Covering Tech: Four Main Elements

June 7, 2021

Photo via Pixabay.com

The following is an excerpt from a Beat Basics Update by G. Pascal Zachary and updated by Yael Grauer on covering banking. You can read the entire update to the ebook here.

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 Technology

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 Stories

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.