Big Technology

Why People Can’t Stand Tech Journalists: An Interview With Casey Newton

The Verge’s Silicon Valley editor discusses tech media, recent issues with Facebook, and more

Casey Newton

OneZero is partnering with Big Technology, a newsletter and podcast by Alex Kantrowitz, to bring readers exclusive access to interviews with notable figures in and around the tech industry. This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at the Verge, to discuss the state of tech journalism, recent developments at Facebook, and more. This writeup of their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on iTunes, Spotify, and Overcast.

Part of the tech world is fed up with tech journalists. Reporters, in their view, are out to get them, looking to score points by taking down companies and founders. Journalists talk about these accusations in private, and now you can read (or listen) to one of these conversations in public. As the Big Technology Podcast makes its debut, Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at the Verge, joins to discuss the recent backlash to tech reporting, along with his perspective on Facebook, and life as a newsletter writer.

On Tech Journalism

Alex Kantrowitz: Let’s start with the question that’s on everyone’s mind — Is the tech press bad?

Casey Newton: No, the tech press is really good. The tech press, I think, has done probably the best work of its life collectively over the past four years. I feel like I have a much better understanding of the inner workings of the biggest technology platforms today than I’ve ever had, and it’s because of the incredible work that so many people are doing around the country and the world.

Why do so many people hate it then?

I think there’s a separate but related question, which is about the health of our information ecosystem more broadly. And there, I do see some trouble spots. I think there are three algorithms that have reshaped the American press in ways that we are just now starting to confront. You have Google and Facebook, which can serve up this incredible fire hose of traffic to publishers so long as they cater to the ever-shifting whims of that algorithm.

And that has just resulted in a lot of really cheap-to-produce content like “what time is the Super Bowl” and “John Oliver destroyed this industry last night. Here’s the clip.” And all of that stuff is mostly harmless, but it has robbed publications of their individual identities. So, every website is just a version of every other website, and I think that has kind of undermined trust in the press generally because there’s just kind of a sameness to it.

“One day you’re beating up on Facebook for leaving up too much hate speech, and the next day, you’re beating up on them for taking down too many legitimate ads.”

Then, the third algorithm is the Twitter algorithm, where in a world that is full of calamity, only the sort of noisiest, most scandalous, most outrageous stories break through. And because that’s where reporters are hanging out all day, and where they’re flogging their stories, I do think that that has led all of us to underline the elements of scandal and outrage in everything. And that has a wearying effect.

I think there’s scandal and outrage fatigue, but I also think it has undermined trust in the press, because most people’s experience of us on Twitter is a bunch of snarky bastards who are constantly pointing at outrage and scandal. And so, maybe people have less of an idea of who we are, what we stand for, what our principles are. I just think the collective force of those three algorithms has warped people’s experience of the press into something very different than what their experience would have been 20 years ago.

Typical tech journalist take. You just go ahead and blame the algorithms instead of the people. I agree with you. I tried to put myself in the shoes of some of the people in the tech industry — what they see is simply a group of people trying to take them down and then playing that Twitter outrage cycle. Do you see any truth to that, and do you think that perception needs to be corrected? How does this change?

I think that people who work at tech companies don’t know what our principles are and what we stand for. I think if you are reading the average story about Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, unless you have a personal relationship with that reporter, you might not know what that reporter’s goals are. In my experience, most reporter’s goals are to speak truth to power, to hold power to account, to find wrongdoing. And so if there is a story that is negative, I feel like it is usually coming from that place.

But it’s also the case that these platforms are really complicated, and frankly, I think we don’t know how we feel about questions like which posts on the internet need to come down and which should stay up. That results in coverage where one day you’re beating up on Facebook for leaving up too much hate speech, and the next day, you’re beating up on them for taking down too many legitimate ads.

If you’re an employee at that company, you might look at those stories and think, “This publication has no idea what it thinks about anything. I’m just going to tune all of that out as noise.” That’s why one of the things that I did with The Interface last year was, I just wrote a page that was basically like, “Here’s how I see the world. Here are the things that I’m concerned about. Here are the questions I’m trying to answer.” And I just found it invaluable in kind of setting my own audience’s expectations and guiding me day to day as I’m writing about these issues.

You have your own statement of where you’re coming from on your site.

