The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The Op-Tech genre of journalism, Pt. 2

More thoughts on Op-Tech writing at major dailies. In particular, I had a sentence that I wanted to squeeze in, but forgot about until an hour after I hit submit: “Op-Tech is equal parts business, politics, and aesthetics.”

Think about it! Most of this journalism is about major corporations who each release a handful of significant products or technologies each year. In a few cases, a Pogue or Mossberg will spotlight peripheral objects by smaller companies. But it’s really about major trends and players in the tech sector, trying to understand and evaluate what’s happening. That’s the business end.

But again, Op-Tech writers don’t largely touch on issues of manufacturing, personnel, law, everything the tech reporters do. They write as users (albeit expert users) for users. They talk about the aesthetics and experience of using an object, and make recommendations to users (and only occasionally to companies) about how best to use and whether to purchase a business or service. This is where they’re closest to food or movie reviewers.

Think about it! Like a meal or a movie, personal digital technology is criticized primarily according to the aesthetic experience of the user. I’ll ramp that up beyond the bounds of plausibility. New gadgets or software packs are among our most important aesthetic objects, more significant and universal than books, TV shows, or movies – so much so that the paper of record requires experts to weigh in on their value and importance.

At the same time, technology writing is political in a way that most aesthetic criticism simply isn’t. What I mean is that 1) there are real arguments between partisans, and 2) these arguments have significant real-world consequences — in ways that criticism of movies or restaurants, simply don’t, unless you live in the right part of Manhattan.

This, I think, is why so many people get upset about the cozy relationship between Op-Tech columnists and the companies they cover – they feel as though criticism, any criticism that might question the strategies of the Major Powers (yes, I’m talking about Apple, Microsoft, and Google as if they were empires on the verge of World War I), is shut out or at least diminished and contained for that reason. The weird position of the major guys as reviewers/insiders/brands appears to guarantee that.

My response would be 1) that you don’t need or even want a David Pogue or Walt Mossberg to be running around playing Edward R. Murrow, and 2) that job is open – at least that sliver that hasn’t largely been filled by magazine writers, academic critics, and independent bloggers.

Still, I would love to see more writing in newspapers that really focuses on the aesthetics of tech – Virginia Heffernan is really the model here – or the broader ramifications of tech policy. Imagine if the New York Times had an opinion columnist – right next to Krugman, Dowd, Brooks, and the rest – writing about the intersection of technology, politics, and culture? Not in Slate, not in the Chronicle of Higher Education – but smack in the middle of the NYT, WSJ, or the Post.

After all, EVERYONE who reads the editorial page of the Times has an opinion about who OUGHT to be writing for the editorial page of the Times.

I say, let’s treat this like it were actually already happening: write your model nominees in the comments below.


The Op-Tech genre of journalism

David Pogue’s position is that he’s not a technology reporter, but an opinion columnist who writes about technology:

“Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?” Pogue said angrily. “Since when have I ever billed myself as a journalist?….I am not a reporter. I’ve never been to journalism school. I don’t know what it means to bury the lede. Okay I do know what it means. I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career…..I try to entertain and inform.”
Recognizing perhaps that the distinction may be lost on his journalist colleagues at the NYT and elsewhere, Pogue added: “By the way I’m suddenly realizing this is all just making it all worse for myself. The haters are going to hate David Pogue even more now.”

This actually becomes a pretty complicated issue when you think about it. On the one hand – and maybe this is a bad example – the NYT hires columnists like Bill Kristol, who’s basic qualification is that they ARE partisans with an interest in promoting one side over an other. Sometimes, like Paul Krugman, they’re really smart, and sometimes like Nick Kristof, they do some reporting. But they’re basically intended to be advocates. You could criticize Kristol for a lot, but it would be stating the all-too-obvious to point out that his professional interest was bound up in the fate of the Republican party. And likewise, it would be stating the all-too-obvious to dig into Tom Friedman’s books and lectures. We’ve essentially decided that it’s cool if political writers are part of the party apparatus and/or ideological institutions. So long as they don’t out-and-out lie, they’re good.

On the other, they have technology and business reporters who are, I don’t know, supposed to uncover true facts about products and companies for consumers or investors or amateurs (like me) who are interested in these things for poorly-defined and even-less-well-understood reasons. Often, though, these reviewers interact with analysis of their objects – if the new Zune might be a hit or a dud, that becomes a fact that potentially affects sales, stock movements, personnel changes… all of that nitty-gritty stuff that’s part and parcel of being a good reporter.

Maybe in the middle somewhere, there are reviewers, usually writers who review books or movies or plays or television shows or restaurants. These writers are expected to be partial but unmotivated – they have an opinion but not a stake. This includes what some reviewers take to be draconian restrictions on reviewing the books of their friends and/or enemies. You’re there for your knowledge and aesthetics – and yet also, paradoxically, you are also there (in part) to sell the media you review.

And essentially, the objects reviewed are aesthetic objects. They’re not ordinary household goods. The closest thing to tech gadgets reviewed in a paper like the NYT is the automotive section, which is grouped with “jobs” and “real estate” in the classifieds. Nobody reviews furniture, or toasters, or bicycles. In a sense, the technology reviewer is the only reviewer who offers an opinion on things you use. At least in a sphere where not just you, but the newspaper itself, has a stake, however small, in selling the object.*

So technology journalism – at least, what I’m calling the “Op-Tech” genre, is somewhere between all of these fields. Like book and movie reviewers, they’re expected to offer their opinion on the aesthetics (and use, too) of objects placed before them. Like reporters, their value lies in their quasi-objective take on a product (which in turn helps move product) and the sources they can marshal to give them access. And like opinion reporters, they’re expected to be entertaining, partisan, and above all personal. After all, it’s their authority, their brand, that creates the conditions under which their opinion is credible (or less often, not).

* This is actually really complicated. One of the most revealing parts of Pogue’s complaint is his claim that he pushed for disclosure of his books in his columns. According to Pogue, his editors resisted it, because they thought it would be seen as self-advertising. “And you know what? I am sorry to tell you guys this, but now that the plug is going to appear in each column it’s going to raise the book sales.” (If you’re an Op-Ed columnist and you write a book, it’ll probably get excerpted in the magazine.)

Quotes from, via Romenesko.