After a long time as a writer, Steven Levy is now an editor-in-chief. Here’s why.
Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of success is showing up. I think that the secret is more like not going away. That’s been my somewhat accidental strategy to making a mark as a technology writer.
When I began, personal computers were a novelty, the Internet was an obscure research project, and phones had wires, without exception. The way people viewed technology writing was just as antiquated. For many years, it was just one more niche in a news universe that operated the way it had for decades. As the digital revolution arrived, tech sections got bigger and more writers covered that world; essentially, the niche got fatter. And then got skinnier, after the 2000 dotcom collapse. As the undeniable momentum of digital continued, the pendulum swung back, and there was more tech writing than ever.
In the meantime, a new media world emerged. Traditional outlets struggled and sometimes even evaporated. (I saw this a little too closely at Newsweek.) But while buyouts and layoffs permeated traditional media, a wave of digital-only publications created news rooms where none had existed. Some of the best of those are in the tech field. It’s that rare beat in journalism where everybody seems to be hiring. The hunger to read about the tech — from the corporate giants to the newly minted startups—seems insatiable.
Nonetheless, this broad world of tech writing is crowded and confusing. Much of it is redundant, with dozens of sites writing commodity versions of the same stories. Incredible amounts of energy are expended chasing “scooplets” of transitory value. Infinite pixels are then wasted by other sites rewriting those scooplets. Millions of readers are lured by sensational headlines, only to be disappointed to find a superficial dispatch with no new information, dashed off by a harried journalist tasked with producing three stories a day. You do see many wonderful, well-researched and written stories — but all too often they are buried by the flotsam generated by the perceived necessity to cover everything.
That’s why I am starting Backchannel, a hub for tech writing that takes a different approach. Every day, if you scan all the web, there are a handful of great pieces, the ones you see cited in places like TechMeme or MediaREDEF, and shared by smart people on social media. My goal as a journalist has always been to create one of those pieces every time out. And that’s what I want for all of Backchannel. We won’t even try to cover everything, limiting ourselves to a few new pieces a day. If there’s nothing original to say, we’ll keep quiet. Remember that “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine’s former boss stole her idea of selling only the delicious crowns of muffins, discarding the relatively flavorless stumps? That’s Backchannel. Only muffin tops.
Here’s what Backchannel will aspire to: delight, insight, deep reporting and lasting value. Every piece will try to present something unique and meaningful, whether previously unreported stories or distinctive and authoritative points of view.
(If you see basically the same thing somewhere else on the Internet, chalk that one up to the loss column for us.) The writing will be lively — you’ll want to read some lines out loud to your friends.
And, of course, Backchannel will run on the beautiful Medium platform, augmented by its own singular design. When I first thought of creating a lithe, nimble center for meaningful, fun tech writing, I realized that Medium — which has already become somewhat of a magnet for people doing just that, whether the wise contributors to The Message or the luminaries who have found it a great place to publish — was already such a place. I also loved that as a nascent enterprise, Medium’s conventions are not yet set in concrete. In short it’s a perfect place to participate in the grand experiment of Internet-based journalism.
I plan to write a lot for Backchannel, from detailed exclusives on game-changing products on the day of release, deep dives that explain heretofore mysterious processes within major companies, and thoughtful commentary of the earth-shattering changes in an industry that routinely does such shattering.
Backchannel will also have a team of regular contributors who include some of the nation’s best tech writers, now and in the future. They will comb the digital world for important stories no one else is telling, or telling in the right way. Their contributions will include prescient analysis, enlightening profiles and long investigative pieces that themselves will make news. I’ll also seek well-placed, enterprising writers to do challenging long-form investigations. With the design muscle of Medium, all our work will be presented in clear, illuminating fashion, with great graphics and original photography.
In addition, Backchannel will attempt to scan the vast ether of the Medium universe for great tech pieces that deserve more exposure, and (with the author’s permission) will publish them in our collection. (If you want to call something to our attention, try us at firstname.lastname@example.org Be warned our bar is high.)
Not enough for you? OK, in addition to that, Backchannel will be a place for the leaders of the digital revolution to posit their own strong opinions. Medium itself is on course to be the most coveted op-ed platform of its time, and I want tech luminaries, insiders, and articulate dissidents to think of Backchannel in particular as a powerful megaphone. (I ask of those luminaries: write something that someone will disagree with.)
In short, Backchannel strives to live up to its name. In a backchannel conversation (these days most often conducted by a technology that didn’t exist until recently), mordant spitball throwers ignore the obvious and gloss only on the remarks worth mentioning and commenting on. If you are at a conference where a screen shows a Twitter backchannel, you can’t take your eyes off it. Sitting in the back row of the tech revolution carnival. Backchannel hopes to do the same. (Sometimes, of course, our contributors will muscle their way to the front row.)
I know that these ambitions sound lofty, if not comically inflated. After covering the lavish ambitions of tech founders for thirty years—and never going away—I guess I’m infected. But, hey, I didn’t quit Wired for nothing. I want to build something that makes a difference. Writers and readers, please join me on the journey.
Illustration by Mike McQuade