20 years of tech journalism

March 31, 2015

I started my first job in tech journalism on April 1, 1995. Twenty years ago.

I had moved to San Francisco in 1992 to intern at a goings-on-about-town magazine, The City. It went out of business, as publications do, in 1993. I kicked around for a couple years, doing odd editing jobs like the memoir of a wealthy tech executive (he was in chips; I don’t remember his name) and copyediting legal summaries, driving delivery and playing in bands and generally screwing off. Rents were kind of cheap back then. You could live here without a “real” job.

But I was bored. One day my roommate saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle — this was back when you looked for jobs in print newspapers, as most people didn’t have the Internet. (Most people hadn’t even heard of the Internet.) It was for a new technology publication. He knew I’d used email back in college, so said “hey, why don’t you apply for this?”

It was for an editorial assistant job at a new company called CNET. Wired and The Chronicle weren’t calling me no matter how many times I sent my resume, and the only other place I wanted to work, a humor magazine called Might started by some guy named Dave Eggers, didn’t think my one submission was funny enough to publish.

So, CNET! OK then.

I interviewed with the editor-in-chief, a guy named Chris Barr. He was super friendly, a California grey-hair ponytail who’d won some kind of award in tech journalism when he was at PC Magazine or PC World, one of those. That’s how he got this gig, he told me. He took a surprising amount of time with me, considering that I was literally his first hire and he had to hire an entire editorial team who actually know how to review computers, write, report, and run a magazine — all the things I had no idea how to do. I guess he liked me well enough, and he spent a little time training me and figuring out what I could do. I remember driving him somewhere in my beat up Ford Escort, listening to a cassette of Faith No More, which was the best band in the world in my mind after Jane’s Addiction had fizzled out, and him saying something like “Oh, that’s guy music. The kind of music I could never listen to with my wife in the car.”

He seemed impossibly old. He was probably about the age I am now.

My first day, I got a computer. A Compaq PC, I think it was, running Windows 3.1.1 for Workgroups. I had never used Windows — I’d had a little experience with DOS, through a friend who was really into computers, and tried WordPerfect once but hated it — but other than that all my writing had been done on Macintoshes. I figured it out in a few days, tapping around, learning about file folders and hierarchies, eventually learning from old hands what config.sys and autoexec.bat were, and soon I was typing away.

But what was I typing? We had email — Eudora was the program we used — and I’d used email in the computer lab in college (following a set of instructions to log on to their UNIX-based system, even though I had no idea what I was typing). So I was actually familiar with it, unlike a lot of people at that time. So I was assigned to create this email newsletter. I remember coming up with a top ten list, like David Letterman. It kind of became a hit and drove a lot of people to check out the site in the early days.

But what about the actual, you know, magazine? Or whatever it was?

The weird thing, the thing I didn’t quite understand, was that we weren’t going to actually print anything. This entire magazine was going to be on the World Wide Web, this thing I’d read about in Wired recently. Chris tried to explain it to me, but he didn’t do a very good job, or maybe he didn’t really understand it himself, but there was something about installing TCP/IP software, then once I’d done that I would have to download and install a web browser, Mosaic, or maybe this new one that everybody liked called Netscape Navigator.

For those of you who don’t know: Before Windows 95, Windows PCs needed special software just to connect to certain parts of the Internet, including the World Wide Web. Not just a web browser, but the software just to get online in the first place. Unless you used a program like AOL or Prodigy, but we weren’t going to be publishing on those services — we were going to be on the Web, where anybody could publish. Weird idea, right? Who’d read it, anyway?

But we did it and suddenly our writing was appearing online. We wrote everything in text files which the “producers” would convert to HTML and post — we didn’t do database-driven publishing yet (although I know it existed because the legal publisher I worked at had used it).

We used Yahoo to figure out what else on the Web was worth looking at. We read about Amazon, this online bookstore thing, and scoffed. We argued whether e-mail should be hyphenated and whether Web should be capitalized. We laughed at ridiculous porn pictures that took forever to download. (Yes, people looked at porn at work. Openly. And laughed. Times were different.) We watched the OJ trial and reports about the Oklahoma City bombing, but we weren’t really doing news yet — the CNET news site, News.com, wouldn’t launch for another year — so there wasn’t much we could do but watch and argue about the glove.

Microsoft launched their big new thing, Windows 95, in August. I didn’t exactly understand why it was supposed to be a big deal, but I was assigned to drive down to the launch party at Great America in Santa Clara and report back what it was like. I took notes on a piece of paper — laptops were a luxury not afforded mere editorial assistants — then found a pay phone — cell phones didn’t exist yet — fed it full of quarters, and read my composed story to the editor back at the office. Literally phoned that one in.

The next four years were a blur. We went from 40 people sitting in front of plywood-door desks in an old gym to 500 people spread across several buildings in the shadow of Telegraph Hill. The phrase “dot-com” went from weird computer geek terminology to Super Bowl TV commercials. Microsoft became the most powerful and hated company in America.

