Casey Newton, the Verge

I’m extremely grateful for getting the opportunity to meet Casey and visit the Verge. He does amazing work, and he cares about educating everyone about technology and its impacts. For most teens, there seems to be this visible disconnect between your life and the real world. It’s hard to have a proper understanding of what jobs are out there and what they entail throughout school because you haven’t really experienced the world yet. I’m working to write more about those types of jobs here. A lot of the time things appear to be unreachable, but honestly, it’s all in your head. People are willing to talk to you if you’re genuinely interested in what they’re doing and what they have to say. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you’re passionate about something and have questions about a certain career. This is the first part of my interview. I’ll publish a new post in early January. Happy Holidays!

What has social media allowed you to do as a journalist, and how has it impacted journalism?

For me, Twitter is absolutely the most important social network from a work perspective.

Twitter started to get big among journalists probably a year or two after it launched (in 2006), and it only got bigger over time. When I left Arizona in 2010, one-third of the reporters in the newsroom had Twitter accounts. At the time, that was a level of penetration that seemed crazy the year before. There was something that happened in those years where something kind of clicked.

Twitter reached a critical mass of users, and we journalists realized we needed to be part of the conversation. We all were aware that Twitter is actually a real-time picture of anything that’s happening in the world at a given moment, and that’s important. So every reporter got a Twitter, and now, when you have something to say, you have this loudspeaker that sits on the desk of every journalist in the world. That’s insanely powerful.

When I was coming up as a journalist, reporters would have CNN on a tiny TV on their desk, and that was how you kept up with the pulse of the world. If something exploded somewhere, you would see it on CNN. Now, you’re going to see it on Twitter way before it makes it to CNN. Twitter replaced CNN on the desktop of journalists, and that was why it became important.

Twitter has created amazing opportunities for me. I got my job at CNET, not because of the articles I was writing in the SF Chronicle, but because, editors at CNET had seen some of my tweets. They thought I was interesting and funny. From my experience, this shift towards what makes you interesting is your perspective, your point of view, your opinions. That’s your currency in this world because if your opinions are well argued it suggests expertise. Twitter allowed me to broadcast this to the world. I also got my job at the Verge indirectly through Twitter as well. Somebody I knew only on Twitter worked here, so I reached out to him.

Twitter is a thread that runs through my whole life, and once I got to the Verge, I started writing even more about Twitter. Twitter, I decided, was going to be a beat company for me. I wanted to know everything about it. I was fascinated by the product because I was living in the product every day. I used it so much I couldn’t not have opinions about it. That’s how Twitter became important to me, and as a result, I write about it a lot.

What portion of your writing consists of tips, and what portion is your opinion?

Companies get in touch every day and tell me about things that they’re doing and want me to write about it. I write about a very small percentage of those tips. It’s probably less than one percent of the pitches I get, I write about.

I get dozens of emails every day from people who want me to write about something and so does every other tech reporter. Those tend to be low-value pitches. I’ve chosen to write about big companies because they are the most consequential and have a large impact in everyone’s life. I do write about smaller startups sometimes, so every once and a while one of those pitches will get through, but I try to rely more on a network of venture capitalists and a handful of people who work in PR whom I trust to inform me about companies.

A lot of what I do is seeing what happens during the day and what I have to say about it. I try to bounce off of things that are happening in the news. Or, I’ll get curious about something. Right now, I’m really curious about what’s happening inside Snapchat, so I’m trying to talk to as many people as I can, who work at Snapchat now or used to work at Snapchat, and I’m finding out all these cool interesting things. I would say most of it is my opinion.

Would you say that you get access to those people from your company—the Verge—or through Twitter?

Mostly, the Verge. If I quit the Verge tomorrow and became a freelance journalist with a Twitter account, I would be radically less powerful than I am today—and by the way, I’m not powerful. I think it’s important to have the backing of a big institution.

We’ve seen this over the past five years where a bunch of prominent people left big perches to start their own thing. Nate Silver left the NYT to start 538 by himself. 538 is doing ok, but I think Nate Silver had more influence when he was at the New York Times. David Pogue was this very influential tech columnist at the NYT, and he left to go start Yahoo Tech. Yahoo Tech ended up being a disaster from the start. No one read it, and David Pogue—who used to be one of three people in the world who got to see the new iPhone in advanced—suddenly became if not irrelevant then much less relevant than he was.

I have tried to learn the lesson that even if you think you’re a big deal—and those guys had more than a million Twitter followers a piece—you’re probably not that big of a deal. The important thing is that you have a big institutional backing. Because it turns out, the marketplace for attention is so crowded, you actually need a big infrastructure of people who can help you penetrate through the noise and make whatever you’re doing seem like it’s important. This is what an institutional backing does.

How would you describe the culture surrounding journalism and new media? I know that journalists often retweet each other and the public sees this online interaction, but have you actually met these people in person?

Yes, in fact, I’m unlikely to follow people who I haven’t met in real life. I try to follow a relatively small number of people because I want to be able to keep tabs on what’s happening on Twitter, and it’s hard if you follow two thousand people. But also, if I know you in real life I’m more likely to be sympathetic to your tweets. It’s almost like I can hear you speaking in your own voice, so yes I have met a lot of people. And by the way, I have met people through Twitter that I meet in real life, and in my experience, if you like someone’s tweets you will almost always like them in person.

