“A natural, & healthy, tension between myself & the people I write about.” How The Verge’s Casey Newton Handles ‘Tech Friends.’
My friendship with The Verge’s Casey Newton started where 90% of his relationships do: on Twitter. Casey’s coverage of tech is opinionated, but not cavalier, and even empathetic when appropriate. As a result I’m a “Casey Completist” — I try to read everything he writes because if it’s something that caught his eye, it’s likely that I’m interested as well. Casey was kind enough to join me for Five Questions where he said not to “pull any punches….”
Hunter Walk: The way media companies make money (or measure success) can sometimes be inconsistent with what I think leads to good reporting. For example, page views and being “first” versus in-depth analysis. How does The Verge measure a reporter’s contributions? How do you know if you’re doing a “good job?”
Casey Newton: When I think about my job performance, I’m generally thinking about two things: impact and audience. Impact is the harder of the two to measure, but it shows up a few ways. Are your competitors aggregating your work? Are they crediting you for your scoop? Are they sharing your analysis on Twitter and Facebook? Nuzzel has become an excellent tool for measuring impact, for this reason — it shows you which stories were so good that competitors felt compelled to share them. Good stories have impact in other ways, too: they result in companies changing their policies, or bad actors losing their jobs. But my basic belief is that it’s not a good story until someone who doesn’t work with you, or for the company you are writing about, tells you that it is.
The second dimension is audience, and it’s a tricky one. On one hand, chasing page views for their own sake often results in terrible work. On the other hand, no one likes shouting into an empty void. So I try to look at it in the aggregate — is my audience growing over time? Does that audience include the people I respect the most, whether they be fellow journalists or people in the tech world? As long as that number is creeping upward, I feel good about what I’m doing. (I’d note that The Verge has never evaluated employees on page views or video views, for these reasons — although like any publisher, we celebrate employees when they get a big win.)
HW: Continuing with the “making money,” many media companies now have quite valuable event businesses alongside their sites. These conferences rely upon getting the big names to attend for interviews, while at the same time, the publications should be covering these people with a critical eye. Does this concern you? How can objectivity be maintained?
CN: It’s a fair question, and something we do think about — particularly as we think about ways The Verge might do events in the future. Fortunately we have a great model in how to proceed with the Code Conference, which our parent company, Vox Media, acquired in 2015. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher envisioned their events as first and foremost as acts of live journalism — which means no scripts, no panels, and an expectation that the speakers would make news. Anyone who agrees to come to Code knows they could be in for a grilling, and yet the caliber of speakers has only gotten better over the years.
This is tricky to replicate — Walt and Kara are the best in the business. But they have absolutely provided a model, and I can’t imagine using another one. Most of the tech conferences I’ve been to don’t offer much in the way of insight; they seem to be designed primarily to protect and promote the companies that they’re showcasing. An easy thing that most conferences could do, and do not, is to leave time for unscreened audience Q&A. The audience questions at Code often lead to answers just as revealing as the ones that from the moderators.
HW: Similarly you’re a conscientious reporter but also maintain friendships with many of the people in our industry. Has that put you in awkward situations? You and I are pretty close — how do you think I’d react if you came out with a really negative piece about one of our portfolio companies?
CN: Not well! It helps that Homebrew is generally focused on the enterprise, which I write about less. [hw note: we do plenty of consumer! And I wouldn’t be angry if I thought it was tough but fair. That’s your job.] But yes, this puts me in awkward situations all the time. After I criticized bots on Facebook Messenger a few times, David Marcus stopped meeting with me. I interviewed Jack Dorsey a couple months after writing a piece headlined, “Nothing Twitter is doing is working.” (It didn’t come up.) I wrote a piece about abandoning Evernote, a company where I had become friendly with some folks who used to work there, and they messaged to remind me that they still have stock in the company. Somehow I think they’ll scrape by.
Another venture capitalist who I really like and admire yelled at me recently at a dinner his firm had invited me to that I am too negative. This came a few weeks after a PR person told me that I “criticize a lot of people’s babies.” I took this more as a statement of fact than a complaint about my work — it’s in the nature of what I do to evaluate products. This creates a natural, and healthy, tension between myself and the people I write about.
When you live in San Francisco, inevitably you become close with people in tech. But generally speaking, the more I write about your company, the less likely it is that we will be friends — while you’re working there, anyway.
HW: As part of your career at The Verge you’ve moved between reporting and editorial roles. Which do you enjoy more? Are you doing both now?
CN: I try to spend as much of time as I can writing and reporting. Writing makes me happy; managing people much less so. And fortunately my bosses at The Verge have gone out of their way to let me do as much writing as I want. But having been at The Verge since the site was 18 months old, I’m often involved in conversations about new projects we’re considering. I love that aspect of my job, and would never want to give it up.
Right now my main contribution as an editor — outside of editing five or so stories a week — is to participate in a weekly meeting we call Office Hours. Each week, three or four of our 70-plus editorial employees meet with our editor in chief, our investigations editor, and myself to talk about stories. We ask them about the big swings they’ve always wanted to take, help them to flesh out their ideas, and then offer resources to make them happen. We’re only a month in, but the conversations have been great and the stories are promising. It feels like a great use of my time.
HW: When a source leaks news to you, how do you decipher what their motivation might be and how does your estimation of their trustworthiness factor into how you use that information?
CN: You should know your source’s motivation, because it can speak to their trustworthiness. Sometimes they’re excited to share something with you; sometimes they’re mad at their company and want it to do better; sometimes they’ve left the company and want it to suffer. But in all cases they can still be wrong, and it’s why we seek a second source to confirm what we have heard. The best defense against untrustworthy sources is always, always to get more sources.
But I’m not in the camp that believes a source’s motives must be pure for their leak to be publishable. Our loyalty should be to the news, even if it’s of unseemly provenance. There’s a tough-to-attribute quote I learned in journalism school and I am still fond of it: “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”
Thanks Casey! You should all follow him on Twitter.