Ryan Lawler, a TechCrunch reporter, wrote a post about Uber the other day.
It got a lot of attention.
Not because it was a scoop or juicy nugget of information about a red-hot startup that’s now worth ~$3.5 billion, but because the entire thing was made up. A satire. Except some people didn’t realize it was satire. Some people thought it was real.
That’s because TechCrunch is a news site. And it’s very reasonable for its readers to assume that they’re reading facts on their screens, or at least some well-informed analysis based on facts.
Lawler’s post claimed that Uber bought a bunch of self-driving cars from Google. It had a fake publish date — 10 years in the future — but read like a regular news story on TechCrunch. Following the news that Google Ventures just made a $258 million investment in Uber, it didn’t seem entirely unreasonable that Uber would buy some cars equipped with Google’s driverless tech.
In a tweet, Lawler later defended his story by calling it “a fun, fictional post.”
A fun, fictional post. On a respected tech news site.
So it’s not very shocking that other news outlets like The Daily Mail picked up on the “news.” (We can save the “is aggregation evil?” discussion for later. We can also table the “people don’t read past the headline” discussion.)
Here’s what we do know.
TechCrunch is not parody news site a la The Onion. It’s a well-respected industry blog. Unless it misses the mark on a scoop (which happens to every publication from time to time), most of TechCrunch’s content is fair and — most importantly — true. This time, it wasn’t. It was a failed attempt at satire that detracted from a very important story in the tech world: over the last few years, Uber has exploded and is one of the few startups right now that is truly disrupting an industry. Instead, the narrative shifted to whether or not it was a good idea for Lawler to write the satire in the first place.
But tech blogging has become a crowded space. There are only so many ways tech writers can re-write the same press release or product announcement. To stand out, you need to have a unique take on the news. A personality. A smart take. You have to be funny or condescending or snarky or provide an exclusive bit of news your competitors don’t have.
In short, there are so many people writing about the same stuff that attempts at differentiation like Lawler’s have become more and more common.
A few examples.
Gizmodo, one of the oldest tech blogs, is in transition. Instead of covering gadgets and gizmos and apps, it’s shifting its focus to architecture and design. Yes, there will still be some tech news and smartphone reviews, but the editors at Gizmodo have realized the tech blogging space has become far too crowded to just write the same stuff that everyone else is. It’s a smart move.
Then there’s The Verge, a tech site that’s not even two years old yet. It was able to make a waves by using its millions of VC dollars to step on the gas from day one, poaching established writers from other publications and pumping out lengthy pieces about practically anything that runs on electricity.
But you can already see that with a staff of about 45 editors/writers, there’s only so much The Verge can say about tech. Instead, you’ve probably noticed it has expanded to other stuff. Science. Movie reviews. Book clubs.
Even more recently, The Verge has tried covering breaking hard news. The Boston Marathon bombings. Syria.
A lot of people like to dump on The Verge when it covers breaking hard news like the Boston Marathon bombings. The site’s editor Joshua Topolsky defended such coverage in an interview with Forbes in March, saying:
We think of ourselves as a news site which covers the culture of now (for lack of a better term), the world at this moment, as it is — what matters to people who live and work in 2013.
Except The Verge only seems to cover the Really Big breaking news stories, not the day-to-day stuff. Almost all other non-tech news falls through the cracks. The bulk of its content is still focused on the stuff of traditional tech blogs: exhaustive gadget reviews, product announcements, and re-written press releases.
You could argue The Verge’s picky coverage of news events is a short-term play to boost traffic. You could also argue it’s just The Verge editors experimenting.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with most people blasting The Verge for covering non-tech news events. If The Verge’s goal is to become some sort of Hipster New York Times, then more power to it. But as it stands now, The Verge is wildly inconsistent in how it covers non-tech news. If it wants to cover non-tech news, it shouldn’t do so until it has the bandwidth to go all in. Otherwise, it risks confusing its audience. And so far, a lot of people seem confused.
