Rise of the Tech Bandits

Rise of the Tech Bandits

How an unlikely group of renegade writers are changing journalism and the future of publishing. 

By Dan Frommer

To truly appreciate today’s plugged-in, multimedia, real-time, technology media business, you need to see it in action. And there’s no better showcase than one of Apple’s big product-launch events — the tech equivalent of the Super Bowl, except there’s at least three of them every year.

The day starts early (early for me, at least) at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It’s the first morning of Apple’s sold-out 2011 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and Apple CEO Steve Jobs is about to deliver what will end up being his last “Stevenote.” (At 4:15 a.m., a line of people two blocks long was already waiting to get in.) 

After a quick check-in (press members get to skip the big line) and a trip up a couple of tall escalators, I reach the top floor, where a couple hundred journalists, handlers and special guests are shooting the breeze before the presentation. 

A line of photographers waits to get in. A cluster of writers mills about. But when the doors open, all order is lost. If you want a good seat in front, it’s time to run. This is about as close to a full-contact sport as tech journalism gets.

I power walk and wind up close to the stage, off to the side. Good enough. This will be my mission control center for the next two hours, as I shuffle between trying to live-blog, while fighting the Moscone Center’s Wi-Fi and my iPhone’s helpless hotspot mode, and trying to take photos of what’s happening on stage.

All around, there’s a strange hum of productivity: a symphony of dozens of MacBook keyboards tapping out live updates, cameras fluttering, oohs and ahhs, and punctuations of polite applause coming from the nonpress side of the auditorium. Jobs seems tired, and the announcements — new versions of Mac OS X, iOS and iCloud — are important but not as sexy as, say, a new iPhone.

But what’s going on in this room is pretty amazing. Dozens — hundreds? — of sites are publishing in real time, live from the scene. (At Jobs’ WWDC keynote in 2010, the live-bloggers jammed the Wi-Fi so badly that Jobs had to pause his presentation and scold people to turn off their devices.) 

Announcements and photos get posted seconds after the fact, along with snippets of pithy analysis, and that’s just the first draft of coverage. Over the course of the day, AOL’s big gadget site Engadget will post no fewer than 16 articles about the day’s news. My colleagues and I at Business Insider end up posting 34 headlines. And so on.

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.

The Boom Years 

“The year of the mouse! The Apple Lisa! The Macintosh!” Philip Elmer-DeWitt recalls some of the technology stories he wrote for Time Magazine, starting in the early 1980s. “The IBM PC! We did the Machine of the Year.” Later that year, PC Magazine would peak at 773 pages.

The dotcom boom was still a decade away, but “Time was discovering computers gung-ho,” says Elmer-DeWitt, a long-time technology and science editor and writer at Time, who now writes a business-focused blog about Apple for Fortune, another Time Inc. title.

The challenge Time had in covering technology, Elmer-DeWitt says, was that “it was run by a bunch of old fuddy-duddies who didn’t use computers. And they didn’t really know what they wanted. At one point, Walter Isaacson [the former Time editor who recently wrote Steve Jobs’ biography] made me write a story about ‘cyberpunk.’ He had no idea what that meant, but he loved the word and he wanted it on the cover of Time, so I had to scratch together a story. I’m totally embarrassed by it.”

As the Internet grew from a curiosity to a game-changer, it also fueled its own media industry. Magazines sprung up including Ziff Davis’s Yahoo! Internet LifeRed Herring and, my favorite, though short-lived, The Net, which was part Web directory, part culture rag and part DIY guide. Wired, one of the lone survivors from that era, launched in 1993, inspiring a generation of geeks. 

But it took a while for these publications about computers and the Internet to actually publish meaningful websites. (CNET, now owned by CBS, 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.

