PEOPLE, FIELD VISITS, DOCUMENTS

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

How 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 investment. If a journalist is tossed into the tech fray only occasionally, the task is much harder.

For any reporter-covering tech, either for a day or a decade, the most important resource is people. Some technologists are formally trained while others are self-taught hackers who have 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 buzzwords 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.

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. (It’s worth checking to make sure this is the case.) 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. Contacts at digital security firms are invaluable, especially if they specialize or are highly experienced in the specific aspect of technology you’re reporting. Public relations people, while often inflexible, self-serving and simplistic, sometimes can quickly provide guidance and even inside scoops – on deadline. A rare PR person can even become a trusted source. Others can help you find a specific source, report or stat you need for your story.

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, including those from think tanks and 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 where executives show off new stuff and hackers share security vulnerabilities they’ve found. University researchers also hold conferences as well as smaller events. Because of the cost of attending conferences, reporters must choose them carefully – and look for those happening close to home. Even if not attending an event in person, it’s often possible to follow the conversation on Twitter and other social media, or to watch videos (either in real time or afterwards). In fact, some conferences and events take place entirely online. However, attending in person can be a good way to cultivate sources in a more informal environment—many conversations take place in hotel lobbies or in the hallways after a talk, for example.

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

SOCIAL MEDIA

Cultivating a Twitter list of technical experts, joining Slack channels where people discuss the pros and cons of specific technologies, and even keeping an eye on everything from Reddit to LinkedIn can help you keep your finger on the pulse. As always, it’s important to research the veracity of any claims, and sometimes the loudest voices aren’t the correct ones. That said, researching rumors and analyses can help you ask the right questions during the course of your reporting.

COVERING TECHNOLOGY: CHALLENGES

In this section, we look at the common mistakes made by tech reporters and how to avoid them.

“I COULDN’T FIND DIVERSE SOURCES ON A DEADLINE”

Some technology journalists have a tendency to only interview white men. This can present a myopic view of technology and its benefits. It can also lead to reporters glossing over systemic or widespread problems until they reach a fever pitch. Included underrepresented voices and perspectives in your stories will improve your coverage. Luckily, there are a wide variety of lists that will assist you with this task, such as https://diversesources.org/, and https://editorsofcolor.com/diverse-databases/, which is a database of diverse databases compiled by Editors of Color.

“THE PR PERSON MISLED ME.”

It happens. Mostly commonly, tech companies exaggerate potential. Even skeptical reporters sometimes struggle with PR hype.

How do you defend yourself against PR spin? One way is to go to the PR person from a rival company, or a promoter of a competing technology. The PR rival often has plenty of reasons why their rival will fail. The quickest way to puncture the hype and exaggeration presented by one company is to go to a competitor.

Hype by scientists is harder to identify. One red flag: when scientists also have their own companies, apply extra scrutiny to technical claims.

In both instances, and time permitting, it’s a good idea to talk to technical experts who may be skeptical of company claims, or provide angles of which you’d be otherwise unaware.

“I CAN’T UNDERSTAND THE BASIC TECHNOLOGIES.”

You may never understand them. Electronics is based on complicated physics and mathematics. Ultimate understanding of, say, how a new data-storage device works, may be impossible. One workable compromise is to identify people who do understand these technologies, poll the views of at least three of them, tally their common conclusions and then identify inconsistencies. Points of disagreement can be looked at more closely. If disagreements remain, tell the reader: not even experts agree on whether the new technology will work or not. Reading books and having conversations about, say, the blockchain, or cryptocurrency or cloud computing can help you develop a deeper understanding. Make sure to stay current on industry changes, too, as technology moves quickly and it’s easy to get out-of-date.

“I CAN’T PREDICT THE FUTURE”

No one can. But tech reporters are constantly asked to provide insights into the new big thing – or at least a warning on what’s around the next bend in the road. Fortunately, many scientists and engineers specialize in looking ahead. There are even professional futurists. Finally, learn how to qualify your predictions by presenting several “scenarios.” Rather than betting on one outcome, present a range of possibilities, each supported by reasonable forecasts.

