By Kyle Austin
The Associated Press has been in the news a lot over the last couple of weeks and unfortunately it wasn’t because it was breaking stories.
Its dispute and eventual resolution with the Drudge Retort over the use and re-purposing of AP content caught national attention. While media columnists and bloggers have blown the AP / Drudge Retort story out of proportion, there may be an interesting AP story for them to follow next month. At that time, the AP will begin to completely reorganize its business news desk.
The AP remains the largest and oldest news organization in the world, serving more then 1,700 U.S. daily, weekly, non-English and college newspapers. In a time of rampant newsroom cutbacks and journalist buyouts, the AP has managed to keep 243 bureaus open in 97 countries across the world. It employs more then 3,000 journalists worldwide.
As one of its first steps in reorganizing the business news desk, the AP named Brian Bergstein national technology editor last week. Brian was kind enough to take some time with me this week to discuss the reorganization the AP will go under next month along with his thoughts on his new role, the East coast versus West coast technology scenes and the need for widely understood principles on content in the blogophere.
RaceTalk: So congratulations on being named national technology editor at the Associated Press. What will your new role entail? Also, who will you report to and can you share who else makes up the rest of the technology unit at the AP?
BB: The entire business news desk of the AP, of which the tech desk is part, is being reorganized. Previously we had some nationally based business and tech reporters, including me, but many more reporters were part of local bureaus and organized their coverage regionally. Now that structure is being blown up, and all AP business writers will be part of the national business desk, as I was, and we will organize coverage around beats rather than region. So previously, for example, we had someone in Atlanta covering Delta Airlines (in addition to other Atlanta companies) and someone in Dallas covering American Airlines (in addition to other Texas companies), but now we have a national airlines team. Similarly, you probably encountered Mark Jewell, the Boston business writer, for some Boston tech or business stories. Now he is going to be writing full-time about personal finance, on a national basis. So think of our tech coverage unfolding that same way. We now will have nine technology reporters around the country, in New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle and San Francisco, reporting to me as their editor. Other AP reporters elsewhere can and will still contribute tech stories, but for these nine, it’s their full-time beat. We’ll organize it along certain beats in tech, such as chips, PCs, wireless, business software, and so on. In time it should be much easier for PR people to figure out whom to pitch on a certain story.
RaceTalk:Obviously, those of us PR folk working in the Cambridge and Boston area have come to turn to you with national technology stories with a local hook. You mentioned to me that you won’t have a technology reporter per se in the Boston area and that a lot of what you have been covering will fall on people who aren’t physically in the area. Before we start an uproar among the local technology folks here, can you further explain the plans for covering technology stories that have a Boston area hook?
BB:Just like I often wrote about companies that weren’t in Boston, now our tech reporters who are in other cities will find themselves writing more often about companies that are here. Since we’re not limited by geography, a cool Boston start-up might get a call from Jordan Robertson in San Francisco or Peter Svensson in New York. So I don’t expect we will ignore Boston-area tech, not by a long shot. Yes, we no longer have a full-time tech reporter based here, but that isn’t necessarily always going to be the case. And in the meantime, some stories will call for an AP tech reporter to travel here. Also, for really intriguing local happenings in tech, we can bring in a generalist from the local bureau who might be interested. And I’m still here, so it’s hard to imagine Boston tech news vanishing from the AP’s radar.
RaceTalk: Are you taking any pitches / embargoed announcements from PR folks in your new role?
BB: I’m OK taking pitches and can send them in the right direction until it’s clearer to the outside world what our new beats look like. But now, more than ever, I’d love to pass on the request to always pitch by e-mail, never phone, and never, ever, call just to check in and follow up on an e-mail. The sheer volume of pitches we get makes phone calls impossible to deal with.
RaceTalk:Do you think the Cambridge / Boston area gets the short end of the stick when people talk about hot beds for technology start-ups? Santa Monica, Austin and even Vancouver seem to be getting more attention then the Cambridge / Boston area as of late. With you in Boston, the Associated Press was one of the few national outlets that had a local writer in this area solely covering technology. There still seems to be that bias at the national level where technology writers dismiss everything outside of Silicon Valley – More specifically dismissing anything outside of Cupertino or Mountain View.
