Notebook

On background, the tech press needs its own correspondents’ association

Every now and then, a publication that covers tech news will step out and say “enough is enough” to the irritating tactics used by PR teams at most tech companies.

Most recently, it was The Verge, which announced an updated policy on the terms of “on background”, a most frustrating designation that sits between on and off the record: information that can be used, but usually not directly quoted, and in some cases you can’t reveal where it originated. Spin, in other words.

To emphasise its point, The Verge published a list of particularly absurd abuses of “on background”, with such gems as a delivery company going “on background” to talk about the popularity of fried chicken. I laughed because I recognised it — DoorDash had given me the same spiel too.

But there are more serious reasons why “on background” needs to stop. Take Amazon, which often uses it by default on issues firmly and urgently in the public interest: labour disputes, product safety, and the circumstances behind firing dissenting employees. 

So what can be done? The problem with The Verge’s approach, noble as it is, is that it’s mostly useless unless the rest of us join in. A handful will — and the post caused some reflection within the team I work in — but the depressing timeline from here on in, I predict, will be the gradual loosening of The Verge’s policy, before it ultimately succumbs to the norm when its editors see rivals getting stories out the door more quickly or with greater depth.

What’s needed is some unity and organisation. In Washington, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has a century-long tradition of upholding basic journalists standards and principles, so as not to allow any administration to play different outlets against others. It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s something — and no coincidence that its formation was prompted by a row over “off the record”. 

Whether through a lack of history or team spirit, the tech press has no equivalent group. Indeed, some among us are more than happy to capitalise on a publication’s upped standards by eagerly publicising their own, lower ones.

A tech correspondents’ association could solve several key issues. First, it could do something simple: define specifically what the terms “off the record” and “on background” mean to its members, with a nod to how it may be perceived in different markets.

Second, it can demand its members refuse “on background” unless in very narrow circumstances. Specifically, breaking news situations where a flack has useful information relating to an evolving story, but has not had the necessary approvals to share the information on the record… yet. An important principle here would be to perhaps treat such moments not as “on background” but as “pre-record”, and come down hard on companies that do not follow up officially within a reasonable timeframe.

Third, it can bring some much needed bargaining power to the tech press as a whole, pushing for basic principles for events — such as speaking out against companies, like Apple, that believe they can dictate which specific reporter at an outlet is permitted to cover a launch. 

The growth of newsletters makes the need for such a group even more pressing. Losing the shackles of the newsroom should not mean leaving standards behind. But faced with the financial pressures of going it alone, the temptation is understandably far greater.

Newsletter writers are therefore vital but vulnerable. A tech press association could maintain and enforce core standards. Even better, it could provide protection for the lone rangers with legal representation or advice. For those yet to get into the industry, it could, like the WHCA, provide resources and scholarships to help improve diversity and inclusivity among its ranks.

Finally, an effective tech correspondents’ association could provide a united front at a time when the tech press is under unprecedented attack, from companies like Facebook suggesting outlets have an ulterior motive when reporting on its failings, or the growing hostilities between venture capitalists and the reporters assigned to cover them.

The tech press has evolved in the past few years, from fawning to fighting, and unquestionably holds great power with subject matter that becomes more important to more and more people with every passing day. As we go on, a well-governed association is ultimately about gaining respect from two constituencies: earning it from readers, demanding it from tech companies. And then once a year we have a legendary party.

Farewell to Rory Cellan-Jones

Las Vegas, where else, in 2017

Rory Cellan-Jones leaves the BBC this week, and he will be sorely missed.

Not just by our viewers — for whom “That Rory” is one of the most trusted voices on the air — but also his colleagues who will be lining up to offer a heartfelt farewell to one of the kindest, most decent people in British journalism.

I was lucky enough to work closely with Rory over several years. You learn a lot about a person after 12+ hours traipsing through endless grotesquely-carpeted corridors in the convention centres of Las Vegas, or after a long day of broadcasting that begins with a 5am wake-up call from 5Live, and ends with the stresses of the News at Ten.

It will surely come as no surprise that throughout those kinds of experiences, Rory was the ultimate colleague, mentor and friend. From the airing of my first TV package, when he took time out to point out many rookie errors to this rookie, to the kind words offered over a leaving toast on my final day at the BBC, Rory offered nothing but generosity and support.

That’s not a given in the news business. In an ego-driven industry, where correspondents can be protective of airtime at the expense of newer reporters, Rory went out of his way to elevate the careers of those around him. I was lucky enough to be one of many to benefit, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

Sadly, his departure signals the end of an era of technology coverage at the BBC, not just as it relates to him, but the structure of technology reporting in the BBC’s newsroom in general.

The unfathomable decision to move the technology news team to Glasgow has seen several people with decades of combined experience walk out the door. Expertise a private company — or maybe just a smarter public broadcaster — would have done a lot more to keep. The geographical upheaval has no basis in logic, and will serve to diminish the BBC’s access and influence on key stories and with important sources. It makes no more sense to move BBC Tech to Glasgow than it would to relocate BBC Shropshire there too.

