What Tech Journalists Say vs. What They Really Mean

July 21, 2014

There’s this graphic going around called “What Programmers Say vs What They Really Mean.” I suggested on Twitter that we need one for journalists, but nobody else took the bait, so…

Clickbait: A clever headline that appears on a rival publication.

This: A clever headline that appears on my publication.

Pandering: Another publication’s article that involves sex, money, drugs, blood, explosions, kittens, or other topics that don’t really have anything to do with technology.

Expanding our audience: We need to get our pageviews up. Find something about sex, money, drugs, blood, explosions, kittens, or something else that has appeal beyond the neckbeards.

Pageviews: What rivals are chasing.

Great stories: What I’m chasing.

Went to the dark side: A rival just got a job in PR.

Tech journalism is dead: I just took a job in PR.

Cashed in: A rival just got a job in VC.

Tech journalism is dead: I just took a job in VC.

Impenetrable, needs editing: An article more than 2,000 words long that appeared in a publication I don’t like.

Long-form journalism: An article more than 2,000 words long that appeared in a publication I like.

My editor made that change: I’m an idiot, sorry. I’ll change it and hope my editor doesn’t notice.

I’ll ask my editor: You’re an idiot, sorry. We’re not changing a single word.

Chinese Wall: I’m ignoring this request from sales.

Synergy: My boss just asked me to reconsider this request from sales.

Slideshow: A story told with a series of pictures that appears on a rival’s web site.

Gallery, Feature, Visual Storytelling: We’re doing slideshows now.

Snowfall: I wish we had a real art budget like the New York Times so we didn’t have to do slideshows.

Churnalism: When a rival publication rewrites press releases faster than I can do it and gets the mention on Techmeme.

Breaking: Look how fast I rewrote this press release.

In bed with PR: A rival publication got an exclusive.

Exclusive: None of your business who my sources were or how I got the story.

Horrible hack: A rival journalist.

Misunderstood: Me.

Any I missed? Comment below.


Putting readers first

March 20, 2014

Pat McGovern passed away yesterday. He founded IDG — my employer, the company that publishes CITEworld — back in the early 1960s. I’m new at IDG, so did not know him very well, although I met him a couple times, but I’ve been struck by how many long-time (and former) employees of IDG absolutely revere him. Part of it was the way he’d walk to each person and hand them their Christmas bonus personally, always stopping to chat and always remembering a few key facts about the person — pretty unusual in a company with thousands of employees.

But the deeper root of their admiration, I think, is the fact that he was there at the beginning of this industry. He was one of the people who invented it. And while other pioneering companies like Ziff Davis have been chopped up and reconstituted so many times that they’ve become meaningless, IDG is still IDG.

More to the point, Pat McGovern understood what very few media businesspeople do: The customer is the reader. Advertisers pay to reach readers. If you serve the reader, the advertisers will have no choice but to come along.

I’ve heard many tales along these lines from coworkers who’ve been around longer than me — most of which aren’t for public consumption — but it became really clear when I read this interview (long, PDF) with him from 2000. There’s a lot of great stuff in there that today’s tech reporters who have never heard of Pat McGovern might want to read, like how he set up a business subsidiary in China before the US and China even had diplomatic relations. But in particular, check out this anecdote about the launch of Computerworld in 1967:

Pat McGovern: The industry was horrified  that we were writing these stories about bad performance, bad applications. No one  would advertise with us. They said, “You are the enemy of our industry.” We put out  the publication, almost without any ads at all for the first six months. Then the  people apparently did some readership studies and found out that even though our circulation was only about a third the size of the magazines that were all being mailed out en masse, as controlled circulation or free publications, more people were reading our publication and relying on it than anyone else.

They would call us and say, “I really hate to have to do this, but my research, and also  our sales people are calling me to complain. They say, “The publication I find on the desk of my prospect is this Computerworld, and why aren’t we advertising there? That’s where the attention of the prospect is. So I’m going to have to advertise. It really burns me up to do it.”

To really make matters worse, our Editor who was in the English, Journalistic tradition, which is very aggressive and investigative, started a column called “Measure for Measure,” in which, any time an ad appeared in the publication, he would review the copy for justification and accuracy and completeness. Of course, since almost every ad sort of relies on hyperbole of some fashion, or over-dramatization, almost every ad would be excoriated by his report. The advertisers just couldn’t believe it. Not only did they have to advertise in a publication that criticizes their company, but their ad itself, is going to be critiqued and blasted for incompetence.

