What the ‘iYawn 5′ reveals about the dire state of tech journalism

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Tech journalists swarmed into Yerba Buena in San Francisco earlier this week to cover the much-anticipated Apple iPhone 5 launch. Some news organisations sent multiple reporters, Fortune sent five.

That’s quite an over kill to cover the launch of a product that turned into an iYawn. The iPhone 5.0 is about 20% thinner and lighter than the previous model, with a slightly larger display.

This small improvement in a mass-produced consumer product resulted in a flood of news coverage. Yet just yards from where the legions of the tech press were packed into a dark theater for a very long Apple product pitch, Intel, the world’s largest chip company, was holding its Intel Developer Conference (IDF) where it was releasing details of its next generation Haswell microprocessor, and discussing where it sees the future of computing.

How many stories have you seen about Haswell and IDF compared with the launch of Apple’s slightly longer, slightly slimmer iPhone?

If you are going to go all out on covering tech products, such as Fortune’s five reporters — surely Haswell is by far the more important news story because it will touch the lives of hundreds of millions more people around the world than any iPhone. Intel microprocessors power the server infrastructure of our digital world. Intel’s roadmap for its microprocessors determines the shape of the future.

That’s an extremely powerful position for one company to hold. Yet it seems of little interest to tech reporters.

The rise of pageview journalism…

Tech journalism has become tedious product journalism where printing the spec sheets for mass-produced consumer products is celebrated as a great story and where there appears to be little understanding of bigger picture stories about how our digital technologies are transforming our industries, cities, and our societies, at a pace and scale that’s never been seen in our history.

While tech companies, including Intel and Apple, are partly to blame for the rise of product journalism, because their news releases are essentially product spec sheets, there’s also another factor at work. The impact of digital technologies on the media industry is causing a massive disruption in its business models.

The news business has always chased readership numbers but now its easy to tell which news stories generate the highest views and to focus resources there. It’s also possible to tie reporters’ salaries to pageviews and unique visitors.

The rise of pageview journalism now dominates most newsrooms and its effects are seen in the torrent of near-identical news stories that desperately link-bait readers to click on rewrites of corporate PR releases.

Where’s the satisfaction in that type of reporting?

There’s no space to develop stories over time, there’s few opportunities to educate readers about the importance of key trends, and there’s no room for stories on small, up and coming companies because they won’t get the pageviews to pay salaries. And by choosing to allow reader numbers to dictate the editorial decisions of the newsroom, publications are losing the ability to standout from competitors. Pageview journalism is creating a bland media landscape where everything looks the same.

A post-technology world…

By myopically focusing on tech products, newsrooms are missing the bigger picture, that we are increasingly living in a post-technology world, where it’s what we do with technology and all our other tools and processes, that matters. We have plenty of “technology” but we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do with it. It’s the applications, the way people are changing, how our societies are being transformed, and the new types of businesses being created that make for far more interesting stories than the technology of a product.

A change in the size and weight of a cell phone is a waste of time for tens of thousands of journalists.

The future is not about technology, it’s about our collective ability to harness what we already have, to prosper and to solve big problems.

Innovation is not a technology…

It’s easy to confuse innovation with technology but that’s a mistake. Innovation is about creating new types of businesses in which technology is but one piece of a far larger story. For example, the iPhone is considered innovative but it’s based on technologies that have been around for many years; top Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook or Twitter didn’t require the invention of any new technologies to be called innovative.

Tech journalism will change but that change is unlikely to come from reporters trained to churn out six product stories a day.

We need newsrooms that have the skills to write compelling, high pageview stories, where the ‘t’ of ‘technology’ represents just one letter among many letters in far more interesting words such as: investment, employment, healthcare, education, cities, culture, and the arts.

Each time I write about the dull state of tech journalism I get a lot of support from readers. Much of it comes from the PR industry where there is a surprisingly large and passionate distaste for product journalism. It’s encouraging to know that there are many others fed up with the state of tech journalism today and that there’s support for change.

This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher and is republished with consent.

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  • fyad

    So why didn’t Memeburn send a fucking reporter to the Intel event, if it cares so much?

    Instead it perpetuates the thing it chose to criticise here by having YET ANOTHER “ughhh Apple is boring” column and even has a section dedicated to Apple.

    Where’s your Intel section? Where’s your feature detailing the importance of microarchitecture efficiency?

    Your hypocritical approach is part of the same press that chooses to report on rumours for months, essentially spoiling the surprise yourself. Why did Apple bore you? Because you knew the answer before you walked into the room. Why was there no surprise? Because you are all idiots who failed to point out the significance of the revised iPod touch and how it almost makes the iPhone redundant in a world that has increasing access to wireless hotspots and mobile data access.