“When I started out at MacUser, there was an Internet but nobody cared about it,” says Jason Snell, senior vice president and editorial director in charge of IDG’sMacworld and PCWorld titles. “Not from a coverage standpoint or us publishing on it. Which I found crazy. I was actually told by someone, ‘Our future is on CompuServe.’ But even there, there was a completely separate online division, and the print magazine had almost nothing to do with the online presence.”

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 staffs or Midtown offices, they told Silicon Valley’s inside story, started breaking big news and quickly caught on.

The most famous, of course, is TechCrunch, the site founded in 2005 by former attorney Mike Arrington and operated for years out of his house in Silicon Valley. (AOL bought TechCrunch in 2010 for more than $25 million.) Mashable also launched in 2005, the creation of 19-year-old Scottish kid Pete Cashmore, now drawing more readers than TechCrunch and, reportedly, with acquisition interest from CNN. In 2006, Om Malik, a writer at Time Inc.’s Business 2.0 magazine, left his job to launch GigaOM, a tech blog. That same year, Matt Marshall, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, founded VentureBeat. A few years earlier, in 2003, New Zealander Richard MacManus started ReadWriteWeb, which was acquired by SAY Media in December 2011 and just celebrated its 9th birthday. Then All Things Digital (aka AllThingsD), Silicon Alley Insider and a steady stream of others popped up. 

The Web was finally covering itself better than its print counterparts — and independently.

Brave New World

It is a natural evolution, but changes in today’s tech press are increasingly fueled by two big trends.

First, a shift in the balance of power toward individual brands — journalists, pundits and personalities — fed by products such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow individuals to corral and broadcast directly to their fans more easily than ever before.

“It’s not just media anymore; it’s also people with voices who are on Twitter,” says Brooke Hammerling, co-founder of Brew Media Relations, a respected technology PR firm. “Is Gary Vaynerchuk a reporter? No. Is Fred Wilson? Or Mark Cuban? No. Do they have influence? Are they publishers of content? Absolutely. They become part of our outreach.”

And second, the increasing importance of software to publishing companies. Differentiation isn’t just about good writing and fact-finding anymore: It’s increasingly about the way stories are presented, designed and distributed. And that requires a product-engineering department as serious as the editorial department.

The site that everyone wants to talk about now is The Verge, a flashy technology news brand launched last November by Vox Media, previously the sports media startup SB Nation. And it is a real hit. 

The Verge, barely half a year old, had already reached 6.5 million monthly unique visitors in March and was approaching 30 million page views — impressive growth numbers. And it is a poster child of the two trends: personal brands and smart technology.

The Verge is no accidental hit. It is the tech media equivalent of changing planes in midair. Barely a year ago, all of the site’s core staff members were still working at AOL, where they were the core staff at Engadget. Joshua Topolsky, The Verge co-founder and editor-in-chief, was Engadget’s editor-in-chief. Nilay Patel, a former attorney and The Verge’s managing editor, was Engadget’s managing editor. At least half a dozen other writers and editors also made the jump, including Topolsky’s wife — The Verge features editor Laura June.

It was jarring to see how quickly their temporary placeholder blog, This Is My Next, picked up steam last year. But that’s the power of today’s tools. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr make it easier than ever to follow your favorite handful of writers — not their employers — and follow them from site to site.

“Our only promotion engine for This Is My Next when we left was just us all tweeting. And it worked. We were as surprised as anybody,” Topolsky says. He’s skeptical, though, as he should be, that most people are anywhere near the point of closely following individual writers on Twitter. For most writers, it’s hard enough to make their audience aware of what site they’re reading. But it’s starting.

“At Engadget, our percentage of commenters was less than 1 percent of the readership,” Topolsky says. “So you get an idea of the scale of who knows you and who doesn’t. But it turns out that the amplification via Twitter and Facebook and the aggregate of your online life is actually meaningful. For us, it was the aggregate of the aggregate — me plus Nilay and all these other people. I just think we’re still fighting an uphill battle for people to know who they’re listening to.”