Interviewer: Who was selling the advertising?

PJM: Many people. After a while they would quit. They would say, “I just hate to  send the ad in, because I know after your column appears I’m going to be called by this chap and he’ll say, ‘What the heck is going on, you’re tearing my ad apart, and my boss is asking how we can we have such a stupid ad.”

DSM: Who were your first advertisers? Which companies?

PJM: I remember Memorex was one of our first advertisers. I remember their ad, which claimed all this reliability, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” That was totally destroyed by the attack that this was all done without evidence or justification, a meaningless claim.

As a study in contrast, take this essay by a reporter who recently quit her entry-level job in tech journalism at VentureBeat. In her perception, today’s tech journalism is all about chasing pageviews and fending off pitches from marketing people.

TV party tonight!

March 10, 2014

This recent article in the New York Times about how David Carr never has time to catch up with the TV shows he never has time to watch really hit a nerve with me.

About six months ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever seen “Girls.” I made some snarky response, which she misinterpreted, which I tried to explain away by saying that I don’t watch episodic TV shows and I get sick and tired of everybody asking me if I have and then telling me that I should because TV is now some form of high art that every American is compelled to appreciate. I think I just pissed her off more. But I wasn’t even trying to! I just don’t watch these shows.

I like watching movies. They’re over in 2 hours. A self-contained story. But who has the time and energy to follow all these characters through 60 or 100 or 250 episodes? Not me. Short attention span? Restless leg syndrome?

Maybe I was brainwashed as a kid — TV was strictly limited in my house, so I watched as much crap as I could when my parents weren’t around. I loved Kung Fu, and the Dukes of Hazzard, and the Incredible Hulk — that pathos-ridden music whenever David Banner walked off into the sunset after another welker of destruction, man, that was awesome. So maybe I just associate watching TV with being stuck in the suburbs without a driver’s license. Now, I’m not, so I don’t.

I once did that Netflix thing of renting the entire output of The Office (UK version) a bunch of nights in a row until you’re done. It was funny, then dark, then sad. I felt kind of sick when I finished. This was in Seattle during the winter where you don’t even want to go outside because it rains all the time, and still I wished I’d gone outside and gotten my feet muddy.

I did occasionally catch the US version of the Office, South Park, and The Simpsons, back when they were on and I didn’t have little kids sucking up all my excess time and energy. (Are they still on? I don’t know about the first two. The Simpsons is but it started sucking 10 years ago so I can’t imagine it’s any better now.) My nephew was into Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is hilarious. I watched a couple Arrested Develompents with my brother, but didn’t get the big deal so stopped. I saw Curb Your Enthusiasm a few times. I even caught a couple episodes of The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. I have no idea why.

But the must-see episodic fine art shows? Sorry. I’m hopelessly out of my depth whenever somebody starts talking about:

  • Girls
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Sopranos
  • Arrested Development
  • The Wire
  • Treme
  • Deadwood
  • Glee
  • Six Feet Under
  • Family Guy
  • Weeds
  • 24
  • Law & Order
  • Survivor
  • Sex & the City
  • Friday Night Lights (I do love the band who did the soundtrack, Explosions in the Sky, though.)
  • Lost
  • House of Cards
  • Game of Thrones
  • Mad Men

Maybe someday I’ll be fatally ill and catch up with all of these shows as I’m bedridden with a morphine drip in my arm. Until then, Black Flag has the last word:

Mapping Seattle to San Francisco

September 8, 2013

So you’re moving from San Francisco to Seattle? Or from Seattle to San Francisco?

I’ve done both, and the two cities have a lot in common. San Francisco is bigger, more expensive, more socioeconomically stratified, more ethnically diverse, and a lot sunnier except during the summer, when it’s miserably cold.  But even with these differences, there are lots of similarities, like booming high tech companies and startups, beautiful waterfront, glorious nearby nature, long lines for brunch, the frequent smell of marijuana, fancy beer, a serious homeless problem, and great young NFL teams.

These analogies aren’t perfect, but I hope they help you figure out where you might want to live, visit, and avoid. I’ll leave it to the designers to create the actual physical maps.


