What makes a good tech journalist: the responses

As part of our investigation into what makes the best tech journalist we posed the following question to a variety of journalists and editors:

Is it better for a tech reporter to have a technology background (degree in computer science or IT or has worked in the tech sector) or a journalism background (journalism degree, worked in another beat or a lifetime reporter)?

Below are responses we received to that question. Let us know what you think in the comments below. 

You can also read the original story here.

Adam Turner - Freelance technology jounralist (@adam_turner)

A lot of tech editors tell me their problem is that they deal with good journalists/writers who don't understand enough about technology and then people who know their stuff but can't write well (which means the editor has to waste time re-writing their work). Editors really value the people who know their tech but have a nose for news and can craft a decent yarn.

People's answers will differ depending on their background. I'm in the second category. I studied Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE, then I did a journalism degree at Deakin University. After that I landed a journalism cadetship at The Age, which involved moving around the paper for 12 months. After that I was posted to the Green Guide for a year. Then I moved to Next, which was the business IT section of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Eventually I was deputy editor of Next under Nathan Cochrane, before I went freelance in 2005. I still only write about technology.

The importance of a tech background really depends on what kind of tech journo you want to be. I don't think an IT degree alone would be much help. But if you want to write about specific enterprise beats, or maybe the channel, then some experience working in those sectors would help. I think you do a better job of writing for business readers when you understand their problems. Going freelance has certainly given me a small taste of what it takes to run your own business and as a I result I think my SMB yarns have improved. But if you want to write about consumer tech, I definitely think you're better off as a trained journalist with a passion for technology then as a techie who wants to write.

More generally, I think a journalism background would serve you better than a tech background. Technology is always changing. If I'd completed a tech degree 15 years ago instead of a journalism degree, I'm not sure how useful that would be today. Modern tech might present a steep learning curve at first, but you can pick it up as you go along. Meanwhile it takes a lot longer to hone the various skills required to be a good journalist -- a degree/cadetship and then plenty of on-the-job training is the way to go. The skills you develop will last you a lifetime, although some people don't seem to value these skills any more. People are rejecting mainstream media and believe that anyone can be a "journalist", although I disagree. The media itself is partly to blame, as the standard of mainstream journalism seems to be dropping.

Anyway, in theory a good journalist should be able to apply their skills to any beat. It's not just a question of understanding the subject matter, it's also a question of developing contacts, chasing leads, sniffing out stories and knowing how to interview people and get them to talk. It's also the ability to find an interesting angle in a complicated and/or dry subject and then know how to draw it out and craft a story which other people find interesting and accessible. You need to be a good storyteller and that takes practice. 

Suzanne Tindal - Editor, ZDnet Australia (@engochick)

My personal opinion, not at all related to the company's views, is that it's often easier for tech reporters to be attuned to their readership if they have a degree in IT. However, I also think that news rooms wouldn't work if no one had a degree in journalism, because the degree teaches you best practice that separates the news room from a random website.

Stilgherrian - Freelance technology journalist, broadcaster (@stilgherrian)

I don't think you can draw a hard line. It depends a lot on the individual. But I reckon it's easier to teach the craft of journalism to specialists in most fields than to bring a general journalist up to speed.

Not to downplay the skills a journalist needs, but most of it's being able to organise yourself, critical thinking, communications skills and so on, and they're needed in all sorts of fields.

The IT industry is vast, complicated and awash with money. We've got some of the richest companies on the planet, who can spend big on sophisticated propaganda and, indeed, generous hospitality. It's very easy to get caught up in the hype, to drink the Kool-Aid. Particularly when a lot of the news is about what these companies are doing, why, and what it'll retail for.

A journo needs to know what they're they're talking about. I reckon a journo needs to know more about the field they're covering that the average audience member. Otherwise you get the equivalent to those ludicrous stories talking about "tanks" being used in some conflict when the photos are clearly not tanks but armoured personnel carriers. I mean, if the journo gets such basics wrong, what else?

Neerav Bhatt - Freelance technology journalist (@neerav)

I think this question is a false dichotomy because the right answers are either, both or none of the above.

If I created a list of excellent technology journalists it would include people who had had IT degrees, Journalism degrees, IT industry experience as well as many others who had other degrees or lots of valuable life experience.

In my opinion because technology pervades many aspects of our work and personal lives it is important for modern technology journalists to have a broad perspective of the world, an interest in history as well future possibilities.

This would enable them to identify stories that are not obvious to those with a blinkered narrow worldview focused on happenings yesterday/today/tomorrow. 

Angus Kidman - Editor, LifeHacker AU (@gusworldau)

I don’t believe either are essential; I have an Honours degree in linguistics, and I’ve worked successfully as a tech reporter for almost two decades. What I think is important is an enthusiasm for technology and a willingness to learn about it; an ability to write well; and the capacity to quickly assimilate new and complex topics. You can build those skills working in IT, or by training as a journalist, and I’ve worked with people who fit into both categories and have produced awesome work.

Some journalists clearly use the tech beat as a stepping stone into reporting on other fields. Nothing wrong with that – people change beats all the time – but I tend to think the best tech reporters are those with a genuine enthusiasm for the topic, and they’re the ones who stick with tech (in all its manifestations) rather than straying.