“I’M A PRISONER OF MY SOURCES.”

In technology reporting, knowledgeable sources abound. People too eager to help may be pushing their own agenda. Check their claims with other experts who don’t have a direct stake in your story.

“I OVER-SIMPLIFIED.”

In trying to write simply and clearly about tech, you can sometimes introduce errors and distortions that draw complaints, erode your credibility and even force you to publish corrections. Clear and reliable explanations of technological change are a moving target. 20 years ago, writing about the Internet required an elaborate explanation about how the vagaries of computer networks. Today, the internet is a plain English word known by nearly everyone.

“THIS ALREADY HAPPENED.”

Never write that a technological breakthrough is the first or the best, unless there’s overwhelming independent evidence in support of the claim. Often there isn’t time to learn the history of a field, so avoid grand claims. If you have time, learn the key milestones of your technology beat.

“BECAUSE I MISSED THE LAST BIG THING, I’LL CALL EVERYTHING THE ‘NEXT BIG THING’ – AND NEVER MISS ONE AGAIN!”

Journalists have a history of ignoring major shifts, especially in individual technologies. The integrated circuit, invented in Bell Labs in 1947, merited only a few lines in the New York Times and was widely ignored for many years. Few gave any attention to Facebook or Twitter when they launched. The examples of media ignoring the next big thing are legion. So journalists should be careful before dismissing out of hand any innovation. But the answer is careful, if brief review. Avoid declaring every promising innovation “the next big thing.” They can’t all be.

“AM I ROOTING FOR THE HOME TEAM.”

Technologies compete on a global field; the innovation leaders in your hometown play an international game. Because the sources and subjects in your city or region are more accessible, you tend to take on their view of the world. For a reporter who finds Google or Apple in his or her backyard, adopting the outlook of the “home team” may make for good journalism. But even technology pacesetters have blind spots, and journalists should fight against adopting them. The best therapy for the home-team disease: talk regularly to tech leaders in other geographies.

“I SUFFER FROM AMNESIA.”

The past often provides parallels about the present. Many technology challenges of today, especially in business, can be at least partly illuminated by quickly looking at past experiences. In choosing historical analogies, cast a wide net. Draw on the many professors of history who specialize in technology. One benefit: older technologies are more familiar, easing the burden of explaining how things work and opening space for highlighting complexity.

Henry Petroski’s superb history of the pencil, for instance, contains an extraordinary chapter on the global competition for leadership in pencil-making – and the push 100 years ago by the U.S. government, and leading American technology companies, to wrest away global leadership from Germany, which then dominated pencil technology.

Technologies move so fast that often there seems to be no time for looking backwards. But getting into the habit of doing so has another benefit: some innovators actually relive the past. Some technologies presented as new actually aren’t new at all. They were tried before – and failed for reasons that might help you assess the latest instance. One example is all-electric cars: reportage of new efforts to market an all-electric can be enhanced by recounting GM’s failed attempt in the 1990s.

COVERING TECHNOLOGY: CORE CONCEPTS AND TERMS

Technologies are protean, so technology journalists are always redefining what they cover. Specific gadgets and gizmos come and go. 15 years ago, the world new nothing of Twitter, Facebook and the iPhone; today these are staples of the journalism about information technology. Change is constant. Entire tools – the cable set-top box, the mobile phone, even the car dashboard – undergo revolutions. Wholly new “technological systems” emerge.

While technologies constantly change, essential business and economic concepts endure. These concepts illuminate the technological landscape for the journalist. Most innovations survive because they win in the economic marketplace; few depend decisively on government support. To understand These 12 concepts below apply across types of technologies and industries:

BUSINESS MODEL

Successful innovations generally need a way of paying for themselves. The term “business model” refers to the manner in which a technology gets paid for. The most common model is the sale of individual products to large numbers of people. Another model involves “subscriptions.” The cable company Comcast doesn’t try to sell you its service each month, but rather for a long time. This model involves making it costly for the consumer to switch. A third model calls for giving away a basic product for free, then selling add-ons.

