By Rob Norton May 5, 2014
Shira Ovide went to Dow Jones Newswires as a reporter after graduating from the Columbia Journalism School in 2006, writing about media and marketing. In 2008 she moved to the Wall Street Journal, covering newspapers, magazines, and TV, and was later the lead writer for “Deal Journal,” the WSJ’s online hub for banking, finance, and M&A. In 2012, she switched beats and coasts, moving from New York to San Francisco to cover the tech business. She spoke with adjunct associate professor Rob Norton in April.
One thing that’s interesting is there are tech stories everywhere. Tech is part of every company and every industry. Retail, banking, media, manufacturing and health care – they’re all being reshaped by tech, and everything is becoming driven by data. So tech stories don’t necessarily mean writing about Google or Instagram. We’ve had some terrific stories like that recently, about subjects like how tech is changing the way farmers plant their crops and the way auto salesmen do their jobs. So it’s important to look for tech everywhere – not just in places you expect it to be.
Another thing I found interesting when I moved here is that people in the tech community are really jazzed about what they’re doing. They’re very generous about sharing what they’ve learned; they’re happy to connect you with people they know, and to explain how things work. Not that people in other industries I’ve covered haven’t been enthusiastic about their work, but in tech people really go out of their way to be helpful. It’s a huge asset for a journalist.
Sure. I was working on a story about corporate data centers – these giant warehouses that have millions of computer servers and other equipment that make up the backbone of every web service. I mentioned to one person I was interviewing – someone who ran tech operations at a telecom company – that I had never actually seen one, and didn’t really understand how the pieces fit together. He invited me to one of their data centers here in San Francisco and walked me around, showing me all the equipment and how it worked.
The flip side is that the enthusiasm and openness of the people in tech can create the impression that tech companies themselves are happy, open, and transparent, and I wonder whether these companies sometimes get away with ignoring or downplaying negative news. You have to make sure you keep your BS detector working.
Another thing that’s different about covering tech is the fact that Twitter, Facebook and other social media are permitting people to be eyewitnesses, journalists and publishers all at the same time, and that’s changing the nature of news. It’s true of most industries, but it seems especially intense in tech, because tech people have adopted these technologies faster and more completely. Two years ago, for example, I worked on a story about a major tech company acquiring a smaller company, and the story broke because a couple of workers at the target company were gossiping about the deal in a coffee shop, and someone overheard them and tweeted about it. It’s fairly commonplace today for reporters to have to chase tips on Twitter or on anonymous gossip websites. Stories break everywhere, and you have to take it all seriously.
One thing was how personally readers and other people feel about tech companies. The Apple “fan boy” is the classic example. People have a lot personally invested in the companies that make the products they use. They take everything very personally, and they will brook no criticism of them. I’m not sure Goldman Sachs or Neiman Marcus inspire the same kind of devotion – though maybe it’s true of the car companies. It’s something you need to be aware of.
Another thing is that there’s a lot of money floating around the tech world, and money and the cost of living tends to dominate conversations. San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, are not that big in many ways, and there’s a tremendous concentration of tech people. Now you have the protests going on here. Some people in tech can be disconnected form the less wealthy people who buy the products, and at the same time they are very sensitive about criticism.
In terms of journalism basics, tech isn’t that different from covering other beats. You still need to find people to give you information. I still look a lot at SEC filings. I probably use Twitter more than I did while covering other beats, since everyone in tech is on Twitter, and it’s interesting to hear what they’re talking about. But the tools are the same, and overall approach isn’t that different. I continue to think it’s really important to read a lot outside the beat. I get a lot of story ideas by reading about economics, finance – even things like politics in India. I try not to be too focused on just looking at the tech industry narrowly.
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