By the Editors April 23, 2015
Talk of sexism in Silicon Valley is everywhere these days. Dozens of articles in the mainstream press have addressed the threats of violence, sexist jokes, pay gaps and sexual harassment lawsuits plaguing the California high-tech hub. Just this February, the cover of Newsweek featured the headline “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” next to a cartoon woman in red high heels and a short red dress, her skirt lifted from behind by a computer cursor. The story described a culture that is “savagely misogynistic.” So when Ellen Pao sued her former employer, Silicon Valley’s most powerful venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for gender discrimination, a lot of people were watching, and a lot of women were hoping it might turn out to be the lawsuit that would change everything.
Davey Alba covered the very public high-profile trial, which ran from late February to late March, for Wired. A staff writer covering startups, business and technology for the magazine since last fall, Alba spoke to CoveringBusiness (via email) about how she prepared for her reporting, what she learned in the process, and how the experience will influence her future coverage of Silicon Valley. Before joining Wired, Alba was a senior associate editor at Popular Mechanics and before that she covered tech for Gizmodo, IEEE Spectrum, and Laptop Magazine. She studied science writing at Columbia University in the M.A. program, and grew up in Manila, Philippines. She lives in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, beside a neighborhood café that has her breakfast order memorized.
CoveringBusiness: How did you prepare for your coverage on a day-to-day basis and how did you decide what to write about? What kinds of things did your editors recommend you look for?
Davey Alba: Before the trial started, I read the trial briefs and tried to get up to speed on whatever history was publicly available. On a day to day basis, I would figure out who would be on the stand next—by asking Ellen Pao’s lawyers and Kleiner’s reps—and then tried to strategize accordingly. The witness list was filed as a public court document, so I knew some pretty high-profile investors would eventually get on the stand, including John Doerr, Mary Meeker, Juliet de Baubigny, Beth Seidenberg, Aileen Lee, etc.
During the day, as the trial got underway, my editor and I would stay in touch. I’d report in with something that had been discussed in court that I found interesting, and my editor would work with me to sharpen the angle. As soon as we both felt it was substantial enough to write up, I’d get to work. I usually wrote during the lunch break, from 12:30-1 pm. The rest of the time, I did my best to live-tweet the trial—as it progressed, I found there was a lot of interest from the outside in getting the information on the events in real-time.
CB: What was the most challenging part of covering the case?
DA: I would say writing on a very strict deadline was the most challenging part of covering the case. It required a lot of concentration and intense focus.
CB: Did you feel that you came to your reporting with any biases in favor of or against Pao/ Kleiner Perkins?
DA: I do not. It’s worth noting that Ellen Pao is the interim CEO of Reddit, and Wired’s parent company, Conde Nast, acquired Reddit in 2006. The company was spun off as a wholly owned subsidiary in September 2011, but some readers pointed out that there was a possible conflict of interest there. To be honest though, I didn’t feel I knew enough details about any of those corporate connections to be swayed by it. I tried to report the trial to the best of my ability following the best practices in journalism that I knew of.
Other than that link, I’d never covered Pao or Kleiner Perkins directly in any of my pieces, so I think I came to my reporting with a pretty fresh outlook.
CB: Were there any stories you considered writing but did not?
DA: There were. There were so many tiny little details I couldn’t fit into some of my pieces because the dailies tend to be so tightly focused. I wish I could have written about Vicki Behringer, the lovely courtroom artist who showed up everyday and drew accurate pictures of the scenes. There was a strong Chinese media presence that followed the case closely; they’d string together a narrative from tweets and live blogs, and one reporter even came up to me because he’d recognized me, and thanked me for tweeting so profusely. And there were a lot of feminists and men’s rights activists in the audience. Oh, and the ladies who ran the courtroom cafe were so lovely and friendly! I couldn’t really fit those details into my articles.
CB: What background reporting or reading did you do to prepare for the trial?
DA: Read the trial briefs as mentioned, caught up on things that had been previously written about the case. Fortune Magazine and Vanity Fair both did pretty extensive features on Ellen Pao and her personal life and background after the news of her lawsuit came out.
CB: Anything you learned in the course of reporting on the trial that you will apply to future reporting on courtroom cases?
DA: Yes! By the end of the trial I had a pretty good routine down. I ate a heavy breakfast before leaving my apartment because I couldn’t always count on having enough time to eat lunch and write out my story for the day. The importance of taking detailed notes was another thing I had to learn. That and writing very quickly but also coherently. And pre-reporting helps, if it’s possible. I pre-wrote a skeleton article when I was expecting the verdict, for instance, and pinged some experts ahead of time, asking if I could call them as soon as the jury delivered their decision.
CB: Anything you wish you’d done differently?
DA: I would have pushed harder to get certain stories and exclusives.
CB: Did you and other reporters at the trial ever talk about the case, your coverage of it?
DA: We would help each other out, by pointing each other to resources that maybe some of us didn’t know about. When we were all waiting for the verdict, we made pacts that whoever heard that the verdict was out first would ping some others. Sometimes we’d frantically fact check each other during breaks—“Do you have X witness saying this?” But we didn’t necessarily share the angles of our individual stories with each other or try to influence each other’s narratives.
After the trial was over though, when we could all breathe a huge sigh of relief, we started to trade war stories. The experience was really something!
CB: How will your coverage of the Ellen Pao trial shape your future coverage of the tech industry? Other gender discrimination cases like the one against Facebook? Will you continue to follow Ellen Pao’s career?
DA: I think I will. Pao still hasn’t said whether or not she is going to appeal, so we’ll see what happens with that. As for the cases that seem to have been sparked by this trial, yes, certainly, I’m totally interested in tracking what happens next. This is just one story within the much larger issue of sexism in tech, which I’ve thought about so deeply in the past few weeks—to the point that I had recurring dreams about the trial—that I don’t think I’ll be able to stay away from covering similar stories in the future. It’s an incredibly important issue, and it should be everyone’s priority to try to be aware of it in their own lives and work.
This entry was posted on Thursday, April 23rd, 2015 at 9:13 pm. It is filed under Behind the Story, Q&As and tagged with Ellen Pao, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sexism, Silicon Valley. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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