Yeah. I think it’s worth more reporters considering doing something like that. I think it forced me to confront issues like, what is my own ideal content policy? What are the things that I’m most concerned about? And then it allowed me to follow those questions down a path. So, my coverage can be somewhat incremental. I’m kind of hunting the same set of subjects every day, I think, to the extent that more reporters can do that. I think that will build trust.

I’m hesitant to say too much, because I really don’t think the problem is the reporters. When you look at who has the power in this situation, it is typically the reporters who are clinging onto their jobs for dear life and the tech companies, which are growing more powerful by the day. So, to suggest that this is a problem that the journalism industry needs to solve at the level of the reporter, I think is a little bit wrong.

I do think we need to talk about the shape of the industry and what it incentivizes, and what publications incentivize, and then maybe talk about some different things they can do there.

Your answers sort of mirror what a lot of the critics say: They tend to point to it as a business model issue. I know this is sort of a ridiculous criticism, but they say the reporters are trying to hang onto their jobs, so they mine outrage for clicks.

Yeah. And that’s not true. Most reporters I know have no idea what their traffic is and are not directly financially incentivized to go get more traffic. At the same time, it has been my experience that particularly at the digital media properties of the past 10 years — but also the legacy subscription publications — you read the press releases that these companies put out, and they talk about their traffic regularly. They’re always talking about their reach. They’re always talking about their scale.

It is built into their business to reach the most amount of people, and the internet has a lot of winner-take-all dynamics. And so, I do think that shapes the conversations to some extent. Now, at the same time, every writer since the dawn of time has wanted to be read. We all would want some audience.

Yeah, more than a business model thing, it might just be a status thing.

Well, say more about that. What do you mean?

Reporters definitely want traffic on their posts, but one of the things we know that these platforms do is they reward people with retweet numbers and follower numbers. It’s like a game. And we know what sells on the platforms is generally what you mentioned, outrage. The criticism might be better pointed at reporters trying to pursue status but stoking the outrage that they know will generate the types of retweets that writing measured stories might not.

Well, I feel like we’re also falling into a trap that this conversation often does, which is everyone is terrified to name an individual reporter or an individual story. It’s like we always want to keep this discussion at the level of the overall ecosystem, and very few people are willing to come out and say, “This particular investigation was a lot of BS.” That’s not always true, but I think it’s helpful when you can be really specific.

It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about all of these issues a lot lately, and what is it exactly that we’re talking about. And you hit on something which I know you’ve written about, which is the weird power of the retweet. I am constantly shocked at what people will do just to get more retweets.

It’s amazing. It’s totally amazing.

No financial benefit to them. Yes, maybe you’re going to get more Twitter followers over time, but people will do anything for a retweet. And so that does shape all of the takes in the direction of being really noisy and really spicy.

And so, I’ve been thinking about what we’ve lost because everything is so noisy and spicy. When I read investigative reporting, so rarely does it have a sense of proportion. An investigative report will never admit that what it has found is anything less than worthy of a Pulitzer. Everything we found is just absolutely gobsmacking. So little of the reporting I read these days has a sense of humor and like, I get it. Times are dark, but times have been dark for a long time. I used to read stories that were just kind of funny, and I never do anymore.

And then the third thing, I crave a sense of what the reporter doesn’t know, what they still want to find out, a sense that you don’t have all of the answers. I think a lot of those things can be really hard to deliver when you’re doing beat reporting for a major daily or a big digital site. That’s where I think blogging has actually really excelled, and newsletter writing is just kind of the evolution of blogging.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve been so drawn to it: It feels like a place where I can just store some of those things.

The Evolution of Facebook

What would you say the state of Facebook is right now?

Facebook is so big that it is always going to be a thousand different things at the same time. There’s 500 places where it’s doing something really cool and interesting, and there’s 500 places where it’s doing something really scary and in need of intervention.

Part of what I’m trying to do is to develop a sense of how we weigh the good versus the bad. Is it the case that this company can be a positive force for good in the world, like a really grand scale that silences some of the doubters, or at least addresses more of their concerns? Or is this thing warping more than just the media? Is it kind of a dark mirror to our society that is warping what we see and kind of tearing us apart?

That question is really intractable for me, and it’s the reason why it is the most fascinating of all the companies to me.

