Being a tech journalist means never being wrong

I used to write for the Vancouver tech blog Techvibes. The pay was good for what it was, but as with blogging here I just got busy with other work and after awhile I just could not stay a regular there. I think founder Rob Lewis has an interesting concept with it, but I find it unreadable now largely because of the economic model.

The way Techvibes pays contributors is based on views. This makes sense from one level. Views equal money for the site, so they should equal money for the contributors. It feels like this should create a meritocracy where the best writers who write the most interesting, and factual, posts get the most views and thus are paid the most. The trouble is in reality contributors who write the most posts tend to get the most views, and the ones who write the most sensationalist posts are also rewarded.

One well thought out post with an hour of research and fact checking typically will earn a writer less than 3 posts that are quickly dashed off from press releases and take about ten minutes each. A writer who figures out a controversial spin to put into a quick editorial is worth much more than one who writes a well reasoned editorial which turns out to be true.

Which is where Knowlton Thomas comes in. I don't know Knowlton. I follow him on Twitter, he's probably a nice guy. He's a former member of The Other Press so we have that Canadian University Press connection. I'll also give him credit, he figured out the game and through sensationalist nonsense has made a career out of blogging while I'm still working a 9 - 5 job for a living.


Well let's take Knowlton Thomas' stock advice from last January's article titled "Why you should buy shares in Research in Motion right now". In it he argues that BlackBerry maker RIM is poised for a rebirth after a few shakey years of seeing their hold on the smartphone market slip. The stock was at around $61 a share then and he confidently predicted it would go up to "at least $80".

His proof was a lot of the old tropes. Apple was only successful because of a "reality distortion field". The Playbook, BlackBerry's tablet, was going to crush the iPad because it's better. RIM has two CEOs and that's pretty cool.

He was so confident that when people, including myself, pointed out that RIM was a complete mess and seemed to have no idea what it was doing he wrote.

"Thanks for your input, fellas. Appreciated.

I have only this to say: regardless of my opinion and your opinions, what is ultimately relevant here is RIM's stock price. Therefore, please feel free to flame me in 2012 if RIM never hits $80. Until then, we will just have to wait and see."

Did RIM stock ever hit $80? No. It got up around $70 and is now down at $15.01.

So he can't predict stocks. Nobody can. Sure a tech industry expert should have noticed that RIM has been running on nothing more than corporately locked in customers since the iPhone and Android phones first hit the market, but everyone's going to make a mistake now and then.

Right? I mean if stocks were easy to predict then everyone would be rich.

Fine let's give him that freebie. He made a mistake and crossed a road without looking both ways. It happens.

What is worse though is his link-bait articles. Posts created from rumours, speculation and fiction to put forth an opinion that's going to draw clicks. There's no journalism here and he might as well be working on his True Blood fan fiction for the amount of facts involved.

Example? I thought you'd never ask.

"Why the PlayBook is better than the iPad 2" again from January 2011.

Now if you know your tech product release dates you'll realize that last January the PlayBook had not yet been released and the iPad 2 had not yet been announced. So this is a side-by-side review of a product that has not been released and one that's not even been seen outside of Apple.

I bet it has lots of really great insights.

You're a sucker, aren't you?

You overpaid for an over-sized iPhone without phone, camera, or multi-tasking. You believed Steve Jobs when he told you that 7-inch tablets were "dead on arrival" because - well, because he is Steve Jobs. And you're cutting back on Starbucks and digging under the couch for change because you simply must own the iPad 2 on launch date, even if you've only owned your iPad for six months. After all, the next generation is going to have a camera - maybe even two! That's revolutionary, in case you didn't know.

That's right, people who buy Apple products are dummies! They paid too much for that iPad despite the fact that it was cheaper than any comparable tablet at the time. Of course he doesn't mention that, or point out a cheaper better tablet, because that would hurt his whole "Apple fans are cultists" argument that's basically the entire content of the article.

"When the Beatles came on iTunes last year, it was the biggest news in music since the Beatles were actually playing (seriously, it was huge!)."

No it wasn't. Apple ran some ads, put them on and it was press speculation by people like Thomas that over hyped it. But continue.

"Who are these incompetent, inferior rivals to try and craft a product worthy of drawing comparisons to the all-mighty iPad? Who cares if it sounds like a tampon? Tampons suck. The iPad rules."

Yay. iPad / tampon jokes. These continue into the next paragraph, so not much to see there. Great journalism though.

"The iPad was the first out of the gate, but it isn't even a purebred by horse-racing standards. It's bordering lame, simply bouyed (sic) by a famous, marketing-savvy jockey. It's not difficult to train a horse to be stronger and faster. It's just about convincing the audience it's about the horse, not the rider."