Going back to the earlier question about culture, how would you say the workplace is different at the Verge from the other places you’ve worked?

This is a really great place to work because it’s a young company. It’s still growing. There’s a lot of optimism here. There’s a sense that we’re figuring out things in real time. It’s a company that tries to be on the cutting edge and takes a lot of risks. When the entire world changes, we try to keep up with that.

The major challenge that journalism has been going through over the past few years is that we’re the first industry to be disrupted by the Internet.

First, it was print getting disrupted by the web. The web came along and decimated print revenues. There were a lot of layoffs and publications closed. It was really bad. Companies hurried to establish themselves online.

Then, these digital companies spring up and finally figure out that there are a lot of new ways to make money online versus printing. That’s how Vox Media was founded.

Facebook and Google disrupted these companies and started funneling everyone to articles that stay on the Facebook app or the Google app which send far fewer visitors to the news outlets that worked to build an online presence. All the attention is concentrated on Facebook and Google, and it’s an issue media companies are currently figuring out.

That’s the transition that we’re navigating through. Now, we’re trying everything. Podcasts, events, original video for Facebook, Youtube, and Google. We’re doing some really cool things, but it’s a huge challenge. There has been a lot of anxiety in the media. If you run a search for “media apocalypse” on Google right now, you will get a bunch of recent stories about all kinds of unfortunate things that are happening in the media.

Ultimately, who pays for journalism, in the long run, is still an open question. There is a lot of risk in this business. It’s a scary business to be in.

There are many businesses that are easier to be in, but for me, I get to spend my day talking to the world’s smartest people and writing about how the world is changing and educating people about that. That’s super exciting to me.

I used to be so bored by business journalism. I was like “uh who cares what businesses do,” but now Facebook and Google are arguably as important in people’s lives as the countries they live in. Think about that it’s not hyperbole when you think about all the time we just spend on our phones. My point is these platforms matter in huge ways, so it’s great to cover them.

How was the shift from the general journalism work you did at the SF Chronicle to tech journalism at the Verge?

It was great. I showed up, and I thought I would be really unprepared, but I read a lot of tech blogs and that helped.

When I was covering politics, I would script almost all of my questions, and I still script my questions a lot of the time because I want to make sure I don’t miss certain things. I was never really interested in politics. I used to find that most of the time I would do political interviews and never have questions of my own to ask aside from the ones I had written down.

In tech, I would sit down with an executive, and I would just hear questions coming out of my mouth. Questions would jump out of my mouth because I was so much more engaged. I had opinions, and I wanted to challenge things they would say. I wound up being a much more engaged interviewer when it came to tech, and I wrote better stories as a result. I got more insights from people. I developed better relationships—that’s the other thing. I have much better relationships with people in tech than I ever did in politics because they could tell I didn’t care. I didn’t get as far. I care about tech, so I can get much further.

So, the transition was pretty easy. Also, by the way, the stuff I learned from writing about politics, I still use to this day. In politics, you learn everything is spin, so you spend a lot of your time detangling details until you have a clearer view of what’s happening. It breeds a certain cynicism. I think having that point of view is really not the worst way to be a journalist. It won’t make you super popular, but a good question you can ask yourself is if they were lying what else might be true.

Because you write so much about Snapchat, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc, and have talked to people who work there, how would you describe the environment at these large tech companies? A lot of the time it’s hard for the public to have a good understanding of what the aims are of these people because it seems like there’s a huge wall between these companies and the public.

Yeah, for sure, most people feel this way, and I’ve had opportunities to get beyond this wall. Something I’ve been able to do as a tech journalist, that most people don’t get to do, is view the physical environment. I’ve been inside of all these places. I’ve seen the desks, the breakrooms; I’ve seen the signs on the wall. I’ve talked to the security people there, and that doesn’t tell you everything about a company, but it gives you a vibe, and you can’t start to compare one tech company against another in terms of what the vibe and culture is.

I spend an enormous amount of time reading. You can learn so much about these companies by just reading stuff that’s free on the Internet, and so much of my day is reading—the reason I started the newsletter was because I was reading all of this stuff, and I was doing nothing with my reading. I was frustrated with all the time I was wasting. And I realized I could just send out these links with a little bit of commentary and turns out I love doing that.

I do have insight, but, of course, the other part of it is reporting. I talk to these people, and often, it’s because the company has invited me down and want to talk to reporters about certain things.

When you write, who is your intended audience, and what tone do you use?

My intended audience is everyone. I right about the future. The future matters to everyone. If you’re not reading my story, then what’s the matter with you—that’s how I feel about it. You sort of have to feel that way. I’m not writing for a narrow audience. With my newsletter, it’s a niche, but why wouldn’t you care about social media and democracy? Isn’t social media and democracy dominating every discussion in your life? Wouldn’t you like to know how it’s changing the world?

That’s how I approach it. Even when I find niches, I want to swing for the fences a little bit. I’m not here to write for a specific audience.

I strive for smart and somewhat irreverent. I want you to feel like I’m your smartest friend on the subject. I like to keep it conversational, but I’m not opposed to a nice turn of phrase every now and again. I try to be straightforward, but I like the writing to be nice. I like to write in the second person a lot which is something you never do at newspapers, but when you write about apps it turns out it’s much better to say “you tap this and then you tap that” than “ the user inputs this and that, etc.”



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