BB: I suppose I’m biased, since I’m here and know how important the Boston technology landscape is, but I disagree with your assessment. Undoubtedly Silicon Valley is the Hollywood of technology, and most things happening there get blown to a higher degree of hype. But all I know is that we write an awful lot about companies and ideas emerging from other places, including states not even considered tech hubs. We do that probably more than any other news organization. And to my mind, Boston is next after Silicon Valley when it comes to important U.S. technology centers. What’s especially interesting to me is that this happens largely because of the area’s intellectual capital rather than because of some ecosystem created by a very large company. I’ve heard the complaints from people here about how there won’t be another EMC-sized tech company in Massachusetts, because all the good local tech companies keep getting bought up by companies elsewhere, but to me that’s a good sign of innovation here, not an ominous harbinger.
RaceTalk: I know you spent two years as a technology correspondent in the Silicon Valley bureau of the AP before coming to Boston. How do you personally compare the two technology scenes? As well as, how do you compare your experience in dealing with companies / communications’ executives there versus here?
BB:I get asked this question a lot. I think people expect to hear that the West Coast/East Coast divide is so striking in tech, like how rappers kill each other over it. I think the Silicon Valley scene is more obsessively covered by its local media. And Boston’s overall vibe is more New England reserved. Someone once put it to me that VCs in the Valley are all out to hit home runs, while VCs here do great hitting doubles and triples. I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification, though there is more of a rip-roaring feel in the Valley. But the truth is, I’ve met plenty of start-up founders here and in the Valley, and there’s no difference in their talent or level of motivation.
RaceTalk: As you’ll have a further role in dictating the types of technology stories that the AP is following – what are some of the larger technology trends that you are most interested in? You’ve followed the One Laptop per Child project closely and it is a truly global technology story. Can we expect AP technology correspondents working together on more global tech stories?
BB: I’m mainly interested in stories that capture how technology is changing society, the law, business, ethics or, our concepts of ourselves. So trends we will follow include such topics as user-generated content, privacy, technology and the environment, outsourcing, computer security — all the big-picture stuff you might expect. As far as more global tech stories — sure, why not? We have the foreign bureaus to produce more stuff like that, unlike most news organizations these days. And a previous AP technology editor happens to be a bureau chief for us in South America — he did a thorough early look at OLPC in Peru.
RaceTalk: Be honest, are you going to miss following breaking news on a daily basis? I know many reporters I talk to, speak of that thrill as being akin to a drug.
BB: Well, I still have to follow — and edit — breaking news now that I’m the editor. There’s certainly a thrill in getting out a well-crafted story on deadline, but if it’s a drug it’s a pretty mild one. I get just as much of a thrill out of turning around a thorough, well-crafted feature.
RaceTalk: Is there one interview with a technology industry executive that you sat down with over the last couple years that stands out in your mind?
BB: There are so many, it would be hard to pick one. I don’t have any good examples of finding some mild-mannered tech icon turning out to be a chair-throwing tyrant. I also find tech researchers and developers more interesting than most executives. The people who work in the labs tend to have a beautifully optimistic yet realistic view of how their work fits into the world.
RaceTalk:I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least try to ask you one question on the Associated Press’ highly publicized dispute and resolution with the Drudge Retort. Even your colleague Seth Sutel covered the resolution. Given the abundance of highly trafficked technology blogs it would seem that your former and future content has a high likelihood of at least being cited on blogs and making its way through the blogosphere. Do you have a personal opinion on the matter and have you been getting a lot of flack from technology bloggers that you have relationships with? (I’m guessing you’ve crossed paths with a few over the last several years on the beat.)
BB:Well, I do have an opinion, but it’s just that. I don’t speak for the AP as an organization in any way. And since the business and editorial divisions are separate, I don’t have insight into how the AP went about this. I learned what I know on this the same as you did, from reading Seth Sutel, Saul Hansell in the Times and the main tech blogs. I certainly hope that before long these kinds of issues get worked out, and widely understood principles emerge on how content like ours moves through the online world. I have a lot of respect for many technology bloggers, who often circulate really intriguing ideas.