December 5, 2020

In Search of Technology News

I still remember the first time I saw a newspaper that had a technology section. It seemed to herald the arrival of technology in the mainstream of American life, and to offer the public a chance to understand how life was about to change.

Lately I have begun to wonder whether the technology section is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong; straightforward, down-to-earth discussion of technology is needed now more than ever. The problem is that that isn’t what technology news means anymore.

More and more, our “technology news” isn’t about technology at all. It’s about stock prices, earnings reports, lawsuits, and executive hiring and firing. In short, it’s an annex to the business page, reporting on companies that just happen to make high-tech products. This seems to be true at all of the major newspapers I have seen.

Consider the technology page of today’s New York Times online. It highlights these five stories:

1. A shareholder lawsuit against Homestore.com alleges financial improprieties at AOL Time Warner.

2. A brokerage firm changes its advice to its customers about whether to invest in Intel stock.

3. Executives at Citigroup bribe New York’s 92nd Street Y to admit one of their children to the Y’s preschool.

4. Workers at a Canadian phone company vote to go on strike.

5. A court approves the bankruptcy plan of a telecom company.

This is all about finance and labor relations. You could write the same stories about bathtub manufacturers or fast-food chains. The only connection to technology is that each story mentions a company that sells high-tech products.

Story number 3 is a particularly extreme example. To the extent that it’s even about a company, the company involved is Citigroup, which isn’t a tech firm. This is an eye-opening story that belongs in the newspaper – just not on the tech page.

For a long time I bemoaned this not-really-tech-news phenomenon but thought of it as basically harmless. What’s the big deal, I thought, if some newsworthy material is mislabeled?

But lately I’ve started to wonder whether this mislabeling is having insidious effects. What if the editors of these newspapers think they are educating their readers about technology, because they publish a tech section? What if readers think they are learning about technology because they read the tech section? What if lawmakers think that this stuff is what technology is really about?

Yes, I know. Too many pure technology stories are boring. It’s a rare writer who can make a real tech story clear and compelling. If the tech section were really about tech, it would have to be much smaller.

That’s fine with me. In an ideal world, today’s non-tech “technology” stories would still run, but they would be put in the business section where they belong. The tech section would run less often, and would actually talk about technology; think of it as a cousin of the science section, which might run once a week at a big-budget paper. Like science writers, technology writers would be fewer and would have the rare talent required to write tech stories that people actually wanted to read.

The first time I see that kind of tech section, I’ll really know the world really has changed.