Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
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The Lost Section

6514072343_38ea9b90ba_zHere is a weird thing about the technology section of the most important newspaper in America: A number of its biggest stars have left in recent months. While reporters at large papers frequently move around and often change beats—especially at the Times—all of these reporters continue to cover technology, just not from the tech desk. Nick Bilton, its most famous writer, who lives in the future and watched Twitter get hatched, now runs his "Disruptions" column in the Styles section; Claire Cain Miller now covers "tech + gender/work/family" at the Times' explainer site, the Upshot; Jenna Wortham, its brightest star, recently decamped for Sunday Business, where she continues to cover technology and culture; and it was announced the other week that David Stretfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his work on the Times' remarkable iEconomy series about Apple's supply chain, while not technically leaving the technology desk, was taking on a "wider role as an enterprise correspondent" and would "contribute pieces to other sections of the paper, including the Sunday Magazine, and will expand his portfolio to take on topics beyond tech."

These moves are partly because the tech desk is tightly circumscribed, in both content and form, by its placement within and subservient to the business section, a structure that, to the outside world, makes less and less sense every day. This is why other sections, in particular Styles, always free to cover whatever, have been been able to colonize the far more interesting and fertile field of cultural technology coverage at a relentless pace. (Even many of the technology section's occasionally ambitious and captivating stories about how technology is changing how we live that truly intersect with business, like Vindu Goel's piece on how Facebook sold us krill oil, have been published in Sunday Business.)

It's also because the section, rather than being a natural showcase for the Times' more technologically innovative forms of reporting, is run fairly conservatively by the current editor, Suzanne Spector, who landed the job after a Game of Thrones-like chain of events. (In January 2013, Glenn Kramon, then the Times' assistant managing editor for enterprise, wanted to move to the West Coast to be in the same place as his partner, and was given the job of the well-liked editor Damon Darlin, who was then shipped to New York. Kramon changed his mind, but Darlin had already moved and been made the international business editor [though he's now at the Upshot, reunited with Miller], while David Gallagher, the section's deputy editor—assumed to have been in line for the job—had taken a lucrative gig as the head of Kickstarter's PR after being passed over. So Kramon was replaced by Spector.)

What might seem remarkable is that that none of these four writers have left the paper. But this is less so when one considers that there aren't that many places to go once you've reached the top of the weird and mostly grotesque mountain that is technology journalism, a highly warped growth produced by the collision of the tech industry and startups with enormous amounts of money and culture writ large. A number of online outlets would indeed pay any one of those writers handsomely for a whiff of the legitimacy they carry—indeed, BuzzFeeᴅ tried to purchase at least one of the four for an almost-gross sum—but those publications are off the table if one cares about good old fashioned prestige, as a Times reporter is wont to do. The newsweeklies would've once carried no prestige penalty, paid even better (and in-demand technology journalists are already well paid, nearly as well as business journalists), and allowed the kind of longish, roving pieces that ambitious reporters like to produce on a semi-relaxed schedule, like Steven Levy used to produce at Newsweek, but all those magazines are dead now. Bloomberg BusinessWeek is as close as it gets—and it did poach a prior generation of Times tech talent, nabbing Brad Stone, Sam Grobart and Ashlee Vance—but it has not (so far) been successful at convincing any of the current Times tech diaspora that Bloombergland is the place for them. (Not that it hasn't tried.) Wired is nice, but essentially a beautiful, massively successful trade magazine (and besides, they just promoted very-deserving Awl pal Mat Honan to Steven Levy's old spot, along with newcomer Jessi Hempel, following Levy's decampment to Medium). The luxurious GQ or Vanity Fair contributing editor contract is harder than ever to come by. There is the New Yorker, which has been covering technology and startup culture particularly feverishly—and while Michael Specter, Ken Auletta, Nathan Heller, and Lizzie Widdicombe have cycled through the Valley recently, some more successfully than others, the magazine does lack the technology equivalent of, say, a Dexter Filkins. But one can't just wait around for a job there.

So the Times is lucky in a way: a Dome of Privilege has descended upon it, and it gets to keep some of the most celebrated technology reporters around, improving the technology coverage in individual sections, for now. (And it has certainly made some solid hires in the wake of all these departures, like technology's favorite dad, Farhad Manjoo, and its least favorite toilet paper mascot, Mike Isaac.) But at a time when things like government surveillance, book publishing, Hollywood, climate change, gentrification, food production, a million other topics are all technology stories in non-trivial ways, the Times might want to ask itself if it's ready to finally rethink what it means by technology coverage, if only to set a better example for everyone else. Maybe the Upshot can make an infographic about it.

Photo by Greg Bishop