In practice, even successful technologies can lack a business model, calling their future into doubt. Some wildly popular companies attract little advertising and scant revenue, and are socially successful but economically a failure. Others are acquired or learn through trial-and-error what business model is right for them.

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION AND DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES

New technologies often succeed by destroying existing ones, and disrupting businesses, forcing them to adapt or die. Often, even entrenched technologies succumb to the forces of creative destruction. The term was coined by an Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who argued that the birth and death of industries was an inevitable consequence of technological innovation.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Ideas and knowledge – about design and processes especially – are critical to creating value from innovation. The real value of an iPhone, for instance, lies in the intellectual property – the copyrights, patents and trade secrets – that animate the design and manufacture of the device. The value of ideas – and the need to protect that value – unites technology companies around a new business model that depends on profiting from the marginal costs of copying ideas easily and quickly.

MOMENTUM OR PATH DEPENDENCE

Why do some technologies persist, even after new ones become common? Examples of old tech surviving are legion. Television didn’t kill radio. Bicycles survived the advent of cars. Even the pencil, a celebrated breakthrough from the 19th century, survived the arrival of the pen. One reason is what the historian of technology Thomas Hughes calls momentum, or what the economist Paul David calls path dependence.

The gist of this powerful concept is that old habits are hard to break; having started down a path, society often sticks with a technology because the costs of changing are too great.

Path dependence is thus the flip side of creative destruction. Not everything gives way and some- times tradition wins, sometimes because old technologies get reinvented. The gas-powered car gets new life from an electric battery. The radio, which people once listened to in their living rooms, becomes portable, and gains new uses. New manufacturing techniques make glass lighter and stronger. In explaining the persistence of mature technologies, British historian Harold Edgerton refers to “the shock of the old.”

MOORE’S LAW

Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, some 50 years ago came up with a simple trajectory: the cost effectiveness of electronic devices doubles every 18 months. “Moore’s law” is more of a marketing reality than a physical law. In the case of computer-data storage, price-performance improvement has come even more rapidly. Falling prices for electronic gear have the effect of making possible the unimaginable: movies played on iPhones, entire music libraries stored on devices the size of a quarter, and digital cameras with all the bells and whistles of analog cameras from a decade ago (and sold for a fraction of the price). One looming specter over the entire technology scene is whether “Moore’s law” can continue indefinitely into the future.

PLATFORM OR STANDARDS

Technologies have to work with other technologies, and when they do, they form a platform built around a set of standards that companies agree to follow or, in some cases, the government imposes on suppliers. The DVD player is a typical platform; every DVD shares a certain technical standard that enables all DVD players to play all DVDs interchangeably. Windows is another platform or standard; creators of code write to a set of specifications that define the Windows standard and insure, basically, that all Windows programs will work on all Windows computers. Standards offer new companies an easy way to piggyback on an existing market. But standards also limit innovation.

OPEN PLATFORMS VERSUS CLOSED PLATFORMS

When creating new technology, perhaps the most important business decision is whether to be “open” or “closed.” Most new mobile phones are open, meaning they work with any cellular network; these phones also are “open” for any applications written to their specifications. By contrast, Apple’s iPhone originally worked only with one mobile network (AT&T) and all iPhone applications required the approval of Apple itself.

The “closed” iPhone has the benefit of greater consistency but generally higher cost because closed systems are mini-monopolies. Makers of new technologies often talk about openness but in practice, their belief in the benefits of being partly closed stop them from being totally open. Ink-jet printers are an excellent. Hewlett-Packard’s printers work with every computer and so they qualify as open. Yet the ink-cartridges are closed; the only source is HP. Thus, partly open systems are com- mon because – like Gillette and its razor blades – they enable a company to sell a platform inexpen- sively and then recoup their profits by selling essential parts. Printers, for instance, are often sold very cheaply because the manufacturer expects to earn handsome profits on ink.