But what’s your answer to that big question right now? What do you think it is?

I don’t know, because the Facebook answer would be, “Well, we provide a voice for people and we enable all of these conversations and that’s so important. And look at all of these that were enabling. And by the way, we’re also helping a lot of small businesses every day.”

And then I just look around the world and I see the rise of authoritarianism and fascism and the spread of right-wing extremist ideologies like the anti-vaxxers and the boogaloo groups and QAnon, all of which have been all over Facebook and which have grown aggressively on Facebook. And it’s like, I have a really hard time weighing those things in a positive direction. So I’m deeply skeptical of it.

The other thing is, Facebook is almost a uniquely unaccountable company. The founder and CEO has majority control over the board, and no one can really meaningfully intervene if Facebook does something that they don’t like other than sort of mount a public pressure campaign and try to change Mark Zuckerberg’s mind.

And we know that really works.

I would actually argue that it works on Facebook more than people give it credit for. I think they’re way more responsive to public pressure than an Apple or an Amazon, for example. But the fact that they sometimes do what the public wants is not a replacement for actual accountability.

And I think one reason why you see so much frustration with Facebook is the same reason you see so much frustration with YouTube and with Twitter. It’s the sense that these things are so powerful to the way that we communicate and live our lives online. And yet, you and I really have no say in how any of them operate.

And Congress, which should be playing an active role in regulating these platforms, really only as of maybe this month, seems like they even understand the platforms to any great degree. So there’s just been a huge lag there. So, I don’t think we should be surprised that people are so frustrated with life under these platforms.

I’m also just like, is Facebook responsible for the fact that there’s a movement in the U.S. that’s anti-mask and how much of that has actually helped amplify sort of the resistance we’ve had to common-sense measures for the coronavirus?

Sure, and also Facebook operates in a lot of countries where people are wearing their masks. Why isn’t it having the same effect everywhere if it’s so simple? When people say, “Well, what is Facebook going to do about polarization?” they’re like, “If you look around the world, countries are polarizing at different rates. It’s really hard to kind of pin this on us.”

But just as a reporter, I do think you have to keep an open mind. There are a million reporters on Twitter that just tweet, “Facebook is bad all day every day” because it gets a lot of retweets. I think sometimes they unearth interesting information about the company, but as a reporter, I’ve never been particularly invested in certainty. And you have to be careful, because you can let yourself get played by companies if they’re constantly sowing doubt in your mind and you can sort of find yourself accidentally carrying water for them sometimes.

But I’m just a big believer in the world being complicated. And so, I think given that Facebook is a thousand things, if I had reduced it all to a one-sentence feeling, I would probably be sacrificing a lot of nuance and intellectual rigor.

If we think about the state of the platform, all this bad stuff is being generated by it. Yet it continues to do incredibly well in the stock market. I was looking at the market caps since Cambridge Analytica, and since even the tech hearings last month, and it’s just shot up. It seems like a company that can’t be stopped. It won’t be stopped by Congress. It won’t be stopped by the stock market. It won’t be stopped by users. At a certain point, you have to think that there’s a feeling inside the company where it’s like, “The haters came at us and they missed — we can do whatever we want.”

I mean, I think Facebook used to have that attitude much more. They love telling the story of how everyone thought the News Feed was a bad idea, but they stuck by it after they launched it, and it wound up becoming one of the greatest money printing presses in the history of business. I do think that that led to a lot of hubris.

I think that more recently, they’re looking around the world and thinking, “Uh-oh.” They saw TikTok emerged as a legitimate competitor. Then they saw it got shut down in a bunch of places and realized that if TikTok could get shut down in India, then so could Facebook and all of its apps.

I think they’re looking around the world feeling very anxious, and that’s why over the past year, they’ve gone on this sort of funny pro-regulation campaign, where Zuckerberg is writing op-eds being like, “We need new rules for the internet.” They’re trying to shape regulation in a way that benefits them — of course so far, we haven’t seen any regulation passed at all.

The intent of the people inside the company, do you think it’s good or bad? Because I feel like one of the favorite hobbies of the armchair quarterbacks on the internet is saying they’re evil, or they’re actually not.

