The Rise of Tech Blogs in the Mid-2000s
An excerpt from the Techlash Book as a gift to my fellow geeks. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
In the mid-2000s, the glorious era of computer magazines came to an end. The tech geeks that were computer magazines’ subscribers in the 1980s and the 1990s, and made them a huge economic success, moved to read updates online. The younger readers, who were born in the Internet era, did not create a new cycle of customers.
Thus, second-generation computer magazines needed to deal with the loss of advertisers and subscribers. As a result, the publishers were forced to cease printing issues. The change to “digital-only” was inevitable. Famous magazines started to cease printing issues: PC Magazine and Computer Shopper in 2009, Information Week and Laptop in 2013, Computerworld, and Mac World in 2014. At the time of writing this book, there are only a small number of magazines that are still printing issues, such as Wired, Maximum PC, and Mac|Life.
It took a while for publications about computers and the Internet to actually publish meaningful websites. (CNET is one of the rare Web 1.0 media survivors). In many cases, it was because parent companies split off the Web divisions as separate teams or even different companies.
After the crash, the Web 2.0 boom in the mid-2000s gave birth to a new batch of media startups running cheap publishing software and network ads. Free of expenses like copy editors, design staff, or Midtown offices, they told Silicon Valley’s inside story, started breaking big news, and quickly caught on. Notable examples of A-List tech blogs can be found in Table 2:
On one side of the spectrum, we had influencer journalists like Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. Mossberg had a personal technology column in the WSJ since 1991 and became the kingmaker of consumer tech products. Swisher’s long and successful career covering tech granted her, among all other achievements, with the “Exceptional Woman in Publishing” Award. Together at AllThingsD, they preside over a conference that attracted the business elite.
At the other end of the spectrum were “one-man media” like John Gruber, who started Daring Fireball from his home office in 2002 as a hobby and made it a full-time job in 2006. Those new tech bloggers were part of the larger revolution of Web 2.0 and user-generated content.
Prof. Manuel Castells described this trend as “mass self-communication,” which is “self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by the many that communicate with many.”
Blogging offered tech geeks an easy way to become reporters or analysts. Those vibrating online communities made room for alternative voices.
Jeff Jarvis is a blogger at BuzzMachine and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. In his interview, he reminisced about the early days of blogging. “I was talking some time ago with Dave Winer” (who was one of the originators of blogging, RSS, and podcasts), “and I said, ‘Dave, what happened? When blogging began, it was so nice, we were all good to each other, and we had blogrolls.’ Dave said, ‘Jeff, everything is good when it starts.’” According to Jeff Jarvis, “that is a theme for all of this, that early moment.”
The rise of tech blogs was mostly celebrated. The Web was finally covering itself better than its print counterparts — and independently. “That is today’s tech news industry in action. Frenetic, dramatic, sometimes flawed — but usually awesome. Tech industry executives and enthusiasts have never been better informed or entertained, live and in stereo. But it has taken 30 years to get here.”
This new flow of information was also overwhelming. “Thirty years ago, there was no Internet … hence no online newspapers and magazines, no blogs,” emphasized Richard Posner. “The public’s consumption of news and opinion used to be like sucking on a straw. Now, it’s like being sprayed by a fire hose.”
When PC World magazine ceased printing issues, after 30 years in print, Harry McCracken, who worked there from 1994 to 2008, wrote:
If you could have shown me the web in 1983, or even 1993, I would have cheerfully traded an infinite number of computer magazines for the chance to read an endless, endlessly diverse quantity of information about tech products, updated not once a month but all day, every day, for free. And today, as much as I once loved computer magazines, I wouldn’t trade The Verge, Engadget, AllThingsD, Ars Technica, Daring Fireball, 9to5Mac, ZDNet, TechCrunch, and my other favorite tech sites to get them back. The golden age of computer magazines was glorious, but the golden age of computer journalism is now.
Since the mid-2000s, the leading tech blogs have gained tens of millions of unique visitors per month. Tech bloggers, who succeeded in obtaining a good reputation and a loyal audience of followers, have become the new influentials in the tech world. In 2005, Lee Gomes (WSJ) described the rise of tech blogs:
In the standard theory about technology blogs … mainstream media were out of touch, elitist, or simply ossified, and they would soon be supplanted by a grass-roots army of bloggers working intently at their laptops to speak truth to power. The reality is that while there are now as many tech blogs as stars in the sky, only a tiny fraction of them matter. And those that do aren’t part of some proletarian information revolution, but instead have become the tech world’s new elite.