The Financial District :: Downtown

Civic Center :: South Downtown

SOMA :: SoDo

The Mission :: Ballard

Dolores Park :: Green Lake

The Castro :: Capitol Hill

Upper Haight :: University Ave

Lower Haight/Hayes Valley :: The CD

Fillmore :: Wallingford

Noe Valley :: Ravenna

Pacific Heights :: North Capitol Hill

The Marina :: Madison Park

Seacliff :: Broadmoor

Chinatown :: The International District

North Beach :: Pike Place

Embarcadero :: Seattle Center

Pioneer Square :: Pier 39

Potrero :: Queen Anne

Dogpatch :: Georgetown

Glen Park :: Phinney

Bernal :: Madrona

Excelsior :: Beacon Hill

St. Francis Wood :: Windermere

Forest Hill :: Laurelhurst

The Richmond :: Magnolia

The Presidio :: Discovery Park

The Sunset :: North Seattle

19th :: Aurora

Oakland :: Tacoma

Walnut Creek :: Bellevue

Palo Alto :: Mercer Island

Berkeley :: Olympia

 Complaining about hipsters :: Complaining about the weather

Your startup getting written up in TechCrunch :: Your band getting played on KEXP

Produce :: Seafood

MUNI delays :: I-5 traffic

Fog :: Rain

Point Reyes :: The San Juans

The Redwoods :: The Olympics

Yosemite :: Mt. Rainier

There are a couple places that are vital to each city but don’t have very good analogs. West Seattle is seen as the “old” Seattle, the way Seattle used to be, physically removed from the rest of the city and solidly middle class. I can’t think of a good equivalent in SF. Golden Gate Park is a beautiful green refuge surrounded by concrete, full of museums and lakes and even a waterfall, both urban and natural at the same time. There’s nothing really like it in Seattle — Volunteer Park is much smaller and not nearly as vital to the life of the city, and Seattle Center is much too developed. And there’s absolutely nothing in Seattle that compares with the spectacular vistas, cinematic charm, and genteel unaffordability of Russian Hill and Telegraph Hill.

The Ministry approach to tech journalism

June 6, 2013

When I was younger and angrier, I listened to a lot of pissed-off music. I still have a lot of that music, and I’ve ripped some of it into iTunes.

The other day, Ministry’s song “TV II” from the seminal “Psalm 69″ album came up during a workout.

After it finished, it occurred to me that the first four lines basically sum up all of tech journalism.

  1. “Tell me something I don’t know.” (News)
  2. “Show me something I can use.” (Reviews,  hands-on)
  3. “Push the button.” (Trolls, rants)
  4. “Connect the goddamn dots.” (Analysis)

(Actually, these aren’t the exact lines — he says “can’t use” in the second case. But they’re the lines I’ve always heard.)

The repeated line “You’re lying through your teeth!” is also true way too often. Sadly.

Here’s the song:

Rules of engagement for interviews

February 11, 2013

I’ve been on both sides of a reporter’s microphone. It can be frustrating to subjects when they don’t understand the terms of an interview. So to help, I’m going to propose these as fair rules of engagement.

If there are better, commonly agreed-upon rules that are publicly available somewhere, please point me to them — not private rules that exist only in a manual for employees of a particular publisher, but something that subjects can also read.


On the record: Reporter may report the statement and attribute it to the subject by name.

On background: Reporter may report the statement or sentiment but should take some care to obscure the identity of the subject. This is most often used when somebody could get fired for saying what they’re saying — like leaking the existence of the iWatch. [UPDATE: Some people say “not for attribution,” which to me means you can quote them directly, but not by name.]

Off the record: Reporter may not report the statement, but may use it to inform future reporting on the subject. For instance, the statement may be used to formulate uncomfortable questions during future formal interviews with other subjects.


1. During the course of a formal interview or press event, everything is on the record unless arrangements are made ahead of time, or unless clearly stated by the subject during the interview. (“This part is off the record.” “Please don’t report this.” Etc.) The subject must never assume that the reporter will know when the conversation switches to background or off the record.

i. The definition of a formal interview is any interview that was set up by both parties ahead of time, or that occurs in the context of reporting — for instance if a reporter calls a source and says “I’m working on a story about x. Do you have time to talk about it?” The presence of alcohol or other substances is not relevant to the definition. A formal interview over beers is still a formal interview.

ii. The definition of a press event is a public event where members of the press have been invited in their roles as press rather than as private citizens.

2. During the course of an informal conversation, everything is presumed to be off the record unless the reporter asks to use the statement. At that point, the two parties can decide if the statement is on background or on the record.

3. Once a story is published, it may not be changed unless the subject can show that the reporter did not abide by the prearranged ground rules or misquoted the subject or blatantly misrepresented the subject’s sentiments (e.g., quotes taken totally in the opposite context that they were intended). At that point, retractions or corrections may be issued.