Nick Ross - Editor, ABC Technology and Games (@ABCTech)

(This response was fomulated through a series of emails)

I come from neither so it's a bit tricky. My background is Science (Geology). TBH the main thing is a need to be able to understand general tech and present it to lay people. Much of the rest is experience which you get from being in the industry.

I should just add that I got the bulk of my tech experience fixing the Millennium Bug in 1998 when they were pulling people off the street who knew how to turn a computer on. Beyond that, my writing came from essay writing in English History and analytical/science writing in Geography and Geology.

I should also add add that while I've not done journalism per se, I'm not sure that I've missed out too much: everyone I've heard speak about it  has a different opinion on what it is. I simply go the science route and write what is right based on my own research. I've come to not trust simple opinions as representing one side of the story - they are too often wrong, misleading or pushing an agenda.

And finally,

Before I came to Australia, I'd never met a journalist who studied journalism. For example, at PC Pro My first editor was an Anthropologist. My second was a Mathematician.

David Braue - Freelance technology journalist (@zyzzyvamedia)

Interesting topic especially for me, since I don't have a formal journalism degree (although I did study journalism at uni among other things, so wasn't coming from nowhere!)

With regards to tech journalism there really isn't a die hard formula. I'd say the journalism training helps if you are doing higher-level journalism eg uncovering news, challenging politicians, etc because you have a better sense of the agendas they're pushing and the tricks and responsibilities attendant on journos covering those areas. There are fewer ethical and procedural issues in most tech journalism than on other beats but having journalism training helps tech journos stay on the right side of things when they do come up. Especially online, there is always someone who will question and challenge your integrity so it helps to have a good foundation in fair reporting etc.

Formal technical training is certainly helpful but most tech journos are writing for the masses so a hobbyist knowledge of tech can often be more than sufficient unless you're hoping to secure a highly technical beat, in which case your audience will smell a faker from a world away.

I'd say whether a tech journo comes from a journalistic or technical background the absolute most important traits are a genuine interest in tech and a willingness to learn (often alongside your readers). You can always pick up the rest but if you can't convince readers they should care what you're writing, you're going to struggle in tech. I've seen many journos come and quickly leave tech because they just don't care about it (or in some cases understand it) and it comes through in their writing.

Nate Cochrane - Freelance technology journalist (@natecochrane)

Reporting tech is no different to reporting any beat. What a journalist needs in varying measure is enthusiasm, curiosity, a keen nose for news, nuclear-powered buls--- detector, flexibility, fearlessness, strong work ethic and personal ethical framework, to be a quick study, able to relate to people at all levels of society, capacity to deconstruct and synthesise an argument, collaborative outlook, and to be reliable. 

Most tech reporters in my experience have no technical qualifications but the best ones possess a mix of the above journalistic skills.

To an extent, tech writers will fall into the markets that best suit their inclinations, so there are very good journos with strong technical qualifications and affinities working in trade press while those with a more traditional background tend to work in mainstream media. 

Above all, the best reporters and editors are communicators - they take complex issues, cut through to the truth, to present them so anyone can understand what is going on. They craft stories that matter and inspire the reader to care, instead of just assembling facts. They are increasingly good at self-promotion, have social media acumen and a strong personal brand. 

Technology now slices through the realms of the social and business spheres and so a tech reporter may have skills and perspectives outside of either hardcore technology or traditional journalism. In future, journalists with mathematics and statistical skills will be more in demand, as will those with multimedia skills. I suspect the rise of biological computing and man-machine interfaces is bringing us a new niche of communicators with backgrounds in the health sciences as well. Journos with marketing and commercial backgrounds are sought after as the publishing industry wrestles with how to make a quid to support journalism. 

Good journos of all stripes fret over tiny details, seek to be fair, gather the most influential voices and provide a springboard through their work for further debate. They are as comfortable behind a screen as they are in front of a crowd. And they care about their audiences as well as the issues and people on which they report. They have strong tradecraft, such as being able to spell and construct a sentence, and can work in often ambiguous territory, weighing statements and facts while not ignoring important points. 

The origins that inform a journalist are important, especially in identifying issues that may be hidden, but above all the most important qualities are attitude and demeanour - that's what separates the best from the background buzz of voices. 

Paul Wallbank - Freelance technology journalist (@paulwallbank)

Just to really betray my tech background, the answer is "both and neither." How's that for sitting on the fence?

Having a journalism background brings a sense of what is a good story and the ability to tell it, while having a tech background gives a reporter the ability to quickly identify what's relevant and what's meaningless marketing gumpf.

One of the problems in tech journalism I see is there are many reporters who haven't been allowed to develop their journalistic skills, critical faculties or tech industry knowledge and consequently the reader gets the worst of both worlds.

To be fair to the tech journalists, the pressures on them are the same across all media beats as resources like sub editors are cut back and demand for stories increase.

What's your thoughts on the issue? Does this issue apply to other rounds of reporting? Or are you a tech journalist looking to add your take to the topic? Let us know what you think in the comments below.