Finally, we have an example of what can happen to a tech blog if it chooses to mostly stick with commodity tech news (product announcements, re-written press releases, and so on) instead of catering to a broader, non-tech audience.
The Next Web also appears to be in transition. Recently, three of its best writers — Robin Wauters, Matthew Panzarino, and Alex Wilhelm — left the site. (Panzarino and Wilhelm are now at TechCrunch and TechCrunch is damn lucky to have them.)
It’s unclear whether or not those three were let go or left on their own, but it is clear that TNW is changing. Instead of relying on the in-depth reporting and insight those three provided, TNW appears to be shifting toward a model where an army of writers and freelancers churn out commodity tech news. The site appears to be writing its content for Techmeme, an aggregation site that doesn’t drive much traffic compared to massive networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, and Reddit. That can’t be a winning strategy.
Then there’s the site I work for.
I started at Business Insider about three years ago because the editors wanted to launch a new vertical focused on gadgets and consumer tech. SAI, the primary tech vertical for Business Insider at the time, was already doing a great job at covering the business end of the tech industry. AOL layoffs. Leaked instant messages from Mark Zuckerberg during the earliest days of Facebook. Scoops about the New York startup scene.
It was good stuff, but BI was missing the other part of tech: the whiz-bang gadgets and apps that people buy and love reading about. The fun stuff!
So I started a section called Tools to write about all that fun stuff. And guess what? BI readers ate it up. Tools became one of the fastest growing verticals on the site. In late 2011, we spun Tools into SAI so the coverage would appear together. Earlier this year, we completely erased Tools as a subvertical of SAI and rebranded the section as BI: Tech, a section that covers all aspects of the tech world from smartphones to startups.
Today, I don’t see BI: Tech/SAI as a tech blog. I see it as the technology section of a large news site, just like the tech sections of The Huffington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and so on.
For BI: Tech, I’m not concerned with writing about every minor app update, every company announcement, or every smartphone operating system tweak the way most tech blogs are. Those little nuggets of news now appear as one-sentence briefs on the BI:Tech river, assuming they appear at all.
Recently, we’ve been trying to find new ways to bring unique content to BI: Tech. We’re noodling around with going beyond product announcements and industry chatter, although that will still be there. We’ve become increasingly focused on how so-called “normal” people use technology.
My colleague Dylan Love has written some excellent stories about the seedier side of the Internet — buying illegal drugs, revenge porn, and social networks for escorts, for example. My newest colleague Caroline Moss is also focused on tech culture. In her first two weeks on the job she’s covered a homeless guy learning to code and how to trick someone into a date using Spotify.
(That’s not to discount the stuff my other colleagues are working on. They’re all writing some really great stuff. Maybe you’ve seen this thing.)
Business Insider originally began as a tech blog. It was called Silicon Alley Insider and focused on the New York tech scene. But there’s only so much you can write about the New York tech scene. Eventually, SAI started covering all tech. Then it merged with its sister site that covered Wall Street, Clusterstock, under the Business Insider brand and expanded to other verticals from there.
The Internet is too huge for one site to be focused on one thing. That’s why I think we’ve seen so much experimentation in tech blogs. There’s that pressure to grow, to boost traffic, to snag more loyal readers, but you can only get so far when dozens of other sites and hundreds of other reporters are writing about the same thing.
A massively successful tech blog can’t just be a tech blog. It needs to cater to a broader audience, not just the geeks obsessed with every little nugget of electricity news.
P.S. I’m new to Medium. I’m still not 100% sure what Medium is. But as far as I can tell, what I’ve written above is about as Medium-y as you can get on Medium. There’s a good chance this is the last thing I write here.
I’m also aware that this is super insider-y and most people don’t give two poops. But I herniated a disc in my back two weeks ago and it rattled some nerves causing muscles spasms in my right leg and I’ve been limping for the last 10 days or so. I’ve spent most of my Labor Day weekend indoors, bored out of my skull.
I hope @FalseMedium tweets this.