One of the first ever online journalists for the BBC is a close colleague of mine. These days, you’d say he was the most experienced member of the team.
But back in the 90s, when the BBC was still finding itself online, it was decided that his job would be “internet correspondent”.
Internet correspondent! The very notion that one such role could encapsulate all that was going on in this brave new world now seems hideously naive — but I’m told at the time it was met with the odd scoff in the newsroom.
“Can you believe it?” they’d chatter, “they’ve got someone who’s just looking at the internet!”
Fast forward a few more years, to 2005, and another colleague of mine found himself in a similar situation. Tasked with chipping in with the BBC’s live election coverage, his role was to give a run-down on what chatter was taking place online.
It was given a fairly short shrift — it really was all meaningless waffle, back then. The hardened hacks shared the same opinion — who cared about what some idiots on the internet had to say?
Of course, the next general election had no such role (Edit 16/07/14: see update at the foot of this post). This time, diligent political hacks— spearheaded by the likes of Laura Kuenssberg —were all across the internet themselves.
Tweeting, blogging, Facebooking… politics wasn’t just talked about on the internet, it happened there.
In 2014, just as we don’t need an “internet correspondent” anymore, I’m a technology reporter looking very nervously over my shoulder.
The disappearing beat
Most of my day-to-day work is for the BBC News website, but in the past 12 months I’ve been lucky enough to get my shot at TV and radio.
Yet while my personal capacity to tell technology stories in the past year has diversified, I’ve noticed something: my beat is rapidly disappearing.
We don’t need someone “watching the internet” during elections anymore, that’s clear. But we’re also now approaching a point where the most pressing — and let’s face it, interesting — technology stories shouldn’t be thought of as technology stories at all.
Case in point: the Edward Snowden revelations. A story broken, not by a technology writer, but by a civil rights specialist with a background in law.
Which makes a lot of sense. Snowden is a story about democracy, a political crisis, a threat to our human rights. It’s a debate about civil liberties, what it means to be “safe” from terrorism, and the ethics of whistleblowing.
That it was first reported by Glenn Greenwald, and not one of the literally thousands of tech journalists out there covering the beat day-in, day-out, shows that the real technology stories are not to be found within every sneeze and burp from Apple and friends.
The real stories are instead coming from people a world away from the churn-churn haze that holds technology journalism back.
Let’s look at a more recent example: the rushed UK data law. A bill that dictates how the UK government — and other selected organisations — can access data on what we do with technology when we communicate.
That, from the offset, was a political story, covered at our place by politics editor Nick Robinson. Sure we can add some background on how it might work technologically — but the real, valuable coverage is far away from the technology desk. And rightly so.
There’s heaps more. The porn filter debate (again, a politics story, thanks to posturing from politicians who have called for a non-solution solution); tax avoidance from some of the big guns like Amazon (a story of economics, and ethics); and indeed, the fluctuating doomed/dominant narrative of Apple which, you could say, might be best examined by a fashion columnist — since that’s what really matters anyway.
All important technology stories, but better suited to other beats.
Divide and cover
So what do we do about it?
Well — when I was studying for my A Levels (for the non-Brits: that’s around 17-18 years old), I had my career set on going “into IT”, as they say, to do some nondescript, soul-sucking desk job.
I had a flair for computing, apparently, and I should make the most of it. But I soon realised that it’s utterly pointless to learn how to use a computer just so you know how to use a computer. Far better to learn how to use a computer so you can go on and do something exciting with it.
And that’s pretty much how I feel about technology journalism today.
What must die out, and quickly, is the reporting of things merely because they happened via some kind of technology, with the tech as its focus.
After all, when the president makes a phone call, what’s the story? The content of the conversation, or the fact he’s using a telephone?
If technology journalists are to survive, we need to divide firmly into two camps, never to be reunited.
The geekiest aspects — new chips, R&D, and yes, start-ups — need to move back into the trade press.
It means sites like The Verge need to figure out what it is for — reporting every concocted venture capital investment, or being the first draft of our digital history? Given the quality of some of its reporters, I hope the focus is on the latter.
The technology journalists who don’t want the geeky path need to step up to the plate and start tackling the important stories involving how technology is changing our lives.
Simply, we need to give up thinking of ourselves as technology reporters, and instead become tech-savvy hacks on other beats.
Crime, lifestyle, business, sport, health, whatever. Y’know, the news.
Regardless of what camp you’re in, one thing is quite clear: we need to grow up, and move beyond covering the minutiae of an industry that treats the journalists that report on it like puppets.
We need to loosen our dependence on “exclusives” that are almost always nothing more than carefully-coordinated PR efforts for which we regularly fall for hook, line and sinker.
Because let’s face it — if you think you’re sticking it to Apple by publishing those “leaked” pictures of the “new” iPhone, get real.
Let’s stop wasting time — and lining pockets — with inconsequential, meaningless puff that is serving nobody, not least our audience.
Update 16/07/14: Turns out there was a role in 2010 for technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones to wrap up some of the online chat. But he has since remarked it probably won’t be needed again. I asked him for his thoughts on this piece, he wrote back:
Maybe it’s a definitional problem — “technology” journalism sprang up in late 1990s to cover the advance of the web, and as you say it’s so embedded in every aspect of life now that it’s hardly a specialist subject. But we’ve always had science journalism — and who would argue that that wasn’t needed more than ever these days?