Tech journalism legend Mossberg speaks about his career
Walt Mossberg, who announced recently that he plans to retire in June, is arguably the most influential technology journalist of the past 25 years.
Mossberg, 70, is currently executive editor of The Verge and editor at large of Recode, a tech news site that he co-founded in early 2014 with Kara Swisher after both left The Wall Street Journal.
At the Journal, Mossberg started writing a personal technology column in 1991 at a time when few mainstream newspapers were covering technology from a consumer point of view. Mossberg’s column, which appeared every Thursday, became a must-read for those in the technology industry, and the Journal expanded its personal tech coverage during the next two decades.
In 2004, Alan Deutschman of Wired magazine called him “The Kingmaker,” writing, “Few reviewers have held so much power to shape an industry’s successes and failures.”
Along with Swisher, Mossberg started the All Things Digital conference for The Journal.
Mossberg spoke by email this weekend with Talking Biz News about his career. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you first get interested in journalism?
I wrote a column on high school news for my area’s metro daily, the Providence (R.I.) Journal. I was voted best high school columnist and won a place in a summer journalism institute for high school kids at Northwestern. After that whole experience, all I ever wanted to be was a journalist.
What all did you cover for The Wall Street Journal before you started writing about personal technology?
I had many different beats over 20 years at the WSJ before tech. I started in Detroit covering mainly the auto industry and the UAW. In Washington, I covered beats like labor, environment and energy, the Pentagon, international economics, and national security.
I was also the Journal’s deputy Washington bureau chief for a few years. I got to travel the world, cover historic events, and also toil a bit in the back beats of DC journalism, doing things like covering the Postal Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
What was behind the idea in 1991 to start writing a personal technology column?
I had become a computer hobbyist in the prior decade, and, though I loved it, I thought PCs were too hard and complex and that the industry looked down on otherwise smart, but non-techie consumers. I decided I would find it satisfying, and that it would be good for the Journal too, if we had a column covering the rising wave of tech products and services through a lens of consumer usability and criticism of the industry for ignoring average users.
So I proposed it to the editors. I also had personal reasons: a weekly column meant mote stability, more control of my life and schedule and travel, and more time with my family.
When and why did you first know that the column was a success?
I always thought it would succeed. but that my own prominence, which was pretty decent inside Washington and a few places beyond, would drop — and that was OK. But the brass at the Journal was much, much less certain.
I knew it was a success about 10 weeks in, when lots of people started talking about it, including people my bosses met at lunches and cocktail parties, and people in the periodic readership surveys they took then. And, to my surprise, my profile grew even larger, not smaller.
How did the Journal expand its personal technology coverage under you in the next two decades?
Well, it wasn’t all under me. I began a second weekly column, a Q&A for readers, originally online only. About 10 years in, I was given a reporting assistant, Katie Boehret, who was terrific and she became a second tech product review columnist.
Meanwhile, the paper built up its tech reporting staff, mainly in San Francisco, but I was — at my request — not part of that. I also recruited the amazing Kara Swisher to the Journal from the Washington Post and she became a tech columnist who covered the business and culture of Silicon Valley. And we became friends.
When did the idea for the All Things D conference come about and what did it add to the coverage?
The idea started in 2003 as a conference only. Kara and I believed we could do what we later came to call “live journalism” — real, unrehearsed journalistic interviews onstage in front of a high quality audience. It worked.
Then, in 2007, the same year we hosted the joint Steve Jobs-Bill Gates interview, we launched the AllThingsD.com website. It was not part of the WSJ, and was not primarily staffed with WSJ employees. It added a year-round extension of the conference, and had more voice and a different vibe than the Journal.
How have you seen personal technology coverage change during the past 25 years?
There are vastly more voices covering it, in a much wider variety of ways — sophisticated video, podcasts, infographics, and much more. I think it’s fitting that I started my career on a print-only platform and am ending it on a digital-only one.
What was the major sticking point that led to you and Kara leaving the Journal?
We had no conflict with the Journal itself, but with the parent company, Dow Jones (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). We felt that they weren’t willing to invest in the growth of All Things Digital, in new expansions we had planned and shared with them, despite the fact that we had made them millions and been profitable every year of our existence, even through the Great Recession.
So we felt we’d have a better future on our own, with other investors.
How was Recode different than the coverage you and Kara had been doing for the Journal?
Well, Recode was essentially a direct extension of All Things Digital, not of the Journal. At first, it had the same people and the same beats. We then began to implement some changes: new people, new beats, new long-form series, team reviews, etc.
Why did y’all decide to sell out to The Verge?
We sold our company to Vox Media, the parent of The Verge and other web sites. Recode is not part of The Verge, it’s a peer of The Verge inside Vox Media. We decided to sell because, while we still had most of the money we had raised, we could see that we’d need to raise a lot more in a second round to gain scale, and were discussing doing so when Vox Media made its approach.
We knew and liked the Vox folks and knew they had the tools and people to do the right things for Recode. So, even though we had no plans to sell, and hadn’t placed ourselves on the market, we thought it was a better path than raising more money and battling for scale as a small company.
What are you most proud of during your career?
I guess that would be standing up for average, mainstream tech consumers, and adhering to a code of ethics.
Is there anything you regret in terms of panning a product that was uncalled for?
There were a couple of times I panned a product, and then, sometime later, after changes had been made, I went back and re-reviewed it more favorably. Being human, I’m sure I made some errors. But, even if something I panned went on to sell well, I didn’t regret my evaluation.
I don’t believe I ever wrote a negative review that was “uncalled for,” though I wrote plenty that some percentage of readers didn’t agree with.
What advice would you give someone today who wanted to go into tech journalism?
Focus on a core audience — consumers, techies, education, big business, gamers, whatever — and be determined to serve that audience, not the companies that make the products and services. Never condescend to your readers, listeners, viewers. Assume they are smart.
Never, ever, take money, travel or free products from companies you cover (other than temporary loaners for reviews). Never be afraid to be entrepreneurial and to reinvent yourself.