PRCA’s event ‘What do Readers want? The Future of Tech Journalism’
That was the question posed to a panel of four top tech journalists at the PRCA’s tech group event last Wednesday.
The discussion delved far beyond the straight-forward answer of readers wanting immediate, interesting and easily digestible news, and into questions of whether they even know what they want, how journalists know what their readers want and how commercial interests and PR add to the mix.
Leo Mirani, tech reporter at Quartz and Oliver Franklin, assistant editor of Wired, both questioned whether readers themselves know what they want. Sometimes it is the content a reader discovers while trawling through a medium such as Twitter that becomes popular, suggesting that in the age of the web, distribution is at least as important as the quality of content.
With so much competition, knowing what readers want is a concept that carries more importance in a digital age. These days, reader response is much more sought-after. Whereas Joe Fay, group editor of The Register, referred to a time when reader response was virtually unknown, Robert Cookson, digital media correspondent at the FT, said his newspaper uses a tool to gather the number or article views, clicks and shares by author.
How does knowing this data affect journalism, if at all? Although useful, Cookson maintained that the FT’s paid-for, high value content directed at a niche audience cannot be compared to free content available on the web. But was there the temptation to ‘dumb down’ content to increase click-throughs? Wired’s thinking is that quality information is likely to be a lot more valuable than the race to be the first, which could also mean ‘a race to the bottom’. Its editorial approach is underpinned by the phrase, ‘If we can’t be the first word, we should be the last word.’
As for how journalism is affected by revenue, there was a consensus among the panel that advertising was easily kept separate and making money is secondary to journalism. After all, trust is the most important thing a journalist can have from the reader. As for writing content to attract mass readership, Fay said that although The Register caters for its readers’ broad interest in other topics, this would be pointless as it would lose its core audience of strongly tech-focused readers.
Franklin pointed out that tech journalism is particularly vulnerable to the mentality that ‘everything should be free’. A quick survey of the audience found that less than half subscribe to a print publication or regularly buy from a newsstand. As well as free sites such as Buzzfeed, there is competition from expert bloggers offering free in-depth knowledge. On the other hand, paid-for titles such as the FT have a small team of tech reporters that cover a broad area.
Which brought up the question of ‘what is tech journalism’? In a digital age where nearly every business is touched by technology, there is the question of whether a news story on Spotify’s licensing or Wonga’s compliance with EU legislation is better served by an industry correspondent, who is likely to have more in-depth knowledge of the topic. Tech, which once used to be a niche, specialist area, has grown to encompass broader topics.
With an audience of mostly PRs, maybe the next question begging to be asked was, ‘Where does PR come into this?’ Although the panel agreed that PR content was useful, only 5% of Wired’s articles are sourced from PRs. Of these pitched articles, the best ones were those which didn’t feel like they were being pitched. They followed a narrative instead of just being merely ‘content’. Fay gave the reason for such a low pitch-to-print ratio as most publications preferring original content and exclusive stories, which is something PR can’t provide. Having useful information and access to spokespeople, however, is highly appreciated.
Knowing what readers want may not be the sole determiner of the future of tech journalism. First and foremost, it seems journalists are less reactive to outside pressures from readers, advertisers, and PRs, and more likely to put importance on producing a quality product.