Well. So. After some months working at The Guardian editing the Technology section, and following my earlier post asking what people were looking for, here’s a little on what I’m looking for in terms of ideas. I’ll do another post presently about style. This one, though, relates to the ideas people suggest to me.
1) I’ve had plenty of feature pitches already which start out something like “I’d like to write an opinion feature about… [insert buzzword topic: how film X has too much CGI, citizen journalism, the Web 2.0 bubble]“.
My answer: go ahead – on your blog. That’s because the phrase “opinion feature” is (we can agree) just journalist shorthand for “I can’t actually be bothered to do any research, but I’d like to get paid for having an opinion, please.” Sorry, but no. Journalism is about finding interesting questions to ask, and then finding people who can answer them (preferably, in an interesting way). There’s no substitute for actually talking to people and finding out something that we, the reader, didn’t know. That doesn’t mean reading a lot of blogs and saying “Hey, lots of people don’t like X.” We can all read a lot of blogs if we feel like it. More importantly, I could read them and write up a piece, and my budget would be that bit healthier.
So, if I had a motto, it would be “Bring me one fact that nobody knows.” I’d probably add “and dress it up in an interesting way.” Which leads us to..
2) “What about something about [insert name of technology]?”
My answer: well, what about it? To be interesting, I think you have to show that there are some people – yes, even readers – who are going to want to read about it. And you don’t generally do that by just talking about the technology. The pieces have to relate to people, because it’s people who use technologies, whose lives are affected by them. Start with the people, see how the technology fits into their lives, and work outwards. What’s more, the idea of the section – and of all the “G3s” as they’re called (Media, Education, Society, Technology) is that they should be accessible to the people who read the rest of the paper. They’re not mean to be “specialist” except in that they know more about the subjects in depth. We’re not trying to compete with a million trade magazines; nor with a zillion fan-style gadget-obsessed bloggers. The story has to be relevant; it has to be accessibble.
However, some people pitching to me seem to think that some things should be written about for their own sake. Principally computers, or programs on same. Such things tend to be dry, and get pushed towards the back of the queue in favour of more people-based things. Which leads us to…
3) The section’s called “Technology”. Not “Online”. Not “Computer Guardian”. Technology is a word with a very wide meaning; according to a Googlepedia I saw recently, one definition is “the practical application of knowledge and skills to make tools, machines, buildings, vehicles and other useful things.” No mention of computers or IT there. Why is nobody pitching me stories about smart buildings? Presumably because the world is full of computer journalists these days. Pity, really, because I grab at those who offer something less confining. Technology is a huge field, yet people are gazing at one tiny spot in one corner. That can’t be right. Aircraft have interesting technology developments. Buildings. Cars. (OK, electric cars has been pitched, and written.) Fuels. (OK, I commissioned that one in-house.)
There’s much to be written beyond computers, so it seems odd that I’m having to chase so hard after ideas and try to marry them to people. Perhaps it’s just that “technology” in the wider sense has been allowed to wither by Fleet Street; but the Guardian’s Life section (as it was) gained plenty of notice for many of the science-generated stories it ran, even though quite a few of those could be defined as technology. Dolly the sheep, after all, could be narrowly defined as science, but the growth of cloning to extend to herds is technology: practical application of knowledge. The challenge then is to find interesting things to ask and write about it. (See (1) above.) Stem cells, though, are still a laboratory exploit; so I’d say those don’t make the cut. But what about the technologies involved in making better golf clubs? Or cleaning up New Orleans’s toxic waste problem? Or carbon sequestration? They’re all interesting, if written right.
Sure, there are probably more computing journalists because there are more computing outlets, from papers to magazines to websites. However Wired magazine doesn’t limit itself to computers. Nor do I with Technology.
4) “Hey, do you want someone to write a column?”
My answer: actually, we’ve got a truckload already, and they’re on the staff (so we get them for free). Vic Keegan, Bobbie Johnson, Jack Schofield, and myself can all opine at the drop of an em rule. And that’s not counting the two gamesbloggers. Plus Mike Cross, who writes on the public sector (which, interestingly, is the source of many of the adverts in the section). So we’re kind of sorted there, thanks. That doesn’t preclude me subsequently from getting someone really interesting to write a column externally; but honest, we’ll call you.
So then what the hell do I want? It’s simple, actually. I want people to find out interesting technology stories, built on facts and intervviews, that are relevant to people, and to present them as arresting stories that will appeal to the man or woman in the street. The stories don’t have to revolve around computers; in fact it could be an advantage if they don’t.