When it comes to reporting on technology, Canadian dailies are still spitting out the same digital drivel. Now it's time to upgrade
An image forms in my head as he describes the scene: a man hurrying down a crowded street puts his hand to his head. Speaking to himself with two fingers to his ear, he can be mistaken for one of two things: a nut or Inspector Gadget. The man is using a new computerized wristwatch phone developed in Japan. The device sends voice signals through the man’s hand. When the person on the other end speaks, the phone produces vibrations that go through the man’s fingertips and turn into sound.
“That’s cool,” says Paul Schneidereit, editor of the Computing section at The Chronicle-Herald in Halifax and the person explaining the gizmo. “It doesn’t matter how much computer knowledge you have, you get it.” Almost as remarkable as the phone itself is the fact that a computing section even exists at the Herald. Nova Scotia is the fourth most wired province in Canada, so it’s not surprising that a newspaper based there has a dedicated technology section. What’s noteworthy is that the section is in the last big independent daily newspaper in the country: strapped for resources, the Herald still includes a weekly technology section.
Today, half of all Canadians have a computer at home and almost all of them have Internet access. Movie theatres, bank lineups, even high school corridors have turned into orchestra rehearsals gone mad as the sounds of Beethoven, Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov whine from cell phones, pagers and handheld organizers. Technology is a part of Canadian culture and major Canadian dailies have caught on; 18 out of 26 of them produce a regular technology section.
Still, technology journalism has not been given the commitment it deserves-a three-month examination of the tech coverage in seven Canadian dailies reveals a lack of Canadian wire content and an inundation of public relations hype. But there’s an even greater problem. For the most part, Canadian dailies still haven’t seen the full potential of technology journalism. Focusing mostly on business coverage, product reviews and previews, the dailies use technology journalism to seduce advertisers. If you’re not in the market for a new scanner, a digital camera or the latest software, the tech coverage in the dailies won’t be of much use to you. That’s because the editors and managers are missing the point. Technology relates to every aspect of our lives-from our daily routine to our education and socialization. Product pitches, “hot” website lists and business blurbs won’t cut it. If editors and management are unwilling to divert additional resources to improving their technology coverage, people will stop reading.
In 1994, The Toronto Star became the first Canadian newspaper to leap into regular technology coverage with the Fast Forward section. This was the first time a segment of the paper was devoted to high-tech trends and products. The paper cashed in on the hype of technology and gave readers a shallow glimpse of what products were out there and which ones were coming through reviews and trivial features. Over the next few years, other Canadian dailies started technology sections of their own. The Chronicle-Herald, The Edmonton Journal and The Vancouver Sun covered the business aspects of the dot-com world and mixed in some lighter fare, such as interesting websites and software reviews.
In the beginning, these sections catered to new users, first-time computer buyers and tech newbies. Unfortunately, these sections didn’t keep up as Canadians in general, and their readers in particular, became more tech savvy. Today’s tech readers want context: what technology means to them, how it affects their lives. Only now is one Canadian daily making a strong attempt to provide that.
It wasn’t until 1998, with the launch of The Ottawa Citizen‘s High Tech Report (now Techweekly), that tech reporting in Canada could be taken seriously. Dedicated to the business goings-on of the high-tech world, the weekly 16-page section was one of the largest in the country. High Tech Report scrutinized every aspect of the technology sector from an Ottawa perspective. It covered topics like how to use technology to improve your business and the myths and the hype of e-commerce. That kind of analysis caught the attention of the other papers. A version of the e-commerce piece appeared in The Edmonton Journal‘s technology section two weeks later. By the end of 1999, The Globe and Mail and the National Post had introduced their own technology sections.
As Canada’s high-tech sector began booming, technology journalism made its way into the business world. Pieces were no longer for newbies or techies; they were for investors or users-business pieces dominated technology writing. While daily business sections carried a large technology component, papers such as The Globe and Mail, the National Post and The Ottawa Citizen set aside most of the space in their technology sections for business stories. Of course, the business side of technology is useful, but technology journalism should not be limited to that. The consequences of technology on a personal level is another important side, something that’s difficult to get at when you’re writing about quarterly results, company mergers and financial statistics.
It’s not that papers aren’t interested in technology: they’re spending money covering the topic. In 1994 there were only a handful of full-time technology writers in the country; today there are more than 30. Technology supplements are popping up more often in the dailies. But just because technology is being covered doesn’t mean it’s being covered well.
Today technology journalism faces several problems. Wire content is one of them: simply put, there isn’t enough of it. Smaller papers have nowhere to turn when wire services can’t provide them with breaking tech stories that aren’t local. At the Chronicle-Herald, 85 per cent of the technology content is pulled from the wires. With no staff and a limited budget, there are few options. If a story is happening across the country and it’s not on the wires, the Herald can’t cover it.
