The Age of Investigative Tech Journalism

In the whirlwind of the daily coverage of the tech world, it can be difficult to take a step back and see the major narratives of coverage. There are literally thousands of news articles published daily by hundreds of media sites, but one thing has become clear: we are no longer in “press release rehash world” anymore.

Take just a snapshot of the last few months. We have had breathtaking and deeply researched reports from Reed Albergotti in The Information and Katie Benner in The New York Times on female founders and harassing venture capitalists that led to the downfall of Binary Capital and apology tours by Chris Sacca and Dave McClure. We had John Carreyrou in The Wall Street Journaland his complete takedown of Theranos, as well as Eric Newcomer at Bloomberg (with serious help from Susan Fowler and other journalists) and their complete destruction of Uber’s image and management team. You have William Alden at Buzzfeed and his critical coverage of Palantir and Formation8, and beyond that, dozens of other breathtaking reports of malfeasance in the Valley and in the tech community (thank you Nitasha Tiku).

Eugene Wei said recently that we are living in the age of distributed truth. That might be so, but I think there is a far more prosaic phenomenon underway: tech journalists are truly raising the bar on coverage, and its (mostly) driven by non-advertising business models.

For better but mostly worse, “tech journalism” has been a mostly incestuous undertaking. Journalists interview founders, who are often friends or social acquaintances, and regurgitate a press release with a few facts and photos. Funding rounds, new hires, product launches. All of it is newsworthy, but none of it is news. But it was cheap to produce, and in an advertising-driven model, cheap content plus great distribution is a ticket to media riches.

What’s changed is that for the first time in at least a decade, we are seeing journalists being offered the ability to track down sources, compile evidence, and report on one story for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Carreyrou spent more than a year on the Theranos story, as just one example. Once you put a hard-hitting journalist with resources and time on a company like Uber, Palantir, or Theranos, it is hardly shocking that you suddenly turn up dirt.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Information, WSJ, NYT, Bloomberg and even Buzzfeed have started putting this sort of time into top-quality journalism. In an increasingly competitive and cacophonous media world, these sorts of stories are the only ones that allow you to distinguish yourself from other media outlets and drive coverage for a day (or maybe even a week). As subscription dollars and brand quality become more paramount for these companies as well, this newfound focus should only continue.

This new media world is not going away, and it is going to completely change the cozy and incestuous Silicon Valley world. There are so many bad actors in this industry, some of whom are the top leaders in their respective fields. Thanks to a classically docile and powerless press, they have been able to get away with their actions for years and in some cases decades. That’s all coming to a close now.

Here’s a thought experiment: how many people right now are shitting bricks because they have secrets in their past that a journalist could use to destroy them? Justin Caldbeck got hit for things going back almost a decade, as did Dave McClure. That’s a great thing, but also a sign that there is so much more that is going to break in the coming weeks and months.

In other words, the Pulitzer engines are just getting started.

On a more personal front, one of the top reasons why I left Silicon Valley and moved to the East Coast is that I got tired of dealing with the hypocrisy of a supposedly progressive region where the people were anything but. As an industry, we are supposedly the paragon of progress for the human race, yet we can’t even find a decent way to offer funding to a female founder without harassing her. Every single person in this industry has seen cringeworthy behavior at a meetup, mixer or conference, or seen deeply unethical business practices and yet, until this spotlight from the press, the Valley has simply gone about its business as if it was someone else’s problem.

My hope is that this age of investigative tech journalism starts to really peel back the onion of this ecosystem and its very fundamental faults, and finally forces its denizens to consider their actions and improve the quality of our work. Maybe paying for media isn’t a bad decision after all.

Photo by Kevin Labianco used under Creative Commons.

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