I went from writing an email newsletter to writing CD-ROM reviews. (That’s what they called software, like games and interactive encyclopedias, for a couple years before everybody was online and could get that stuff on the web. It was a huge business for about 18 months then went totally kaput.) Then I wrote scripts for CNET’s programs “The Web” and “TV.com” (One of the talking heads was this guy named Ryan Seacrest. I used to wonder how he felt, working in the backwater of San Francisco on some obscure show about computers that ran only on the Sci-Fi Network. Guess he had the last laugh.) We also had Al Gore’s daughter and the first Bachelor, Alex Michel, pass through as employees.

Eventually I graduated to doing hardware reviews and features. That was the most fun. I wrote a skeptical take on the Y2K bug (I was totally right) and somebody wrote me a nasty email saying I was an idiot and I wrote an email back in which my first three words were “Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.” He posted it to a Y2K bulletin board and an hour later I was receiving a very angry lecture from Chris Barr, who was now so high up the hierarchy he barely had time for me. He wasn’t that angry, actually, he just told me never to feed the trolls. “Apple fans are the worst,” he said. “Just don’t respond.”

At one point I got sick of the constant reorgs and changing job descriptions of a fast-growing startup and went for a job interview at the Chronicle. (This time, they called me!) I talked to some nice reporters there, and it seemed OK. Then I went into the HR person’s office and she asked me flat out, “Do you really want to work here? You know this is a union shop and you’ll never get a raise beyond a couple percent per year, with a top salary of $53,000. You have stock options at CNET, stick around and you could be rich!”

She basically talked me out of the job. I should thank her.

Anyway. I eventually left CNET in 1999, stock options intact. I traveled, worked in Seattle for 10 years, and did a lot of other things.

But what strikes me about my time at CNET is how we’re still having exactly many of the same arguments and conversations today, almost 20 years later.

  • People then didn’t believe online journalism would replace print, even though everybody at CNET took it for granted. We basically drove Ziff-Davis — best known for PC Magazine — out of business because we had no printing costs, and bought the online remnants for pennies on the dollar in 2000. (Another company got the rights to the print publications, and those rights went from private equity firm to holding company to something else, and still exist in some form today.) People didn’t believe it then, and amazingly they still don’t believe it today.
  • We debated endlessly about where to place elements on a page to get the most people to click.
  • We promised detailed reports to advertisers about who was clicking and where they were clicking after they left the site. We used a technology called “cookies” to track them. Some people got upset about the privacy implications, but most people got over it.
  • We argued whether we should try and be smarter or hipper or cooler, like the cool kids over at Wired or Salon or this weird online serial soap opera that had funny animated characters. Only the thing was, people actually read CNET. A ton of people. That’s how the company made it through the dot-com crash, finally selling to CBS years after I left.

The most hilarious thing was when all these people started pontificating about “blogging” in 2004 or so. What was the big deal? It was pretty much exactly what we’d been doing at CNET for years, just on a different set of platforms. People writing about technology.

Nothing really changes except the scenery.

We now have more computers and we use them more hours of the day. That means there’s way more demand for interesting stuff to read than there’s ever been before, and there are way more great writing jobs available than when I got out of college — and I’m sorry, everybody whining about the death of journalism is simply pissed off because the newspaper jobs they fought so hard to get are no longer that great to have. There seem to be more public relations people, too.

But the basic idea of tech journalism hasn’t really changed. We take complicated stuff and make it understandable, and explain why people should care. We puncture company hype and uplift the deserving but obscure. Most important, we talk to people and look for great stories to tell.

It’s really fun and I hope I get to do it for another 20 years.

Whatever happened to CITEworld?

December 26, 2014

Every week or two, I get a Twitter DM saying something like “Hey, when did you leave CITEworld? What happened?”

Here’s a FAQ I’ll point to the next time this comes up:

What happened to CITEworld?

Update: As of July 2015, the site is totally gone. It now redirects to CIO.

The site still exists, but as of the end of October it is no longer publishing any original content. All new content that appears on the site is repurposed from other IDG publications. All of our old content is still live. Any of this may change at some point in the future, but I won’t know about it.

What happened to the CITE Conference?

The last CITE Conference happened in April. As far as I know, there are no plans for future CITE Conferences. Again, that may change, but I won’t know about it.

Why did IDG make this change?

It was a business decision. I had no say in it. That’s generally how publishing goes.

CITEworld managed to build a decent audience for a B2B site over its two years — we were getting more unique monthly visitors than at least one other IDG site that is still a going concern — but the company chose not to invest any more to turn it into a real core part of the business. It probably would have taken another year or two.

What are you doing now?

I left IDG in November to return to Business Insider as our west coast bureau chief. I’m excited to be part of the most popular business news site in the US, and to continue growing and improving our tech and other coverage in San Francisco. You can always reach me at mrosoff at businessinsider dot com.

I am no longer involved with CITEworld in any way.

What happened to all of CITEworld’s writers? 

Reporter Matt Weinberger is now with IDG’s Computerworld and writes for some other IDG publications as well. You can check out our Twitter list if you want to get in touch with any of our writers or see what they’re up to now.

Any regrets?

Nope. It was a lot of fun and we built something useful and valuable for as long as it lasted.

But one thing I learned is if you have a hunch that there’s an issue that needs to be addressed head on, don’t wait for even one second. It’s really easy to ignore those tickling little feelings that you could be doing more on a specific issue, when there’s already so much to do. It’s really easy to stop making noise when you get ignored, but keep screaming.

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:


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