OPEN SOURCE

Technologies that are free to the public, and freely modified, are known as open-source. Some of the most popular software programs, such as the Linux operating system or the Firefox browser, aren’t owned by anyone. These open source technologies compete against one another and against proprietary products based around “intellectual property” vigorously defended by owners. Not all free tools, however, are open source. Google’s search services are free, but users cannot modify them or make them their own.  And some open source tools have licenses that require payment for installation.

NETWORK EFFECTS

Platforms and standards are linked to one of the most important aims of any successful technology: gaining and keeping market share. Market share is always important to businesses, but probably even more to technology businesses because of a process called “network effects.”

The principle is simple to grasp but hard to carry out: the more people who use a network, the greater the network’s value. Thus, Google gives away its search service because it can sell advertising to those who use it; the more users, the higher the advertising rates. For some technology companies, gaining market share is more important than profits; there entire business resembles a loss leader. The goal is to gain enough followers that their network reaches a tipping point, suddenly becoming valuable.

The web-TV service, Hulu, illustrates the process. Hulu began giving viewers for free the chance to watch television programs whenever they wanted. Once enough viewers got accustomed to visiting Hulu, the company began finding ways to sell them entertainment.

Even hardware companies sometimes pursue market share over profits for essentially same reason: the original decision to, say adopt an Intel microprocessor, locks in a consumer; switching becomes too costly, enabling Intel to increase profits once its installed base is large enough. Cable companies work on the same principle. Getting customers can be costly, but if you keep them, they are akin to annuity.

TECHNOLOGICAL SYSTEMS

New technologies often can be declared dead on arrival if they fail to take advantage of an existing technological system. Imagine for instance the fate of a new airplane that can travel faster and less expensively than existing planes and can even be built for less, but which requires extra-long runways that make landing in existing airports impossible. In short, the plane is terrific but requires every airport in America to be rebuilt. Can this airplane succeed commercially? Not likely, because air travel is a technological system that demands each piece to work in concert. Purely electric cars face the problem in areas with limited charging stations. The lack of a technological system to support a new innovation isn’t always lethal. Technological systems can be constructed around great new technologies. But that takes time and often demands that society gains tremendously from the change. And that rarely happens.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Technologies get popular for reasons inventors didn’t anticipate. The telephone was conceived by its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, as a way to broadcast music and news – as a kind of radio. He never imagined that the technology’s chief use would be for two individuals to talk to each other over a single line.

Similarly, the leading computer designer of the 1950s predicted that a mere dozen computers could satisfy the demand for computation in the entire U.S!

Conversely, technologies sometimes bite back, as Edward Tenner has noted, harming society in unanticipated ways. No one, for instance, ever anticipated that one effect of the iPhone would be distracted drivers. Because new technologies have unintended consequences, monitoring how society adapts them – and is changed by them – is an important part of technology journalism.

This is also true for technology that gathers large amounts of information about users, which can be sold, stolen or misused internally,  and is often susceptible to government requests for data. Additionally, algorithms used in popular technology can privilege an arbitrary group of users over another, reflecting systematic discrimination. And many types of technology are prone to abuse, with insufficient remedies for users affected by it.

THE BEST TECHNOLOGY DIDN’T WIN OUT

Scientists and engineers often embrace technological determinism, insisting without much reflection that the best technology ought to win out. But for a variety of reasons, commercial success in technology isn’t a science experiment.

Many times, the winning technology standard is demonstrably weaker than competing standards. And to supplant an existing technology, an improved one cannot be only slightly better. The replacement usually must be an order of magnitude – more than ten times – better than what’s existing. Improvements on such a scale often do occur, thanks to Moore’s law, but advances by themselves don’t ensure success in the market, either.

Sometimes inventors and entrepreneurs who are fast followers – skilled at packaging break- throughs made by others – end up gaining commercial advantage. Fast followers take advantage of the reality that technology leaders often release products before the market can absorb them. The failures of trailblazers often set the stage for success by others who took the trouble to learn more completely the valuable lessons from the introduction of a novel product. Fast following, rather than being first, often defines success.