On Good News, Meltdowns, and the Tech Blogger as Referee

The reliably provocative Kontra (@counternotions) tweeted something true to form this weekend that got me thinking:

One of the advantages of inexperience is that I can hide behind it to share impressions of this industry based only on what it looks like from the surface.

I don’t fully understand the economics of all this yet, and lots of things are surely going on behind the scenes about which I have no clue. But there are clear patterns of behavior and reasons for those patterns in tech blogging, and they become apparent to a new full-time blogger very quickly.

Bearing all that in mind, here’s what Kontra’s tweet made me think about. The clearly implied answer to the first rhetorical question is “no,” and what it tells me about tech news coverage is this:

Tech news coverage exists because consumers — i.e. end users — want places to go where they can learn what’s generally happening in the industry without having to pay. This provides a great opportunity for the industry to advertise to its consumer base, and lo and behold, the economics allow for a small set of people to write about the Internet for a living.

In tech news, like in any other free or subsidized medium, paid content — that is, ads and sponsored posts — is what supports the production of the original content, which is what brings the eyeballs to the site. The big sponsors and advertisers are the kinds of companies who play at a high enough level that they just need buzz in the industry. They need people to be excited about Web technology. On the surface, that seems kind of wonderful.

It’s something like the economics of any niche news category, except the field is so large that it’s hard to think of it as a niche anymore. The Web technology sector involves some of most valuable and important companies in the world, and it’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise grisly global economy. For those reasons, one would expect that news coverage of this industry would be highly incentivized (read: lucrative), and indeed it is, but not in the most straightforward ways.

It seems to me that the bear hug between PR and tech bloggers is where the rubber meets the road. From what I understand, PR reps are incentivized (read: paid) much more generously than bloggers are, and from a brute force standpoint, that makes sense. The bottom-line benefits of paying PR people are more straightforward: We have a product that needs to go to market, we can’t afford traditional marketing because it’s too costly to reach customers in this noisy industry, so we’ll pay people to email the bloggers who write for the big audiences and try to get them to like us.

On the bloggers' side, the incentives from the publisher go like this: In exchange for this check, you have two simultaneous responsibilities: deliver a satisfactory number of eyeballs to the site each day and represent the brand story of our site all over the Internet. Another requirement of the first responsibility, in some cases, is to file x posts per day, so that the base level of traffic comes through, and if you have any big hits, so much the better.

In short, bloggers need stories, and this is where the PR reps come in. And, oh boy, do they come in. In no other field of journalism would the extent to which stories come straight to reporters' desks be remotely possible. And if this sounds like a complaint to you, trust me, it is not.

Speaking only of the ReadWriteWeb newsroom, which is the only one I know, a lot of our stories are at least sparked off by material we get from PR folks. We love them, generally speaking. Sometimes they’re our only link to the product people who have the story we really want, so it’s in our best interest to befriend them and work well with them.

Jealousy, by and large, does not enter into it. They make more than we do, as I understand, but their job is much harder in a way. Our job is just to tell the story properly. PR people have to do that, too, although perhaps not as properly as we do. But their real job is to get frantic, haggard, busy bloggers to like them.

That’s why people who have been successful in the blogger’s seat, like Mr. Carr, get offered PR jobs the instant their blogging tenure ends. Nobody knows how to make a blogger happy better than someone who has been one. The best PR reps know how to tell a story, but they have to get past us first, and we’re a tough sell. That’s due to some combination of journalistic rigor, franticness and laziness, depending on the caliber of blogger you’re dealing with or the kind of day we’re having.

Bloggers are the gatekeepers because readers — you know, the people with eyeballs — have at least some expectation of quality information, and they know, especially in an industry with as many empty buzzwords as this one has, that the people whom the story is about are not going to tell it straight. Tech news is almost refreshing in that no one has any illusions that anyone isn’t trying to sell something.

Conversations about the business of technology are fully integrated into talk of the technology itself. So selling technology to end users is not a trick the same way selling Coke to people watching baseball is. It’s a game in which the ground rules are more or less acknowledged. So between the sellers and the buyers, there’s a clear place for the blogger as referee.

This is why it’s a shame when bloggers become (or try to become) the story, as has happened in recent weeks and days during the TechCrunch saga. As acknowledged above, tech news barely qualifies as a niche anymore. When tech news luminaries get into Twitter fights, their mere tweets hit Techmeme.

The role of referee in this vital global industry is too important for the referees to interject themselves by running onto the field, grabbing the ball and taking it home. I’ll speak for myself, but the reason I’m a tech blogger is because I think the technology is important. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter mentions as much as the next tweep, but that’s just because I think the technology is miraculous. I love the way these gadgets and gizmos connect people.

When a new app comes out, if it creates a cool new way to connect people, I’ll write about it. The best part about covering tech is that it’s an industry that produces good news like that. We should be enjoying ourselves! I think we can build a pretty awesome future out of this stuff if we work together. When great sites go down in flames of personal drama and jealousy, it’s a shame, and it sets us all back.