What makes a good tech journalist?

With bloggers and industry veterans now rising to fame in the newsroom, is IT expertise and specialist knowledge more valuable than news experience?

Tech journalism may be growing in leaps and bounds but the simultaneous rise of the blog-o-sphere and fall of the traditional media has left many pondering one question: what makes a good tech journalist and what are the skills needed for the job?

It’s an important issue due to rapid shifts in the news industry. Bloggers and tech industry veterans are now rising to fame in the newsroom, despite their supposed lack of journalistic experience.

As editors start to favour expertise and specialist knowledge over news experience, questions have emerged as to whether this is the future face of journalism.

So we asked a group leading editors and freelancers covering the local tech space what they had to say on the issue. 

The question was simple:  

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)?

Of course the responses weren't quite as simple. While some journalists gave a sentence in response, other gave essays - representing the complexity of this debate. (You can read them all here)

Despite the diverse responses there was one consistent theme that was apparent. When it comes to talent the qualities that define the person are far more valuable than their background.

As LifeHacker’s Editor Angus Kidman puts it:
“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.”

It's a centrist approach that makes a lot of sense, however, some are more willing to be definitive on which side of the debate they choose to stand on. Freelancer Adam Turner reckons that a “journalism background would serve you [a tech reporter] better than a tech background”.

According to Turner, a downward trend in the quality of mainstream journalism has left the public to underrate a journalist’s skill set.

He adds, however, that it takes a long time to hone the skills required to be a good journalist: which include maintaining sources, sniffing out interesting stories, learning how to interview people and finding ways to get hesitant sources on the record.

As for tech journalism, Turner says: “modern tech might present a steep learning curve at first but you can pick it up as you go along.

Infosec commentator and freelance journalist Stilgherrian disagrees. He says that it's “easier to teach the craft of journalism to specialists in most fields rather than bring a general journalist up to speed”.

“Not to downplay the skills a journalist needs, but most of its being able to organise yourself, critical thinking, communication skills and so on, and they’re needed in all sorts of fields.”

He warns that unless a journalist is fully aware of the tech industry, “it's easy to get caught up in the hype” and end up selling other tech companies “propaganda”.

For ZDnet news editor, Suzanne Tindal, the skills of a reporter shouldn't be discounted completely. 

“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 newsrooms wouldn’t work if no one had a degree in journalism, because a degree teaches you best practice that separates the newsroom from a random website,” Tindal says.

As Tindal hints, the answer doesn’t  lie with the journalists or the editors, but with readers.  

Just as the tech journalists expressed a diverse range of views on the issue,  a couple of tech sector followers we talked to gave a variety of opinions on what they read and whether they care about who created it.

One reader said they followed certain sites and particular journalists, another said they base their decisions purely on the content and not on where it’s from. A couple said they bypass the media altogether, opting to read press releases and corporate blogs for news relating to their job. 

So perhaps it’s fitting to end this piece with another question. To you, the readers: what do you want from your tech journalists? Does their background matter to you? Let us know in the comments below.

You can read all of the full responses to the question we posed for this piece here.

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