Another problem with technology writing is jargon. Early technology writing assumed that all readers were inexperienced with computers, as it should have: in 1994 only 25 per cent of Canadians had home computers, Windows 95 hadn’t been launched yet and the Palm Pilot was but a dream. Rob Cribb, who wrote for Fast Forward and still contributes to a number of sections at The Toronto Star, says, “The way you write about technology today is dramatically different than a few years ago. I used to have a clause after the word ‘Internet’ explaining what it is.” Today, technology writers must deal with the fact that some of their readers don’t understand anything about technology while others are veteran software programmers. Writers have to know where to strike a balance between high-tech vocabulary and lay terms without insulting either audience. “There is a question of degree and I think over time we’ve learned where that line is,” says Jim Bagnall, a technology writer at the Citizen since 1993. “But it’s still a moving target because people are getting more and more used to technology now.” It’s difficult for writers to know where that target is for every article, and while most do a good job of keeping it simple, less experienced readers are often overlooked.
The Vancouver Sun‘s John Dvorak writes a Q and A column that aims to solve the problems people have with their computers. And while a column like that is bound to use technical terms, Dvorak’s advice can sometimes be confusing. “I’m afraid you can’t make him write in English,” jokes Peter Wilson, editor of theSun ‘s Net Works section. Recently, for example, explaining a problem with Windows 98, Dvorak wrote, “Often the problem is caused by the motherboard BIOS setup (power management). Play around with the options there.”
Dvorak isn’t alone, though. Many other writers also overlook simple explanations. A September article in The Toronto Star dissects a computer buyer’s guide put out by Compaq. The article points out many of the inaccuracies in Compaq’s pamphlet, casually using terms such as “shadow mask” and “aperture grille” as if they were as common as “chat room” or “email.”
The easy acceptance of public relations propaganda in the form of press releases is the most visible problem in technology journalism today. It affects not only the consumer-oriented product reviews but the investor-oriented business pieces as well. “It’s probably the most hyped industry today,” says the Star ‘s Cribb. “No other industry puts out more press releases containing exclamation points.”
Natalie Southworth, until recently a technology writer for the Globe , notes the “manufactured” vocabulary of the tech world, referring to terms like “e-growth industry,” “e-chain revolution” and “cyberclutter,” which didn’t exist a decade ago. “It’s so infused with hype and with buzz words. You put an ‘e’ in front of it and suddenly it’s supposed to mean something,” she says.
You just have to look at e-Xchange, an eight-page supplement included with the National Post in September, to see what she means. There, among the catchphrases and tech drivel, were endorsements of dot-com companies, gimmicky websites and gadgets. Articles about a Rogers AT&T mobile web browser, a Kodak digital camera and various online services filled the space between the real advertisements. A column labelled “Datebook” lists upcoming “conferences and classes,” with a small note at the bottom that includes contact info should you want your event to appear in the next supplement.
Newspaper supplements are the worst promoters of public relations hype. They are often written by freelancers who depend on companies to send them products or invite them to press conferences. A bad review could mean not getting a product or an invitation next time-and not getting paid. And while this may be true for any type of supplement,technology inserts only magnify the flaws found in daily technology reporting: more jargon, more PR regurgitation and less critical analysis.
Rob Thompson, a technology writer with the Financial Post and the Post ‘s technology section, is leery of technology journalism in supplements. “I think you’ve got to be kind of careful of the motives behind some of those things. Essentially a lot of the stories that come out of supplements have been purchased by companies. They pay for you to go to events. They pay for the hotel when you’re there. They pay to take you to dinner. There are going to be some people who will write shit because of that, who will write just fluff, blow-job pieces on the company because of that. I see that a lot.”
But full-time writers fall into the PR trap, too. One reason is inexperience. “There’s a shortage in the high-tech industry of programmers and researchers, but there’s also a shortage of class-A high-tech reporters,” says Hugh Paterson, editor of the Citizen‘s Techweekly. “In many circumstances you have to hire on talented, bright, young reporters who train to be high-tech reporters.” And if reporters can’t grasp the technology they’re writing about, they’re more likely to use industry jargon found in press releases. “A lot of writers here are kind of bothered by it or are frightened by [technology],” says the Post’s Thompson. “They almost never have any technology background.” It’s a common problem, and most papers aren’t willing to invest the money needed to change that. “In terms of reporting manpower, management hasn’t seen any great need to hire a whole bunch of technology reporters to do an extended technology section,” says Schneidereit of the Herald .
Peter Collum, editor of the technology section at The Edmonton Journal , also isn’t impressed with management’s decisions. “I think management has been very head-in-the-ground about keeping it strictly ad-driven; I never know till Wednesday what my page count will be for Thursday’s paper,” he says. Like their reporters, some managers and editors don’t fully understand technology either. This might be why they aren’t devoting any extra resources to improving their technology coverage. “I think depending on who you’ve got as bosses, if they’re not comfortable and familiar with technology, they don’t necessarily grasp what readers want to grasp,” Collum says.
