Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
How to cover tech
A back-and-forth with former Facebook exec Matt Perault
I recently taped a podcast episode with Duke University’s Matt Perault (@MattPerault) that’s out today. Journalists secretly love to talk about themselves, and even sharing this is wildly self-indulgent, but it was a unique opportunity for me to dig into what I do with someone who was long on the ‘other side.’ Matt, you see, is now the director of Duke’s Center on Science & Technology Policy. But before that he spent nearly nine years at Facebook, including as the head of global policy development for the company.
And for his “Technology By Design” podcast, we had a conversation about covering tech that I thought might be of interest to you. I’ve excerpted some of it below. After we wrapped, Matt thanked me for being “human,” so good luck to me! Listen to the episode in the player here, or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
PERAULT: What has it been like to have more opportunity to figure out what’s interesting and compelling for you [after leaving a staff job at POLITICO]?
SCOLA: The first couple of weeks I actually took some time to, you know, line up stories, but also to talk to people who have shifted roles in journalism, who have left journalism to go to advocacy groups, who have left journalism to consulting or lobbying firms. There are plenty who have left to go to do that work. And people were hugely generous with their time and talking through their decision-making process. The potentially sad thing for me was that at the end of that process I realized, ‘Oh, god, I really do want to be a journalist.’
There may be other easier paths and more financially rewarding paths. But it is what I'm built to do. That's been a nice finding, because it kind of forces me to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Okay, make this work.’
And this period has also been an opportunity to look at where journalism is going. Because when you're in the day-to-day grind, I find it difficult to look around and understand what the trends are in the industry. And if you're making a bet on this industry long-term, it's probably useful to understand where it's going. One of the reasons I'm doing the newsletter is that this is one of the cutting-edges of journalism, — or, at least, we're sort of three years into the newsletter revolution — and I really want to understand it.
Some aspect of that is, if you’re going to do a newsletter, if you are going to freelance, I hate saying ‘self-promotion,’ but you do have to be out there advocating for yourself. That doesn’t come super naturally to me. I’m learning how to do that a bit better, and enjoying it more.
If you’re working in a newsroom, you do it kind of — forgive the language — half-assed, because it’s the last thing you do. Some people are really good at it; some people struggle with it. You tend to do it after deadline, and you’re exhausted — you’ve filed the thing, and then you think, ‘Okay, how do I get engagement on that story?’ I have to think about that at the start now. And I think that’ll serve me no matter what.
PERAULT: [The newsletter] seems like it gives you an opportunity to go beyond the daily news story about how, like, Facebook, Google, and Amazon did some crappy thing yesterday, and a member of Congress is angry about it. Even just looking at your reporting when I was preparing for this, it seems like you’ve done that for a long period of time. You’ve done more long-form stuff, more things that are beyond just the day-to-day Washington churn.
I've sort of realized in the last few weeks, maybe maybe in the last couple years, that there are people who run toward the burning building and then there’s people who recognize there’s lots of coverage of the burning building. And they'd like to do things that are less well-covered.
SCOLA: I definitely have an appetite for both. I think maybe I’ve overcorrecting for having focused on that stuff for the last six years, and this is going to make me sound like more of an athlete than I am, but I like to think of myself as playing off the ball. I want to be on the field. But I want to be thinking about the thing that's a bit adjacent, or the next thing — ‘Okay, in six months, we're gonna be talking about x.’ I want to spot that early and highlight it. That’s my favorite thing to do.
“We used to joke, you know why Salesforce doesn’t get covered? Because reporters have no idea what Salesforce is. We’re not exactly clear what they do.”
PERAULT: Tell me if you think this is wrong. It seems like newsrooms are built around covering tech in a certain kind of way. There are four people who cover just Facebook, and three people who cover just Google. And that sort of architecture results in incessant stories about a pretty narrow slice of the tech ecosystem.
[Referring back to a magazine story on food tech I’d earlier mentioned I was working on,] that seems like a massive revolution that probably has interesting policy issues associated with it, but that gets just unbelievably limited coverage because so many people are chasing what, you know, Mark Zuckerberg said yesterday.
SCOLA: And these are huge companies, right? If your motivation is, ‘Let’s think about what huge corporations are doing…’ In the United States, look at Beyond Meat, Impossible — these are multi-billion-dollar companies.They’re not small shops.
Not to flip your podcast around on you, but I am curious — do you think that kind of journalism gets the job done? Does it paint a full enough picture for readers? If you think this sort of specific obsessive focusing on companies isn’t getting the job done, what are we missing?
PERAULT: I guess there are two sides of it. One is, is it an honest portrayal of a company like Facebook or Google or Amazon? And that’s one set of questions. And the other question is, well, are there other important issues in tech that go under-covered?
I think the latter, there are certainly massive issues there. I think I understand why that’s the case. Like, how do you cover the quote-unquote start-up ecosystem? It’s vast, and lots of companies are small, and many of them are around today and will be gone tomorrow. So how do you cover that narrative effectively?