In this power shift, “Reporters for the big mainstream newspapers and magazines, long accustomed to fawning treatment at corporate events,” were showing up and finding that “the best seats often go to the A-list bloggers.”
Several of my interviewees described the importance of tech blogs for startups, especially TechCrunch. The PR professional Brett Weiner, for example, said, “Coming out of the dot-com bust, TechCrunch was a seminal publication. We had a lot of good and bad battles with it during those early years. It was very important for startup clients to have a TechCrunch story.” Specifically, since “That is how they raised funding.” As a result, “TechCrunch had a lot of power.”
Overall, the changes in the tech press were fueled by two significant trends:
(1) Personal brands: A shift in the balance of power toward individual brands — journalists, pundits, and personalities — fed by Twitter and Facebook, which allow individuals to corral and broadcast directly to their fans more efficiently than ever before.
(2) Smart technology: The increasing importance of software to publishing companies. Differentiation wasn’t just about good writing and fact-finding anymore. It was increasingly about the way stories were presented, designed, and distributed. That required a product-engineering department as serious as the editorial department.
Addressing the competitive field of tech coverage, a New York Times article called it “the digital-era sweatshop” and explained that tech blogs are “in a vicious 24-hour competition to break company news, reveal new products and expose corporate gaffes.”
The competition pressure was linked to the importance of speed: if a blogger is beaten by a millisecond, someone else’s post on the subject will bring in the audience, the links, and the bigger share of the ad revenue.
Also, “In the tech blog world, if someone posted something 30 seconds earlier, it’s perceived as an exclusive, even if it’s the exact same story.”
A New York Times Magazine’s piece, titled “Joe Weisenthal vs. the 24-hour news cycle,” profiling Business Insider’s blogger, provided an extreme example. His workday was described as an average 16-hour day, in which he writes 15 posts, ranging from charts with a few lines of explanatory text to several hundred words of a closely reasoned analysis.
Traditional media needed to adapt to the tech blogosphere and to evolve accordingly. Research from 2008 found that mainstream media have adopted the discourse of tech blogs and their discursive practices.
Also, looking at today’s traditional media websites, most of them contain a tech section, commonly located under the business section (e.g., the Los Angeles Times/Business/Technology, the Washington Post/Business/Technology). But that was not always the case, given that the tech section was widely added as a blog format, copying the emerging success of the tech blogs. It was prominent for nearly a decade. For example, the WSJ had a separate blog, AllThingsD, from 2007, and in 2013, it switched to a tech section as all other topical categories.
Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic, who previously worked at Fusion Media Group, and Wired Digital. In his interview, he reminisced about the rise of tech blogs. “A lot of coverage grew up at the same time as this combined media form/genre we call blogging. Blogging had this hybrid quality. It wasn’t really only journalists doing it. In fact, it wasn’t even primarily journalists doing it,” he said. “Although it had some journalistic features to it, as people were trying to write and report facts and good information.” In the tech blogs’ evolvement, “You could imagine that you were the future, the next wave, that you were going to create a new kind of media that would be better, and flourish.”
The geeky tech bloggers were accused of lacking the professional ethics that traditional journalists had. John Paczkowski is the technology and business editor at BuzzFeed News. Beforehand, he had editorial positions at Recode, AllThingsD, SiliconValley.com, and San Francisco Bay Guardian. In his interview, he shared that when he started his tech journalism career, “there was a lot of celebratory tech journalism; product reviews, for example. There were also a lot of early gadget blog writers that didn’t necessarily emerge out of ‘old school’ journalism. They just loved tech, and they could write.”
He didn’t want to make a broad generalization, but “There was some simplistic coverage, rewriting press releases, lack of interrogation. It was very celebratory of innovation: ‘We are not going to make much of an effort to bring a critical eye towards it because tech is wonderful.’”
However, along with the celebratory tech journalism, and despite the challenges, “There was also investigative work being done — largely by the folks you would think of (WSJ, NYT, SJ Mercury News),” added John Paczkowski. Eventually, “It took a few years for some of the blogs to embrace that. Many do it very, very well now — easily as well as the more ‘storied’ publications.”
Looking at the literature, tech PR was found to be a major source of tech information, as tech journalists are informed ahead of time about tech products by standardized written press releases. For example, a survey from 2006 showed that press releases are “heavily used” by more than three-quarters of the journalists, followed by exhibitions, conferences, and events of corporations themselves. Unsurprisingly, studies found that positive evaluations outnumbered the negative evaluations two to one, or that positive stories were dominant, with an approximate 20–30% difference in favor of the positive stories.
