You want to write for The Guardian’s Technology section? Could I suggest… (pt 1)

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.

8 Comments

  1. Charles, Charles, Charles, Charles, Charles. Music to my ears.

    No, I am not about to throw a pile of ideas at you, even though I could bombard you with a whole bunch of the stuff at the drop of a hat. (Hint, look at the daily stream of free papers available at IoPP, or join the IEEE and read its journals.) I know that this is a young person’s game. But the whole tone of your plea strikes me as spot on.

    I am amazed, though, that you don’t get “proper” technology pitched at you. Is the world really devoid of people who find the stuff fascinating?

    Just one caveat, by the definition you used, much of medicine could qualify as technology. Not a road to go down, as you go one to explain, a bit. But there is, of course, a mountain of medical technology that you could cover.

    Now, can I interest you in a column of my opinion pieces on…. ?

  2. Hi Charles

    It’s been a while! I couldn’t agree more with you or Mike. I’m almost bored with the whole self-referential blogging thang (although while it pays…). Anyway, maybe I should limber up my pitching arm and get some people-technology ideas to you…

    DaveB

  3. May I suggest another reason not to do Web 2.0 stories: don’t feed the trolls.

    The Web 2.0 thing is rather offensive on many levels, not just because of the arrogance implicit in the title. What expertise do the Web 2.0 speakers have that makes them Web experts let alone the pioneers of the next wave?

    I read the list speakers at the O’Rielly conferences and didn’t recognize any of the principle players in the development of the Web or come to that the Internet. The main qualification for speaking seems to have been running a clueless Web 1.0 startup that crashed and burned after spending a couple of hundred million in VC money.

    One might think that they would invite some of us old timers along if only to have someone to throw the tomatos at. So it isn’t really Web 2.0 its merely a recapitulation of the same directionless boosterism that the dotcom era was about.

    Lets talk about the real issues that we need to solve here, we don’t need more features. What we need is the things the car industry has been concentrated on these past years: Safety, Reliability and Luxury.

    Safety is the most urgent need. We have an Internet crime wave out there and lets face it whack a mole tactics are not working. We need to restore accountability to the Internet. Without accountability social systems collapse.

    The reason I add in Luxury is that engineers simply don’t get it when i talk about usability. They still think usability is just another option to implement, not a change of approach. Geeks tend to think that their mission is to turn everyone else into geeks. Each revision of a scheme is designed to make it easier for the user to do it the geek way, not for the computer to do it the user’s way.

  4. Charles — if today’s story on alternatives to concrete is a taste of things to come on the “technology is not just about IT” front, then I welcome it.

  5. Charles

    Thursday 11 May 2006 at 2:02 pm

    Well, the alternative to concrete is a hugely important story, and I thought it was a natural for the “splash” (as the lead story of a section gets called). So yes, that’s a taste of how things can be. Whether they come is a harder one.

  6. Hi, Charles – just came across your blog and this entry in particular. Just want to say that it’s heartening to see you placing such value on (a) good journalism and (b) getting a grip on the wider way in which technology is impacting on all our lives.

    I edit technology magazines for a living and do a little blogging just to exercise my writing muscles when I think I’m getting a little stale. There’s no way I should be paid for this kind of self-indulgent stuff but a lot of people seem to think they can make money from it.

    I hate to turn them down sometimes, especially when they’re so enthusiastic. But I just say “Come back when you have something my readers will be interested in, that we haven’t done before and fits the style of our magazine” in my friendliest voice and put the phone down. They rarely come back.

  7. I suddenly feel so lucky to have made it into the section a few times. :)

    And Mike: I’ll take those ideas, thank you. You may think it’s a “young man’s” game, but I BEG TO DIFFER.

    wg
    -female, 52

  8. I did say “young person’s” game. Dead politically correct, that’s me.

    As to the ideas, I was talking abut “proper” technology, as in non-IT stuff.

    When it comes to your beat, I would not presume to intrude. You don’t need me to tell you where the bodies are buried.

    For example, there’s a whole pile of stuff going on in the merger of transport and IT. The DTI has even turned it into an Innovation Platform, whatever that is.

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