In short — the licence fee payer, and anyone who cares about the health of the British technology industry, should be disappointed that the BBC no longer considers technology news a priority*.

But, for the moment, let’s put that worry on ice. Since I can’t do it myself in person on Thursday night, I’m instead raising a virtual glass to Rory as he heads on to new things, projects I’m sure will continue his record of accessible, meaningful tech journalism. I also hope, above all else, it’s a chance to put his feet up.

Rory, it was an absolute blast. Thank you.

______________

(* I should stress that this is not a commentary on the calibre of the team that will be working in Glasgow. In particular, having worked with Zoe Kleinman for even longer than I have known Rory, I can say there’s no-one better to take the reins. If there’s anyone who knows how to navigate this new era, it’s Zoe.)

“These days, it sure seems like to be a reporter, you have to be independently wealthy or famous. But journalism used to be a solid career for people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

— Peter Jakubowicz writes in Newsweek: “I Was a Reporter. Now I Drive for Lyft”. He writes of today’s reporting on the working class: “I rarely see even a hint that anyone involved has any idea what it’s like to be a worker in 2021, or has taken the trouble to hear what workers have to say.”

Its deep-learning voice-transcription service can now scan your Google or Outlook calendar for Zoom sessions, automatically sign in at the appropriate time, and produce a live transcription that you and other participants can correct, annotate, and highlight in real time.

— The feature set of Otter.ai, the breakthrough voice transcription app, continues to get more and more impressive. My question: when I send along Otter-Me, what do the others on the call see? And do they consent to being recorded? This would be very useful for court hearings that I can’t monitor all day. . . but a judge might not be so pleased with my little timesaver.

“Tabs, it turns out, aren’t the best tool for assisting with complex work and life tasks that people perform on the internet. Their simple list structure makes it difficult for users to jump between sets of tasks throughout the day. And despite people using tabs as an external form of memory, they do not capture the rich structure of their thoughts.”

— A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon examine the effect of tab overload on our brains. As you might expect, it’s not good. Not good at all. They propose reframing how we think of tabs, breaking them down into tasks, and have launched a Chrome plug-in to help.

I’ve been carrying the secret for 25 years. Today, I’m coming clean. This is the untold true story of a corporate April Fools’ prank gone wrong.

— an (unnamed, probably ex-) Microsoft employee shares funny details of “Microsoft Coffee”, an April Fools prank that went well, perhaps too well, 25 years ago. After VW’s “Voltswagen” mess this week, many are calling for an end to April Fools gags. I’m minded to agree — but let’s be narrower: let’s bring an end to April Fools gags backed by the company’s dull PR teams. Maverick employees working in secret? I’m all for it. Discussion about Microsoft Coffee on Hacker News has people wondering whether this is in itself an April Fools gag, given there’s no other mentions of Microsoft Coffee anywhere. I dunno. Seems real to me, this line in particular: “The PR flacks, on their own, tried to clean up and bury the whole thing, out of fear that BillG might get really angry about it. (He never did. Nor did Legal. In the end, it was all a huge overreaction by PR.)” …. emphasis mine.

[M]ost of us share the opinion that it’s disagreeable, logistically, for the boat to be stuck. The boat being stuck is inconvenient. It’s a big disruption! Nobody can say it isn’t a big disruption. None of my distant relatives will get into arguments on The Face Website about whether or not the stuck boat is making a nuisance for lots of people. I like that.

— Stone Soup, a newsletter, with my favourite take so far on why the Big Stuck Boat is the feel-good story of 2021.

Contact lenses for the colour blind

From Phys.Org:

Gold nanocomposites are nontoxic and have been used for centuries to produce “cranberry glass” because of the way they scatter light. So, Ahmed Salih, Haider Butt and colleagues wanted to see whether incorporating gold nanoparticles into contact lens material instead of dye could improve red-green contrast safely and effectively.

I’m not sure my own colour blindess (red/green, green/brown, blue/purple) is sufficiently debilitating to warrant the discomfort of contact lenses, but this sounds remarkable. Hopefully an improvement on colour blind corrective glasses, star of many a viral video, that simply turn the world into a bad photoshop.

“It was found on a broken millstone by experts along the route of the A14 in Cambridgeshire between 2017 and 2018. However, it has only just been put back together, revealing the penis.”

— A rare carved Roman phallus is discovered just outside my hometown, reports BBC News.

“For many years, we were accused of tilting at tech windmills, but what was a solitary campaign, a quixotic quest, has become a movement, and both journalism and society will be enhanced.”

— Robert Thomson, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., on a historic deal between the publisher and Google. The money the company will now get from Google to feature its journalism will have a “material impact” on News Corp.’s finances. (One might wonder what the impact will be, then, if Google decides to pull the plug at the end of the three year deal.)

It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.

— Dr Anthony Fauci, speaking to the New York Times, in an interview both revealing and unsurprising. The Capitol Riots provided the spark for Trump’s second impeachment, but the handling — mishandling — of Covid-19 should surely make up the substance.

The result over the last four months has been $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable.

— Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, on her philanthropic efforts.