In the pre-Techlash era, it was typical to see technology coverage that simply aggregates directly from a tech company’s blog — the modern-day equivalent of a press release — with little or no analysis or additional reporting.
Therefore, the common criticism of tech journalism was about (1) the influence of corporate PR, and (2) the non-investigative nature of the coverage.
Tech journalists were told that they should not pitch innovations like PR firms. The journalists were advised to
⦁ “Not get carried away by the marketing buzz or their own enthusiasm.”
⦁ Not “take all claims about the innovation at face value,” but instead to “make sure to put them into context and to explore why the claims might not be true or why the innovation might not live up to the claims.”
⦁ “Be skeptical and critical. Use more than one source for the article. Include both pros and cons.”
⦁ “Ask the tough questions and include opposing voices and ideas about the quality or usefulness of an innovation.”
It was argued that “There is a sort of ‘public service’ mentality that needs to be implemented.” Tech journalists were also asked to blow the whistle on a foul play.
However, back in 2009, Silicon Valley’s journalists claimed in interviews that “because of time constraints, fact-checking is cursory, at best,” and “a critical approach is pushed aside in the interest of being first to publish the information.” Several interviewees pointed out that the need for real-time information makes it “hard to be more precise than the press release,” hence many stories are “just reprocessed press releases.”
“There’s this inherent challenge between long-term, long-form, deep investigated work that runs this risk of feeling stale when the pace of news is just so fast,” Fernando Díaz from Reveal explained. “We’ve got to figure out a more mid-weight speed for this particular beat because things just move so rapidly in technology.”
The criticism warned against “the invasion of corporate news.” A good example was given when Satya Nadella was named Microsoft’s new CEO. With the press release came an “asset pack” that included a flattering biography and an unchallenging video interview by an in-house blogger. It contained no mention of the thousands of planned job cuts, and was a “masterclass in PR spoon-feeding”: with no press conference in which to ask tougher questions about Microsoft’s challenges, the news outlets were simply doing “drag and drop.” Thus, the pressures on news outlets to become multimedia, interactive, 24-hour engagement machines meant editors had become increasingly receptive to what PRs were pitching.
Scott Harris, a tech columnist, explained in 2010: over the years, San Jose Mercury News has published scoops, but investigative reporting is usually not an option these days. “When you had 400 reporters here, you could give a few of them time to work on something else [such as investigative stories].” As the paper “has reduced its reporting staff, there are fewer people here who are all expected to produce more quickly and produce more pieces.”
In industry debates, tech journalists and bloggers spoke of the non-Investigative nature of the bulk of their coverage — new product features, funding, and job changes: “TechCrunch is just a cheerleader. A lot of tech media is sort of in the pocket of the people we cover.” A reporter from The Guardian replied that “It sounds like you’ve just gotten used to not having an oppositional journalistic culture.” Other tech reporters described that “a smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person.” Perhaps since “Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things, critics don’t.” Lastly, they emphasized one of their greatest concerns: “If you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”
Their concern was rooted in a strong belief that “technology and technologists are building the future and that the rest of the world … needs to catch up.”
This mindset of the “church of techno-optimism” long-established “the negative and anti-progress associations of technology criticism”:
For many people, technology is associated with the teleological ideal that history moves toward progress. Technology exists to make things better: It is a means to an end with the goal of improving. We understand technology to be an element of modernization, along with developments in science that improve societies over time. So, in criticizing technology, criticism seems to be against progress.
As illustrated so far, a lot has changed since publications like PC Magazine served the enthusiastic geeks. But in the mid-2000s, tech coverage, especially on tech blogs, continued to serve this audience with celebratory coverage of the innovations coming out of the tech industry. Though, we need to bear in mind that the innovations during those years were truly revolutionary.
In 2006, two years after its launch at Harvard, Facebook became available to the general public. It had a palatable origin story, a wunderkind founder, and a minimalist design. It was largely treated as a trendy newcomer to the social network scene.
In 2007, Netflix launched its streaming service, and we gladly said goodbye to the red envelopes (if you don’t know what they are, ask the nearest older person to explain).
Also, in 2007, Apple launched the iPhone. Announcing the first iPhone, Steve Jobs stated, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” He was right, and the media covered it as such.
“It was ‘negativish,’ and then, it went back to positive after everything started to come back. It was pretty complimentary to Facebook and Google, and the iPhone came out as a critical device for the future,” described Kara Swisher. “I think the iPhone got plenty of coverage because it deserved plenty of coverage. It was an important device that changed everything. I don’t begrudge any of that.”