I thought we were on the tampon thing, but okay let's talk about horses. Floating horses apparently. Also in the past year what tablet has done better than the iPad? Quickly now, since it's so easy to best the iPad obviously we can all name at least a half dozen that have outsold Apple's device.

"The iPad 2 will likely launch in the first half of 2011. It will have at least one camera, maybe two. It might allow for multi-tasking, if Apple decides to bless us so. It will also probably get a price increase. It will sell fanatically, but the device itself will be underwhelming relative to competition."

There is so much factually wrong with this bit here that I had a hard time knowing where to begin. Besides the fact that nothing was announced multitasking was already a feature on the iPad. The price didn't increase, and anyone who had been watching Apple at all would know that they rarely increase prices when they rev a product, they typically hold them steady or drop them.

The rest of the article is about how RIM cares about the quality of its products and how Apple's success is just a Steve Jobs inspired hoax of some kind. He also claims that the PlayBook will definitely be cheaper than the iPad.

Against my better judgement I pointed out some of these errors in the comments, including the fact that while I didn't know for sure because neither product was actually for sale, I found it very hard to believe that the PlayBook would be cheaper than the iPad at launch.

The price? $499, the same as the overpriced iPad.

When the PlayBook was actually released and arrived with a boat load of bad reviews what did Knowlton Thomas do? Check out "RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook isn't polished, but neither was the iPad - so what gives?" He seems confused by anyone would not want a poorly reviewed tablet, why anyone would like the iPad or give it a good review and then reverts to the "Apple products are all marketing" trope.

The best part of the "article" is when he writes a glowing review of the PlayBook based on using the store display model at his local Future Shop. That's journalism gold right there.

By July even he's got his head out of the sand and sees that the PlayBook isn't selling. He's still not sure why, and once more falls back on the fact that Apple products are "cool". Being cool in this context is apparently uncool.

The choice bit of "RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook was designed to own the enterprise space but the iPad dominates that too" is below:

No doubt the iPad oozes the cool factor, just like BlackBerrys did fiv (sic) years ago. An employee who gets an iPad boosts his or her morale and also makes the company look awesome. And since the iPad isn't any more expensive than most competing tablets, it's free status for everyone involved. Yay!

Yay! Apple owners are image obsessed asshats. That's why the PlayBook isn't selling. Huzzah!

More "factual" articles? How about one from September titled "iPad 3 delayed until 2012, report suggests. With TouchPads and PlayBooks dying, what's the rush?" which is an article about how Apple is delaying the iPad 3's release until 2012. The reasons? Thomas doesn't know, but it might be a hardware glitch or a software bug.

Or maybe because Apple has a pretty steady annual product cycle and the iPad 2 came out in 2011. That Thomas hasn't figured out Apple's release schedule after they've pretty closely held to it over the past ten years since the first iPod was released, is the main "news" in this story. Granted sometimes they deviate, like going longer than 12 months between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S, but I can't recall when they've rushed a new revision cycle in under a year.

Computers are different since those closely follow Intel's chip upgrade path.

As I said I don't know Knowlton Thomas. He might donate all his blogging money to charity. He might give blood regularly and help old ladies across the street. He might write symphonies of such heart breaking beauty that simply hearing them will send grown men to their knees crying introspective tears of joy and pain. Maybe he's a good writer, maybe he's a good journalist somewhere else. I mean he does a pretty good job of copy and pasting press releases to make them into blog posts, so that's something.

On Techvibes though he's representative of a problem that's rotted tech journalism to its core, the fact that it's more lucrative to post a lot of nonsense that people click on than a few well thought out good stories that a few people read. While there's room for people like John Gruber of Daringfireball, who value being right about the facts, it's far easier to be wrong a lot of the time.

The simple math is: # of posts x controversy = views = $

Try reading a Wired article without having to click through 5 pages, just so they get the page views, you won't be able to do it. Half of Newsarama's articles are either comic previews or ridiculous top 10 lists that require 10 page views.

I don't know what the answer is. Thomas isn't the problem, he's a symptom of a broken system, and an easy target.

My beef isn't with Techvibes either. They have bills to pay, employees to employ and they do provide a good service covering the Vancouver tech scene. Obviously they find value in what Thomas writes for them, since he's still there and is an Associate Editor.

Maybe I'm an old man shaking his cane at the kids on my lawn. The idea of wanting to be proud of what you write is an old fashioned one, and not always conductive to being able to put food on the table. Thomas clearly has been able to carve out a living doing something that I presume he likes, and so this might sound like sour grapes. Maybe it is, who knows I can't afford a psychiatrist on my wage.

Now maybe if I get another blogging assignment. Anyone interested in a post "The Top 10 Ways iPads Kill Children"? I assure you it'll get a lot of views.