[UPDATE: I got some comments from subjects about not being informed about the true nature of an article, or not being informed that the reporter’s byline was not going to be on the story — that they were simply doing research for another reporter. I think this boils down to a fourth point, which is:

4. Be fair to each other. Reporters should be as clear as possible about the story they’re working on, but subjects should also understand that the reporting sometimes changes the story — that’s the whole point of talking to people to arrive at the closest possible story to the truth.

If anything, these ground rules seem too lenient toward subjects. A lot of reporters will argue that no arrangements should ever be made ahead of time, and that all conversations with newsworthy subjects — even in a private setting — should be on the record, or at the very least usable on background. I think it depends on the context, the subject, the publication, and many other factors. Humans can make different decisions at different times – we’re not robots.

But I would love to get some feedback from other reporters and experienced PR people — am I missing something? Too lenient on subjects? Too harsh? Is there some rule book somewhere that everybody knows about but me?

Why health care costs in this country are skyrocketing

November 16, 2012

My health care provider is UCSF. They have some of the best doctors in the United States, and I’ve never had an issue with the care I’ve gotten there.

But like the rest of the country, their billing situation is an insane bureaucratic mess.

In my last annual physical in February, my doctor was worried about a mole. She ordered a biopsy. I went back in a couple days later to get it sliced off. Fortnately, the biopsy came back negative (lucky). I went back again two weeks later to get my sutures removed. Minor, painless. The usual stuff that starts happening when you get older.

My health insurance company didn’t like some aspect of the procedure — I guess they thought charging me $350 for removing a couple stitches, a procedure that took a nurse practitioner about 15 seconds, was overkill. Or something. Whatever the reason, I got a bill for something like $250 for the whole mess. I paid it, like I always do.

A couple weeks later, we got another bill. My wife wasn’t aware it was for the same procedure, so she paid it too.

We figured out something was amiss, so we talked to the billing department. UCSF finally figured everything out, deducted whatever the insurance had paid, and on September 3rd (! six months later!) issued me another “bill” with a balance of -90.12. In other words, they owe me $90. Fine. Great. I figured they’d cut me a check and I forgot about it.

A couple weeks later, I started getting nasty letters in the mail from UCSF saying that I had an unpaid $25 charge from the same procedure — the one where I got my mole sliced off. I ignored it, since, after all, they owed me $90.

They sent me another bill. Then they started phoning me, leaving automated voicemail messages on my cellphone. Then they started threatening to send me to collections. I tried to call them a couple times on Friday afternoons after work slowed down, but the billing department is only open from 9 to 3. I left messages, and they just resulted in more threatening voicemails.

I finally answered one of the threatening calls and explained the situation. But because I didn’t have my paperwork with me, they couldn’t figure out what was going on.

So I unpacked the file folder with all my medical records in it, and finally, today, made the call with documents in hand.

It turns out that the $25 bill they were hassling me about was from hospital services (the facility). The $90 credit was from the doctors’ group. They could not see that credit. They could not use that credit. They were two separate departments, with separate billing systems that weren’t connected, and separate phone numbers.

I phoned back the doctors’ billing department and they happily transferred the $90 credit back over to the facilities group. I asked them why they couldn’t just consolidate everything into one billing system, and they said that insurance companies cover different parts of procedures separately, so they need two separate billing systems. (I don’t buy this — why couldn’t the same billing group just code things differently and let the insurance companies figure it all out? But whatever.)

Oh, and the best part? I had to ask them to send me a check for the remainder. They weren’t going to do it on their own.

All told, I spent about an hour on the phone getting this resolved. (If it’s actually resolved — I’ll believe it when UCSF stops threatening me and I get my $65 check in the mail.)

The billing department for the hospital probably spent a lot more time than that trying to hunt me down, issuing multiple threats via mail and my cellphone.

Now imagine how often this happens every day, in thousands of hospitals across the country. Imagine how many people would have just paid the bogus $25 charge. Imagine how many duplicate functions there are in each of these billing departments, how many duplicate employees, computer systems, and so on.

If you want to know why health care costs are rising, don’t just look at doctors ordering unnecessary procedures on the “pay per procedure” model. Look at the crazy, self-perpetuating idiocy that stems from our insanely bureaucratic private insurance system.

Then tell me that single-payer health care — that is, GOVERNMENT SOCIALIZED health care — is somehow less efficient than this. Right.


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