Gillian Shaw has been a technology writer for almost a decade, and today she writes for the Net Works section at The Vancouver Sun . “I think that newspapers, like all businesses, have to recognize the impacts of change and technology, and management has to come to grips with this, that this isn’t just a section to be hived off,” she says. “You can’t take technology and say, ‘Oh, here’s our one page, two pages, six pages, whatever, and this is our technology coverage.’ Technology pervades their entire coverage, it covers all areas.”
If technology journalism is to make any significant progress, it will be at the hands of the senior editors and managers of the newspapers. Less of a commitment to advertising revenue and more of a commitment to meaningful journalism would be ideal, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Instead, other sections need to be encouraged to view technology in new ways. For example, a sports reporter could look at how football teams use coach-to-quarterback radio transmitters mounted inside helmets to gain an edge on their competition. Or a fashion reporter might explore how technology is affecting the latest designs, such as a recent jacket from Levi’s and Philips that comes complete with a built-in cell phone, music player, remote control and, of course, washable wiring. Promoting articles like those throughout the paper could start to turn technology journalism around.
One paper where management has seen the possibilities for technology journalism from the beginning is The Ottawa Citizen . Home to many of Canada’s tech giants, Ottawa was in the middle of Canada’s high-tech industry just as public interest in technology markets peaked. High Tech Report was an investor-oriented section reporting on emerging technology companies and personalities, the industry’s movers and shakers. The section featured one-on-one interviews with Canadian tech icons such as Nortel Networks’ John Roth and Jay Abbe of JDS Uniphase.
For a long time it was enough. Not only did advertisers support the section, but the reporting was analytical, balanced and, most of all, useful. But last September, the paper revamped the section and introduced Techweekly, a magazine-style section that includes sociological analysis. Typical of this new type of technology journalism was a December article called “Wired and Retired,” which examined how seniors are becoming more net-savvy. Product reviews replaced stock picks, 2,000-word features on tech life in Ottawa replaced corporate profiles and book excerpts replaced investment columns. Gone was the standard six-column grid; instead, pages featured two- or three-column layouts and lots of white space. Articles in the new Techweekly were longer, more in-depth, more narrative. That’s not to say that the Citizen got rid of its business coverage. The paper started an investment section as well, and continued to cover Ottawa’s tech sector in the business section.
“We just wanted to get more people involved,” Bagnall says. “To profile more people, to get them in rather than the technology and business cases.” Writing for the Techweekly, Bagnall moved from approximately 160 bylines a year to 25. His pieces are deep and personal, such as an article he wrote in October entitled “Viet Tech,” which looked at how Vietnamese immigrants are affecting Ottawa’s telecommunications industry. This year the Citizen is sending him to India for a week to produce a story on how Indian entrepreneurs are changing the tech industry in Ottawa. This amount of dedication to a technology feature in a newspaper was previously uncommon. The ideas might have been there, but the resources weren’t.
So far, readers and advertisers love what they see. “It’s more accessible,” Paterson says. “There are car ads, BMW and Porsche ads, in the new section, and that’s no accident. I think advertisers realize that the broader approach is reaching more of the kind of people they want.” Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Royal Bank are certainly different from the computer-oriented advertisers that typically fill technology sections-they are mainstream advertisers reaching out to a mainstream audience.
“Our feeling is that if you can report in an intelligent manner, not talk down to people, about the changes in lifestyle we’re seeing because of the Internet especially and all aspects of high technology, I think you have a winning formula,” Paterson says. Just as there are trends in technology, there are trends in technology journalism, and The Ottawa Citizen has caught on to the next big one: focusing on people.
“Every now and then you have to sit back and reevaluate whether you still have the same goals in terms of your stories and your target audience and whether you’re meeting them or whether you should change them,” Paterson says. “High-tech companies are doing that all the time; they’re reinventing themselves, and I think newspapers have to do the same thing.”
Natalie Southworth sees the potential of technology coverage. “I think as technology becomes more of a story and less a fad, less a gimmick and less a new gadget in the palm of your hand, people yearn for context and how it affects their lives. I mean everything from how it affects their relationships, to their work life, to their education and psychology, to their business and personal financing, how they structure their day, their concepts of time, space…you’re looking for meaningful context.”
If technology journalism is to overcome its problems and realize its potential, it needs to be seen as more than easy ad revenue. Writers need to move past the hype and jargon and explore technology’s implications on society and the way we live. The most complex machinery, the most advanced technological achievements-they all need people to make them do what they were designed to do, to give them meaning. It’s just like the man holding a finger to his ear using the wristwatch phone. Behind all of the chips, wires and diodes, people make it work. The same can be said for technology journalism and its future.
by Will Willis
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