But I just think that there are an enormous number of tech stories that go uncovered. And when you see in D.C., you know, the same CEOs dragged in front of Congress month after month after month, that just doesn’t represent, I think, the full complexity of the tech ecosystem.
Another aspect that I think goes uncovered is B2B companies. Companies that sell primarily to businesses instead of consumers, people think of them last. But there are lots of companies that are pervasive and powerful in the B2B world that just don’t get covered. Because you sit down at the dinner table and say, ‘Did you see that crazy thing that someone posted on Twitter?’ You don’t say that about B2B companies.
SCOLA: We used to joke, you know why Salesforce doesn’t get covered? Because reporters have no idea what Salesforce is. We’re not exactly clear what they do.
PERAULT: And Salesforce, I think, is one of the more tangible ones. I mean, one of the largest privately held tech companies in the world, SAS, is a few miles from me, located in Research Triangle Park. I think most people don’t know what they do, and they’re pervasive. They’re a multi-billion-dollar company.
There are companies like that, that are primarily business facing, and do analytics, and different components of business operations that are really important, that just go uncovered because when you see a tweet on Twitter, you can relate to it in a certain way – if you like the speech or you don’t — and that just means it gets really outsized attention.
SCOLA: One of the things I really want to try to figure out in my interregnum is how to cover this stuff better. I think we’re in the period where we haven’t totally worked it out.
Nobody wants to return to the day where you’re writing glowingly about a startup and six months later they’re doing something terrible in some part of the world and you have to write about them completely differently. So I think the reaction against that was, ‘Okay, now these are evil actors. Let’s just focus on the evil they’re doing this week.’
How do we get to a better place, where we’re serving readers, where we’re still entertaining readers? That’s still part of journalism. You still want them to pick something up and read it and go, ‘I know something I didn’t know before. I’m thinking about the world a little differently.’ I think that’s important, that that’s journalism. It’s super hard, and that’s exactly what I want to figure out — how to go about doing that.
And I think going beyond writing about Facebook or Twitter or Google constantly to writing instead about Beyond or Impossible will help me figure out, how do I understand some of these companies in a way that produces good journalism without reflexively going to, ‘Hey, look at Mark Zuckerberg, can you believe what he said?’
PERAULT: Here's my take on it, you tell me if it is overstated, but as I have left tech, is has really been interesting for me because I understand just the architecture in a different way — like how many people there are at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or Politico or the Post who are focused on tech right now. And how subdivided some of them are.
The number of people who really are focused exclusively on Facebook, for instance, is extraordinary, from my point of view. And I think that creates an incentive structure where they need to generate stories basically about one thing, and they know what will sell news, and those are stories about unethical behavior. There's a disgruntled engineer, or there's someone who's leaked something that occurred in a private meeting.
And so it feels to me — and this is the sort of the second part of your question you asked — you know, what is reporting missing? One question is like, are they getting the story right about the big companies that are often in the spotlight, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft? And I don't really know the answer to that. But it does feel to me like the incentives and the structure are oriented around getting generated a lot of one type of coverage. I don't think all of those stories are untrue, at all. And maybe all of them are true, to some extent, but it feels like it overweights a certain thing.
And it feels like an underweights, from my standpoint, what felt like a daily part of my job at Facebook, which was wrestling with trade-offs. I mean, there just aren't easy decisions. It doesn't seem to me to be the case, like if you just got more ethical people or smarter people in any of the companies that are in the spotlight now that things would change. I experienced that most people are trying to do good things.
And then the question is just like when you have, you know, the nature of the products, they're really, really difficult trade-offs. And trying to come down on one side and figuring out what set of costs you're comfortable with is really challenging.
SCOLA: I think one of the things we’re witnessing is that we’re terrified of missing these stories, because we felt like we missed them until 2016. So we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and I think that’s great. I think there should be people doing that work.
I totally appreciate that if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, and if you’re focused on Facebook, everything Facebook does, you’re going to see the problems in it.
But this is in the journalistic weeds a bit, but I think, you know, I’ve been a staff reporter, I’ve been a freelancer. I like to go back and forth. And if you think about staff reporters, they’re covering the essentials, right? Like, you can’t miss these stories, and so you have staff reporters to do that.
One of the benefits of freelancers is, you can bring the, ‘Hey, this is a little bit off to the side, off the ball,’ and add it to the coverage. It helps expand the mix. It can help illuminate some of the stories that aren’t as straight-on as the stories you see in daily journalism.
We’re seeing in a lot of places, the freelancing budgets have been decimated, which speaks well to my decision-making in wanting to freelance. But if we had publications that were thinking that way about doing tech journalism — ‘We’re going to cover the essentials, and we’re also going to introduce things further afield by working with outside writers’ — I think it could help expand things…
Beyond Meat closed at a market cap of $9.18 billion yesterday, and Impossible is reportedly considering going public at a valuation of at least $10 billion.