    Christ.

  • John

    Memeburn’s current headlines:

    The ‘boring’ iPhone 5 and life inside Anonymous: the week’s top tech stories

    iPhone 5: Expectations, hype, and the art of what’s possible

    What the ‘iYawn 5′ reveals about the dire state of tech journalism

    iPhone 5: Why I am not excited

    What does it say about the state of journalism here?

  • http://twitter.com/Stu_Thom4s Stuart Thomas

    Hi John,

    We actually had a bit of a chuckle in the newsroom when we saw that too. As a fast-growing tech news site, we feel that it would be remiss not to have a variety of opinions on the site.

    Yes, we did run stories on the iPhone’s release, because it’s important to a number of people. Our sister site Gearburn did however also report on the Intel chip that Tom mentions. We recognise that it is monumentally important.

    However, we didn’t stop there. The iPhone 5 articles we have on the site today all form part of a wider debate about the tech industry and innovation. Given the sheer scale of Apple (it is, after all, the most valuable company on the planet).

    If the views expressed in the columns were all more or less the same then, I agree with you, we would absolutely have a problem.

    If you’ve read the stories then I’m assuming you would’ve noticed that they also all frame the launch within the context of the industry.

    It’s an incredibly important industry too. Our lives are mobile, and the devices these big players produce increasingly eradicate the need for other devices. Hence the scrutiny.

    As to Tom’s wider point about the quality of tech journalism, it’s important to remember that this is still a relatively young, disruptive space. The cream will rise to the top and Memeburn is doing everything in its power to make sure it’s there when it does.

  • http://twitter.com/dunnyone Steven

    Here’s the thing, and don’t take it as an insult: as creators of content, it’s our job to report on the news, whatever it is. If there’s a leak, we report on it. If there’s an image of the new iPhone, we publish it. It’s not as if we don’t have to pick and choose the stories, but we do have to decide what is most important for our readers, like you.

    And then there’s pleasing everyone all of the time. Can’t be done. Every reader has their own personal taste, like fine wine. Some want to read iPhone rumours, others will wait for the launch, others will close our site and go to Cracked, for example.

    Memeburn cares, it cares more than anyone else and that’s why we deliver stories like these. Opinions, especially personal ones formed by our journalists are held in the highest regard by us, or else we wouldn’t even press publish.

    So to answer your questions:

    We have a small, very dedicated that can only attend so many events. We’re always working on attending as many shows as we can.

    Apple is the one of the largest companies on the planet, so blanket coverage for an iPhone launch is a “default” option for any tech journalist, to say the least.

    Here’s a bit of self-promotion: if you want in-depth hardware information, stick to Gearburn.com, the gadget and tech side of the Burn Networks. You’ll probably love it.

    Despite the fact that we knew everything about the iPhone 5 before it launched, we’d report on it a hundred times over. When one of the most anticipated tech news stories of the year lands on our desks, it’s action stations. And it’s not just about reporting, it’s about taking the news and making it topical. We encourage discussion as after all, Memeburn is a dynamic platform for interaction.

    And as for the iPhone being redundant, it’s one of the best selling devices in the world (not that it matters) and a phone that other companies will now try to emulate for years to come. It is seen as a market leader that shapes the ever-evolving landscape of mobile technology.

    I hope I assisted you in your search for answers Fyad.

  • Pingback: Fanboys (and girls) rush on Apple site, pre-orders already sold out | memeburn

  • fyad

    Thanks for the in-depth reply. In retrospect my original post was actually just a knee-jerk reaction to the first paragraph of Tom’s column. After two days of reading know-it-all naysaying, with similar headlines, from “expert” bloggers, I’d finally had enough – posting before calming down and reading the rest of the piece. When I read your reply I went back and pored over the the entire column. I saw the issue being addressed; felt sheepish; and now I’m writing this reply.

    I apologise for flying off the handle. I am sorry.

    Here’s hoping that the issue being raised here – one that’s actually dear to me – is one the industry can eliminate. Some self-regulation needs to be imposed to help police the overhyping that’s ruining product launches.

    Months of drip-feed information from alleged reliable sources and supposed factory employees are taking away from the real excitement and mystery that use to surround product launches – from any company, not just Apple. No only that, these terrible “news” stories are dominating the headlines, pandering – as Tom wrote – to the page-view police, while truly important stories are being brushed aside.

    Sadly, this problem with the tech media has bred a new kind of consumer culture that relies on his daily fix of specs and leaks, without any education going on. People want want want, and don’t have a grasp on – nor are they given any context for – why things are the way they are.

    PS: It would be rich of me to offer to be a proofreader, but you missed a word in your fifth paragraph.

  • Dan

    Remember that Tom is on Intel’s payroll

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