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.