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How I’ve spent my career getting it wrong (and don’t regret a thing)

From 1995 to 2006 or thereabouts, I was a full-time journalist mostly working on the Mac market. I did pretty-much every kind of writing you can do about Macs, from help and advice to sermon-on-the-mount editorials. But most of the time, I was that most oft-critiqued of animals: a reporter, a writer of news.

A news story – at least, a good one – is the tip of a very big iceberg. Actually writing the copy probably takes up a tiny proportion of the time of a good journalist. The rest of the time is spent cultivating sources, gathering information, digging deep into stuff, following up wild hunches and becoming the kind of person who people in your market know and trust. Stories themselves are very formulaic writing, and anyone with any talent can actually churn them out pretty quickly. It’s the stuff that goes into the story that takes time and energy.

My first news editor gave me two pieces of good advice. First, spend as much of your time out and about as possible. Nothing turns contacts into sources more than face to face meetings, the odd lunch and maybe even a small glass of wine (or ten). Second, if you read about it in a press release, it’s not news: that stuff is what companies want you to write about, which is almost exactly the kind of thing that makes a dull story. Read press releases, sure. But then put them in the bin, because they ain’t news.

This news ethos meant we ended up with a pretty good track record of breaking stories and a good reputation in our industry and amongst our peers. It’s a source of constant regret to me that we never really transferred that ethos well into the online space – but that’s another story.

But the thing that you learn from experience is that no matter how good your sources, there is no guarantee that a story will end up right.

As you might expect, one of the companies that I spent a LOT of time cultivating sources in was Apple. And I had some good ones – more than one, in high-enough-to-know positions. No matter how good the source, you rarely took a punt on a story which had only a single source. Heck, if Steve Jobs himself had called me up with story, I’d have preferred if there was a second source.

On more than one occasion, I had a story down cold: multiple sources, within Apple (and sometimes outside) confirming exact details. People who literally had product introduction plans in their hands, reading out details to me.

And sometimes, those stories turned out to be wrong. Sometimes, almost totally wrong.

Why? A variety of reasons: pricing or details changing at the very last minute; products being pulled from a keynote; a super-secret feature which no one outside of sealed rooms in Cupertino knew about. There are lots of ways to get a story wrong.

That is why I gently tweaked John Gruber’s tail in my post the other day. John, having claimed he would never post a report he didn’t know to be true, has found out the hard way that truth is sometimes a little less fixed than it looks. I’m sure his sources are good. I’m sure his sources told him what they believed to be true (and maybe even what was at the time). And he STILL got it wrong.

So why pick on John – someone whose work I respect enormously, and who people I know who know him say is a good guy? Simply because he’s developed an annoying habit of (as Americans say) “calling people out” with posts on “claim chowder” and “Jackass of the week”. It’s snarky, and its probably popular with his readership – but it’s also lazy and dumb.

Journalism looks easy from the outside, because you only see the tip of the iceberg. When you get in the trenches and start actually doing it, it starts to get a little harder. And when you aspire to be really good at it, you’d better be prepared to take some lumps along the way, get things wrong – and keep striving to get the real story, the hidden one that companies don’t want your readers to know about.

(John Gruber image by Presta)

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  • John Molloy

    I am not so sure Ian. Some of the people he has called out deserve it. You call it lazy journalism but actually someone does need to do this and John’s readership is large and many of the people he called out are just astroturfing.

  • Ian Betteridge

    I don’t think it’s lazy journalism – it’s not really journalism at all. But it is lazy, in the sense that it’s easy.

    John’s readers (by and large) are no fools – they know the pundits who are basically putting forward views for pageviews (*cough*Dvorak*cough*).

    It’s far more productive to worry about your own stories than laughing and pointing at other people’s posts. And yes, I know this post violates that very rule, but I have the excuse of being (mostly) retired from the news biz :)

  • http://nicksweeney.com nick s

    More productive, though not quite worrying about your own stories, would be to do a bit of “Apple media literacy”. John does some of it, but not enough. There are stories that are targetted to people who care if AAPL is green or red, not whether the iPod nano is blue or yellow. There are stories that troll for pageviews. There are stories written for the industry (or industries, because Apple spans a few) and stories written for the consumer.