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.