By Marni Usheroff October 13, 2014
Americans love gadgets. There’s hardly a moment in the day when we’re not using some kind of digital device to conduct social or financial transactions, map a route from one place to the next, measure our state of health, or consume media and entertainment. Some of us are nearly cyborgs, given our dependence on Fitbits, smart watches and mobile phones, tablets and featherweight laptops.
Such is the American obsession with gadgets, in fact, that when the newest iPhone slims by a millimeter or Apple Watch launches a new app, it’s national news. Never mind the headlines about gaming tools like Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and globe-spying drones that seem to have been snatched straight from a novel by Philip K. Dick. In the journalism world, covering gadgets has become a giant beat.
An assortment of agile websites devoted to new technology have sprung up over the past decade, including TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Engadget, CNET and Mashable. Some traditional outlets have launched specialized blogs to tackle the subject, such as the New York Times’ Bits Blog. And earlier this year, the team behind News Corporation’s former tech site and conference business All Things Digital even spun off on its own as ReCode.
While the gadget beat might seem pretty straightforward—strap that virtual reality headset to your face, use it, write about it—there’s more to quality coverage than one might realize.
We chatted with Gizmodo’s reviews editor, Sean Hollister, about what makes a good gadgets reporter. Prior to Gizmodo, he worked as an editor at The Verge and Engadget. Our discussion ranged from smartphones to Nerf guns, and the best ways to provide context and establish credibility on the beat. Below are edited excerpts.
Q: How would you describe the range of audiences you’ve written for on the scale of serious tech geek to flip phone user?
Sean Hollister: I’ve written for everybody from the absolute layman with a general interest in technology to those who follow the minutiae on tech on a daily basis, and everywhere in between.
Q: Which is more challenging?
SH: They’re actually really challenging at both extremes. If you’re serving somebody who knows technology backwards and forwards, you need to do so much research and be so sure what you’re writing about is not just accurate, but you’re up to date on what’s come out in the space. If yesterday somebody announced a new product that will make the one in front of you obsolete, you need to comment on that in your review.
When reviewing products for laymen, you’re trying to explain these things to them in a more basic way and figure out the parts that really matter. If you can tell them at the beginning what it is and why they would care, then you’ve got them hooked and they will continue reading.
Q: I’ve seen a top 20 list of cliché words you shouldn’t use when writing about food. Is there something similar with tech?
SH: There’s definitely debate about certain words. A lot of folks can get rubbed wrong way if you’re personifying gadgets calling them attractive and sexy. They’re hunks of metal and plastic. The bigger problem is making language plain and straightforward.
The other thing I see all the time in gadget reviews is writing about the product in a vacuum, not comparing it to other things on the market. Readers want to know where this item stands. It’s a credibility issue. They’ll see you’re not comparing, and wonder if you’ve seen or spent time with other products. Why should I trust his opinion?
Q: When reviewing a product, how long ahead of its release do you get it and how long do you get with it before writing about it?
SH: That depends on the company that is sending out review units, the relationship we have with the company, whether they trust we’ll do a good job and be happy with the product or not. It depends on the time we’re willing to allot to it, how much value it has for the reader and what it takes to properly test it.
If I’m looking at a laptop I know I need to do extensive battery testing. It’s the most important thing to most readers. That means I need to spend an entire day using it and however long the battery lasts overnight running a test with a standardized load.
Q: I’m guessing you have to deal with PR a lot, whether it’s fielding pitches or getting your hands on a hot new product ahead of time. Any tips for building good relationships with them while still maintain your independence?
SH: That is a big deal. You need to be extremely up front with PR folks that you are a person who really truly cares about what you’re doing, what kinds of things are stories for you and what kinds of things aren’t. Be very honest and nice about the fact that you’re not going to cover certain things because they respect that. They don’t want to waste time on you pitching things you’re not going to write about.
I wrote a review very recently about a giant Nerf machine gun. I’d been reaching out to them because I really wanted to do a story about Nerf guns. They mentioned this one. I knew it was unreleased and not formally announced yet, and a product I would love to be able to tell the world about. I put it through its paces, it had a lot of problems, and I wrote about those. But it was really fun and makes you feel really bad-ass like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m sure they’re very happy about it, and they didn’t plant it on the site. You have to be proactive. Let them know what you’re looking for and when.
Q: You’re obviously a more sophisticated tech consumer, but have you had to review anything you were really unfamiliar with? How did you approach that?
SH: You always have to do research every time you get a new product in hand. I try to stop by Best Buy to see what’s out in the flesh and touch it and tap on the keyboard and bend the screen back and forth and see what the prices are. If you’re just following the news, you’ll see a range of prices. When you look at stuff on the shelf, those prices get normalized. Or which things actually make it to store shelves. A lot don’t, and it’s hard to say you should buy laptop ‘x’ rather than laptop ‘y’ if you can’t find it to purchase.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 13th, 2014 at 8:00 am. It is filed under On the Beat, Q&As and tagged with CNET, Engadget, Gizmodo, iPhone, Mashable, Oculus Rift, Philip K. Dick, Sean Hollister, TechCrunch. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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