When I visited in mid-March, The Verge was working out of a smallish loft office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. With a few dozen editorial staffers in one room, The Verge is experiencing the phase of a startup where there are just too many bodies per square foot. It’s fun but a little crazy.

The Verge is not just another gadget blog. There is the look — an apparent nod to sci-fi novels. Topolsky, 34, and Patel, 31, cite influences such as early WiredComputer Shopper and videogame magazines such as GamePro and Mondo 2000. There is the production quality, especially in video reviews, which far surpasses the competition. There is the infamous “CES truck” the publication rented in Las Vegas to serve as an office during the Consumer Electronics Show, which it flies the entire staff to. And there is an offline talk show, On the Verge, shot in a New York theater. One recent guest: Jimmy Fallon, the NBC Late Night host and former SNL star who has hosted Topolsky on his show several times before, now returning the favor.

Content Meets Product

A closer look reveals some interesting changes The Verge is making in the way tech news is told, thanks to an in-house emphasis on software. One cool development is the ability to tell a story in chunks. Tech news is often reported bit by bit, as new details are uncovered. But when a small bit of news breaks, rewriting paragraphs worth of context for each new fact is a duplicative waste. So The Verge built “story streams” that organize many individual updates into a more cohesive narrative. The story stream on Apple’s new iPad, for example, started with Apple’s announcement and wrapped in more than 30 updates by the time this issue of SAY Magazine went to print. The Verge also has experimented more boldly than its peers with graphics and navigation. And it is building out a database of products with a comparison engine, similar to the initial concept behind Gdgt (pronounced “gadget”), a site founded by the previous cohort of Engadget editors, Peter Rojas and Ryan Block. (Gdgt is part of SAY Media’s Technology channel.)

“The Verge is as much the product as it is the content,” Topolsky says. “I think that the landscape of digital publishing — we haven’t cracked it open at all. When we talked to Jim Bankoff [Vox Media’s CEO] about what we could do here, why would SB Nation be a good fit for a tech site given that they’re a network of sports blogs, they showed me the back-end. And it was like, ‘Holy shit’.

“That’s exactly what we were missing — this synergy between a team of developers that wants to make a great publishing product and a team of very savvy content producers that wants to help make the perfect publishing platform. It’s hugely important to us.”

One-Man Media

At the other end of the spectrum is John Gruber, who writes, curates and publishes the popular, Apple-centric blog Daring Fireball from his home office in Philadelphia. By himself. 

Gruber, a Web programmer initially and now a storyteller, journalist and Apple-geek figurehead, started the site as a hobby in 2002 and made it a full-time job in 2006. “I’ve wanted to write about this stuff as long as I can remember,” he says.

Through his website, 400,000 RSS subscribers and 200,000 Twitter followers, he’s a healthy one-man media company — the shining example of how self-publishing can work online. In addition to running small banner ads, Gruber, 39, also sells a weekly sponsorship for $6,500 — and he’s almost always sold out. If he’s actually getting that rate, Daring Fireball could be pulling in at least $400,000 a year. To borrow one of Steve Jobs’ famous punctuation marks, “Boom.”

Daring Fireball, the website, is famously minimalist: Light gray text on a dark gray background, with only a logo at the top and rarely another image. (The name, Gruber says, means nothing. “It’s a name I came up with when I was a little kid, and I always thought it sounded cool.”) If The Verge is the ESPN of tech news, Daring Fireball is analog radio. Gruber even types on a chattery, old-school, ’90s Mac keyboard. But that’s part of the charm. 

In a news industry that is increasingly shoot-first, collect-eyeballs-and-ask-questions-later, Gruber bucks the trend. He is the refreshingly rare writer who will happily show up a few hours “late” to a story with the smartest, best-articulated reaction, which instantly becomes a news event’s canonical analysis. When word broke in March that This American Life was retracting its episode about Apple’s factories in China, Daring Fireball wasn’t the first site to notice. But Gruber quickly owned the story, digging up a handful of related links and writing a vicious takedown of disgraced storyteller Mike Daisey. 