I think that their intentions are similar to most people who work office jobs in 2020, where it’s like, there is some interest in the mission. There’s a lot of interest in salary and benefits, and there’s a lot of interest in “what is this doing for my career?” There’s a really interesting discrepancy between the internal and the external conversation around Facebook right now, because the external conversation is a lot of like, “Are these people good or evil? What are they doing to the world?”

And the internal questions at Facebook that Zuckerberg is getting during his weekly Q&As are all about remote work, how long is it going to last, who’s going to have to go back to the office, who’s going to get their pay cut, how much is my pay going to be cut if I move to Omaha or whatever. And I think it’s important to just recognize that we expect Facebook to kind of save the world to some degree, even though it is just a giant business where people post texts and images. And it’s hard, I think, for the company to do the things that we expect of it.

“We expect Facebook to kind of save the world to some degree, even though it is just a giant business where people post texts and images.”

Now, that’s not to say that Facebook doesn’t have a lot of terrible externalities that it has often ignored over the years to its shame, but I think those are more the product of indifference than a bunch of evil scientists trying to rig the world for Trump and Bolsonaro.

Okay, let’s do a Facebook lightning round to end this segment. Does Facebook get regulated in a meaningful way within 10 years?

Within 10 years, yes.

Is Zuckerberg still the Facebook CEO 10 years down the road?

Let’s see. At that point, he’ll have been running it for like …

25 years?

25 years. Yes, 10 years, I think yes. I would say five years definitely. I think that there could be a shot that he is like running CZI full time in 10 years or kind of doing something more in the philanthropy world.

Is TikTok a meaningful threat to Facebook within five years?

Dude, we don’t know if it’s going to exist in October.

This is a hot takes lightning round.

But that’s basically like, “guess what Donald Trump is going to do.” And Donald Trump — we just don’t know what Donald Trump is going to do.

Sheryl Sandberg, is she going to be there within two years?

I don’t think so. I couldn’t figure out why Sheryl is there now.

Same. She likes running the business?

She says she does, but does anyone believe her? She seems constantly exasperated by everything that happened inside of Facebook. It is unclear to me. To stay at a job, you need to be deriving some pleasure from it, and I can’t figure out what Sheryl likes about her job right now.

20 years from now, which company is bigger, Facebook or Apple?

I think Apple has the leverage. The competition issues around Apple are really significant and serious, and no one is paying attention to them right now. And if they are ignored for the next five or 10 years, then I think Apple is going to grow into an even bigger behemoth than it is. And as you know, it’s already way bigger than Facebook.

Newsletters and the Future of Media

Let’s spend our last few minutes together, Casey, talking a little bit about newsletter writing and how it’s different from being a traditional reporter, whether you like it, whether you recommend it to others. I feel like you’re having the most fun that I’ve seen since we’ve known each other now.

Writing a newsletter is the coolest thing that I have gotten to do during my time in journalism, both the thing itself and the stuff that it has enabled. There’s just no question it’s been the best thing that I’ve done for myself, and I think for the work that I’ve been doing.

What’s it enabled? Because that’s an interesting way to put it.

A couple of things. One is, before I started it, I was like a Facebook beat reporter who I don’t think was particularly known for breaking a lot of big Facebook stories. I was just kind of a person on the beat. I wanted to break more stories, and I thought, “Well, if I want to do that, then I need to more closely identify myself as a Facebook reporter.”

So, in the early days of the newsletter, it was probably like 70%, 80% Facebook most days. And that helped to get the attention of all the other Facebook beat reporters, but then a lot of other Facebook employees. I started to get better tips than I was getting before, and then some of those tips turned into big features last year. I did a series about content moderators in the United States, and it all came from the fact that I was writing this newsletter and people had associated me with the beat really closely. When you’re writing a newsletter four or five days a week, people can tell that you care. Over the course of doing it for three years, I think more and more I’ve been able to just identify myself as a social networks reporter. And the more you do that, the more interesting people want to talk to you.

Something else that the newsletter enables is for me to build trust, because when you’re reading four columns a week, you get a sense of where I’m coming from, what I’m interested in. And I’m not doing as much shooting off the hip. I’m not clamoring for your attention by writing the most dramatic possible version of everything. I’m just trying to lower the temperature a bit and say like, “Okay, what are smart people saying about this tricky subject?”

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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