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The problems facing tech journalism

Brian Merchant on the trend of tech companies briefing journalists “on background” for Columbia Journalism Review:

This is a toxic arrangement. The tactic shields tech companies from accountability. It allows giants like Amazon and Tesla an opportunity to transmit their preferred message, free of risk, in the voice of a given publication. It leaves no trace of policy that might later be criticized—that could form part of the public record to be scrutinized by regulators, lawyers, or investors. If the company later reverses course or modifies its position, the egg is on the reporter’s face, not the company’s.

This is a big deal. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple are too big – and affect our lives in too many ways – to skirt responsibility for their actions like this.

Merchant goes on to share two recent examples from his work that spell out the problem. He also explains how a lot of this started with Apple – and how the enthusiast press helps sustain the process:

Silicon Valley wasn’t always so hostile to reporters. It used to be relatively open. Apple, probably more than any other company, snapped it closed. In my book about the history of the iPhone, The One Device, I dedicate a chapter to the company’s marketing prowess. Keeping the press at arm’s length was a key part of its strategy.

This controlled access strategy was in force when Apple released the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and rose to become the most powerful consumer technology company on the planet. It created such a booming demand for this scarce information that a cottage knowledge industry sprang up, with reporters and bloggers competing to break news about items like product update announcements and leaked supply chain specs. Apple learned that it wouldn’t have to open its doors to critics to get its message out—most of the blogging was done by superfans, after all, and Silicon Valley was still enjoying a halo of public goodwill.

Journalists can only do their best work – the investigations and reporting that hold powerful people to account – if they have a certain amount of power themselves. Without it, they have fewer resources to get information from organisations that would rather not share.

There was a time when journalists were a necessary, or at least important, part in shaping one’s image. Companies could benefit from a reputable paper.

Now that superfans have audiences that rival traditional outlets, especially with niche (and thus valuable) audiences, the latter are less important. And those bloggers don’t always share professional journalists’ allegiance to a code of conduct.

There are some astonishingly good journos in the enthusiast press, of course. And there are a lot of layers to the problem. Rapid news cycles, an economy that elevates primacy over all else, and a general lack of resources that’s affected most outlets (even the some of the biggest and best) have played their role.

It all coalesces into a difficult reality: journalists need tech companies more than tech companies need journalists. For day-to-day reporting – which is often the foundation of major, groundbreaking investigations – that’s a problem.

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