This week, New York magazine profiles Re/code's Kara Swisher—attempting to parse how a rabid reporter who knows so many of Silicon Valley's secrets still enjoys the adoration of its executives. The feature also touches on the "clusterfuck" that is contemporary tech journalism.
Beat reporters covering power-brokers in Washington or Hollywood also have to negotiate with sources, trading restraint here for information there. But those journalists, who also live and love in a one-industry town, aren't as easily deluded into thinking that they're all on the same side. A Politico blogger wouldn't say they're "pro-politician," any more than Dealbreaker would say it's "pro-hedge funds." But "pro-entrepreneur" is a badge the trade blogs wear proudly, a badge that gets them entry into the right parties, tech campuses, and increasingly lucrative job opportunities with the institutions they were supposed to police.
In the land of the 23-year-old multibillionaire, unlike in D.C., some of the most powerful, newsworthy people are peers of the young reporters covering them, and thus more likely to form social relationships; and unlike in Hollywood, journalists aren't automatically assigned lower social status than their subjects. Here, too, the investors backing tech media are often from the same industry they're supposed to be covering, a uniquely sunny industry that encourages puffery. Most tech-media outlets, being start-ups themselves, are sympathetic to entrepreneurs, and upstart tech media don't necessarily have the ethical proscriptions—such as gift policies—that traditional print institutions do.
"A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person," says one tech journalist. "Like, We have news to share, we'd like to come and tell you about it." Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don't.
This is how the trade press has always operated. But what if trade reporters are the only ones with access to an increasingly influential industry, with more potential to cause harm? What if you had to rely on E! to investigate WMDs? According to New York magazine, no one is more aware of the danger than tech bloggers themselves—fear and self-loathing lurk behind startup stenography, dutiful privacy updates, lines of jargon copied and pasted from a press release.
Can't get over the fact that the goal of tech news seems to be beating companies at releasing their own press releases.
— Alexia Tsotsis (@alexia) November 29, 2011
— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) October 10, 2013
So, the moderator asked, why didn't you? "We're terrible," Swisher said, to laughter, though "we did tell you about the Lyft funding today."
Self-flagellation was a recurring theme, even though it would be silly to expect the national-security story of the decade to break in a California business publication. Swisher and fellow panelist Alexia Tsotsis, the co-editor of TechCrunch, spoke of the non-investigative nature of the bulk of their coverage—fundings, job changes, new product features. Tsotsis was especially abject, suggesting that even if she'd received the Edward Snowden documents, she probably "would have succumbed to the pressure of the Obama administration now"; TechCrunch "is just a cheerleader," she said, and "a lot of tech media is sort of in the pockets of the people we cover … We're inviting them to our parties. We might be dating some of them. We are right in the middle, in the thick, of the tech industry." (Tsotsis dates a partner at General Catalyst, a venture-capital firm.) She noted that TechCrunch was entrepreneur-friendly from its inception and said she stays up nights worrying about sources getting fired: "There's a part of me that's like: No, don't leak this to us!"
"They're very thin-skinned," says another reporter. "On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they've already heard 17 worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you're criticizing the spirit of innovation."
All leaks welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.