Instead of trying to suck readers into the site and rattle them around, page by page, like a pinball, Daring Fireball is designed to spray traffic outward. (That’s one big reason why other tech writers and publishers love it so much.) And unlike most writers, Gruber follows up. His “claim chowder” archives — revisiting predictions, often those that portray Apple negatively, and end up being hideously wrong — are brilliant.  

“The best part is that I don’t have to ask permission for anything,” Gruber says. “I’m a full-time writer, and I have complete and utter freedom to write exactly what I want to. I feel lucky every day that I get to sit at my desk and work.”

Ten years later, Daring Fireball is still just one guy — editorially, at least. (Gruber says he has a programmer and designer working “very part-time” on a “few initiatives for new stuff.”) But the site’s influence is still profound. When Gruber links to a story or site, everyone in tech finds out about it — if it doesn’t crash or “Fireball” the site he’s linking to. Thanks to his following and reputation, Gruber is now prebriefed by Apple alongside the big guys: The New York Times, TechCrunch, USA Today, etc., and given early access to gadgets to review. 

And why not? Given the way the tech industry is going, with inexpensive access to publishing tools, ad networks and free, real-time syndication tools like Twitter, the Daring Fireball model could well be the future for many writers once they’ve established themselves. 

That’s not to say the personal-news-brand business isn’t without its challenges — for the creator and his or her business.

“There are few downsides, at least for me, personally,” Gruber says. “One is that there’s a limit to what I can produce, how much I can follow. There are times when there are more things I want to write about than I have time to actually do the writing. That’s frustrating. But on the other hand, it forces me to prioritize and write first about what I think is most important or most interesting.

“I suppose the other obvious downside is that I’m never off the clock. I don’t know what the longest stretch is that I’ve gone without posting something new to Daring Fireball, but I doubt it’s much longer than 48 hours or so. When I take a vacation, it’s always, to at least some degree, a working vacation.”

Many of today’s upstart news brands also may be valued differently or could even have trouble selling themselves because of the relative importance of a figurehead founder. 

Mashable, for instance, still uses its studly, young founder, Cashmore, as its Twitter avatar and name. Does that matter? It may eventually. The fiasco at TechCrunch following founder Arrington’s ouster (many key staff members have left, and there’s a sense that its influence has faded) shows, perhaps, why TechCrunch wasn’t acquired for more money in the first place. (Another name brand, Arianna Huffington, is leading AOL’s attempted comeback these days.) At Business Insider, we tried hard to make sure the site wasn’t labeled “Henry Blodget’s tech blog.” And someone like Gruber might have an especially tough time if he ever wanted to sell Daring Fireball without signing a long-term employment agreement.

But that’s not a reason to avoid it.

“This is very much the future of media in general, not just tech media,” Gruber says. “I think tech media is simply leading the way because it helps so much to actually be at least somewhat technically savvy to make it all work. It was easier for me, someone with programming experience and a degree in computer science, to get a one-man-show website off the ground than it would have been for someone with no technical experience at all. I’m not sure that’s true today, though, with excellent easy-to-set-up, easy-to-design platforms like Tumblr.”

“To be clear, though, I don’t think the future is necessarily about one-person operations,” Gruber adds. “It’s about just-as-many-but-only-as-many-people-as-you-need operations. Look at Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo for an example of an operation with (I think) 20 or so employees but the same basic ethos: run things tight, do good work, make sure everyone is pulling their own weight and actually producing work.”

MapMore: Amazing Map of the Tech Publishing Universe 

This is the cover story by Dan Frommer founder of SplatF and editor-at-large for ReadWriteWeb that appears in the Summer 2012 issue of SAY Magazine. Click here to read the story in a digital magazine form or download the PDF here

[Character illustrations by Riyahd Cassiem]

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