Earlier this week on his personal blog, one of Google’s product management directors, Hunter Walk, posted a very interesting sampling of responses from technology journalists about the broad question of whether they are receiving the level of journalism from our business that they deserve. I found it very interesting that a product manager from any company was able to reveal at least as much, if not more, about the folks who usually interview him than they reveal about his company.
The emerging theme from the journalists’ responses was distinct exasperation and frustration with the level of interest that you, their reader, have demonstrated in their product. It’s getting “harder… to convince people to read these stories” on broader subjects like piracy, said one. Another remarked, “I wish more people cared about” the very topic on which his publication was founded (you’ll know the one I mean), and which you would think his livelihood is based. And a third went so far as to blame readers for being interested in the wrong things, saying, “I am dismayed every day by the crap that people seem to find worthy of page views.”
I can sympathize to some extent. When your job is to engage people’s interest not only in topics that should be naturally engaging and attractive, but at the same time in the most obscure and esoteric ones (I have a piece I’m working on now about a new high-bandwidth VoIP routing component for use by regional voice carriers), and you’re given the tools to measure what appears to be reader sentiment on a moment-by-moment basis, the feedback you get will be depressing. Stories about the everyday innovations that happen in our business here and there, only attract about a few hundred people each. If your career began with a publication whose claim to fame was dethroning TV Guide and Penthouse as the nation’s most purchased newsstand magazine, you start to have dreams about how many more people you could attract if you stood atop a kiosk at an airport gate and banged a tambourine. (And as Carl Jung might point out, you start to refer to yourself in the second person.)
I thought you cared
But here’s something I know, and it’s what keeps me working every day. I know that the conclusion arrived at by these folks Hunter Walk interviewed is wrong. I know when I walk into a café and listen to the stories you tell about the technology you use, and when you hold it in your hand to show me something you’ve discovered, you’re far more interested in the depths and details of technology than any analytics or heuristics or demographics would pretend to reveal.
The problem (dear Brutus) is not with you. And frankly, it’s not with us either. There’s something keeping us apart, that’s disconnecting you and me from what we want to know, in ways we haven’t yet begun to fathom.
The Web as a tool for generating interest in information and ideas is overrated. I will go so far as to say it is defective. While nothing thus far created in the history of humankind has given individuals greater access to information at any level, from any place, as a web – as a device that links information with common contexts together to make it meaningful – it fails miserably.
Would you like fries with that?
I’ve used this analogy for over a decade, but here I go again: We “tech news” journalists perceive a world where the product that we produce is being under-consumed. It is as if we established a chain of French fries restaurants, serving up French fries at incredible volume. Out front of our stores, we build long treadmills where we stamp out packets of fries, one after the other, piping hot. When not enough people show up to buy fries, we produce more. We compete with one another to make the most fries.
And when we wonder why, why people aren’t eating our French fries, we try innovating. We serve up varieties of fries with your choice of flavored salts, toppings, and packet colors. We try sour cream, salsa, different textures of ketchup. It attracts some interest for a while but then it dies down again.
“Why Don’t More People Eat Our Fries?” we write on a big banner, which we hang outside our store in big, bold letters. Even pleading with our patrons fails. On a late Friday night after a particularly hopeful sales promotion for French Fries with Chocolate Sprinkles and Free Justin Bieber Doll crashes miserably, we come to the obvious conclusion: People hate potatoes.
Hopefully this metaphorical model makes a little plainer what analytics services fail to account for: The Web, such as it is today, mandates that all information be served up on individual plates, a la carte. The most effective tools and apps produced for the Web today are those which offer folks some way of making a meal of it all (Pulse, Flipboard, News360, ShowYou, Qwiki). But despite the advent of the hyperlink which supposedly sparked this entire revolution, the Web does not link itself to itself. More to the point, it does not generate its own context – the frame of reference that gives meaning, flavor, and value to one element by relating it to all the others.
Main course change
It is therefore somehow fitting that the one response Walk received that speaks to the core of the real problem, came from the writer for the publication that defined context for generations.
“There are topics which receive significant coverage, but are not being addressed in ways that I find particularly effective,” wrote Quentin Hardy of The New York Times. “That is, I think people may care about them, but they tend to fall back on familiar tropes and biases which prevent them from engaging with them successfully. ‘Care more’ in this sense might be seen as ‘address differently.’ [An example is] our national financial situation. Ideological biases, strengthened by a desire to avoid painful disruptions to the status quo, are preventing many people from addressing the choices we have made about revenues in and payments out.”
It was a question about tech news, but for Hardy, it became about the economy. There are aspects about our business that are not the least bit interesting, and may not even make much sense, taken unto themselves. In a media environment that is obsessed with what the business calls “verticals,” we forget that vertical is only one dimension. If we wonder why the cross-sections of our readership look somehow wrong, small, insignificant, uncaring, perhaps it is because no one out there is as vertical as we think they are.
I love asparagus. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it is my favorite vegetable. But not one time in my life did I munch on a sprig of asparagus as a snack. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, the reason I know as much about the industry of technology as I do is because I see it in a context that gives every element of the subject some degree of pertinence to the rest of the world – to the broader economy, to the subject of our world’s infrastructure, to the question of our fate as a society. In other words, I eat my asparagus but in the context of a full meal.
If publishers are to resolve the issue of maintaining your attention in tech news, we in this business will all need to come to the collective realization that tech news is a side dish. We need to break the barriers that the Web imposes upon us, and learn to provide it with a main course.