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Q&A with Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal

NetherlandsZoe van den Brink, Washington International School
June 13, 2011

NEWS

Since his induction into the technology industry in 1991 via a column in the Wall Street Journal, it is safe to say that almost no other journalist has had such an impact on the business. Sticking true to his original concept of providing quality reporting on tech products for the general public, Mossberg has come to be known as one of the best reviewers of gadgets worldwide, with reporting that continues to shape the way the digital world has evolved.

Washington International School juniors Zoë van den Brink and Gonzalo Paz-Soldan sat down with him in his office at
the Journal’s Washington bureau to discuss the past, the present, and the future of technology and its coverage in the news.

Q. How did you decide to become a journalist?

I decided to become a journalist about when I was your age (16). I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, in one of the suburbs, where they ran the Providence Journal, which was a very respected newspaper. In the 60’s all of a sudden the adults become concerned with student opinions because of the civil rights that were going on. So the Providence Journal opened up a few pages, and each high school in the area got a little column. The school asked me to be the school’s columnist together with my best friend James Woods, who is a Hollywood actor, who dropped out to pursue his acting career. Then I won a scholarship, to go to a summer program for high school journalists at Northwestern University, which is one of the two best journalism schools in the country, in my opinion. I just got bitten by the bug, and wanted to become a journalist. So then I went on to Brandeis University, where they did not have journalism and I studied political science. Meanwhile I continued working at the Providence Journal in the summers as a regular reporter where I covered everything from the installation of officers, nights of Columbus, to bank robberies and school board meetings and I got to understand politics. I just got a really good basic education there. During the school year I was a stringer for The New York Times. After college I went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which I think is the best school of journalism. And then I went to work at the Wall Street Journal, and really all I wanted to do was cover Washington. I was first sent to Detroit, spent a few years covering organized labor and the car industry. Then my wife and I were transferred here, and I covered some international things, the Pentagon, national security, CIA, foreign policy, international trades.

Q. How did you get interested in writing about technology?

Somewhere along the way I got interested in really old computers. I was doing other things, writing nothing to do with technology, not having any computer science background, but I just got hooked. I noticed it took a tremendous amount of work to learn how to use computers. Most people had to program their own stuff, and so I learned a little bit about that, and it was my hobby for 10 years. Then I decided there was a personal opportunity and a professional opportunity. The professional opportunity was that all the general newspapers had computer columns that were written by geeks, for geeks in geek language, and really not for average people. And I realized that millions of people were about to become the owners of computers, and they were being talked down to and destined in these computer columns. Either you were a newbie and didn’t know anything about it, or you were a techie but you really had to know all about computers. So I proposed to the Wall Street Journal, I change my role and become a tech columnist, who would champion those people, mainstream users, which is still the audience I write for today. I would write the columns in English and if I used a word of jargon I would explain it, and then I would not be reverential towards the industry. I would partially criticize them. But I wanted to do it completely differently. The editor of the paper loved the idea, but didn’t want me to switch to this yet due to all the foreign policy writing I was doing at the time.

So I only switched in 1991, stayed in Washington because I wanted to have a consumer view point. People thought I was nuts for giving up my foreign policy position and start writing about this technology stuff. Within 6 months to a year, the column became very popular, and penetrated the consciousness of people in Washington. This was cool and important, and I've been doing it for almost 20 years.

Q. How do you decide to review a specific product? Do you have any criteria which you keep in mind?

I have a colleague and a partner Katie Boehret, and we make a lot of these decisions together. We have a running list of interesting products, and companies come and show us these products, because they want us to review them. They show them to us early, usually before they are on the market, and we go to visit. These companies show us things and talk about their theories of where they think things are going. They talk about different kinds of tablets, social networks, other web services, smart phones, laptops, digital cameras. Then we decide based on 2 things. Is it new and interesting, how is it different from things that people already own or have been able to choose from, and is it something a main stream consumer would find useful. For instance, I never write about corporate technology. That is a big business, but it's not what I write about. My column is called Personal Technology, which is a phrase we were the first to use, and the question behind it being, is it a main consumer would want to use. I think that is good advice no matter what you are covering as a journalist, if you have a beat, you need to decide who is my audience and you need to be laser focused on the subject. You have to have good knowledge about your topic, and figure out a way to apply it to an average reader. I get about 150 emails a day from readers and comments on the blog, I read twitter and Facebook, so I get a sense of what I think people care about, which helps us. Sometimes we will probably miss a product, because we only have so many columns, and sometimes we are ahead of the game with certain products.

I was probably a little late on Netbooks, and in general I thought they were a fad of cheap laptops that came out during the recession, and I wasn’t deeply interested in them. On smartphones and tablets, we have been ahead in a lot of cases, and took them very seriously because they are really important to our consumers. There are also way too many social networks out there.

When you get to the 16th thing that lets you share your pictures with your friends, it becomes less interesting. I have been critical of Facebook and will continue to be, I think that some of their privacy policies are questionable. I have been pretty hard on Mark Zuckerberg on stage.

Q. Do you ever come across a product that you may not like as much? How would you address that in your writing?

I say so. “There is that, don’t buy it.” The truth is, if we really think something is dumb and not that interesting to people, in a lot of cases we won’t even write about it, just because people turn to the column for value and reading a bunch of negative reviews on products they’ve never heard of is not going to be useful. If a product is hyped, then we may take it on and say that the product just isn’t very good and it doesn’t match up to its manufacturer’s claims. We will say that it is not as good as this other product out there. You have to realize that, even a product that I will recommend that I think is a good product and worth the readers’ considering or buying, very few of them are perfect. So I go through the downsides even of the ones that I recommend.

A good example of this would be the iPad 2. The iPad 2 came out and I wrote a column that said,this is the best tablet on the market now, the one I would comfortably recommend to people. But if you already have an iPad 1, the improvements are not so huge so there is no reason for you to get an iPad 2 if you already have the first one. Secondly, the cameras aren’t very good, a little disappointing. They are good for video, but not so great for stills. Some of the Apple fan blogs got mad at me, and ignored the fact that I had recommended it as the best tablet, they said, “Mossberg is losing his mind!” I write for the average person, they just want to know, should I buy a tablet and if I do which one.

Q. You mentioned that products need to be new and interesting, but how do you weigh upgrades and specifications, such as memory or processor speed against the “wow factor” of the product?

Processor speed I tend not to care very much about. There have been laptops and other products that I have reviewed that seemed sluggish and I will say they are sluggish. There have been other ones that have been really fast and ill say that as well. But I don’t get deeply into the question of this is 1.2 gigs and single-core, and this is dual-core and 3 gigs or something. I don’t believe that serves average readers. There are blogs and reviewers who have different audiences and for them that is important but for me its not. For many years I have been writing that people should not spend extra money buying a computer with the fastest processor. Unless, I always make an unless, if you are a serious gamer or you are doing video production. I try to write for the middle of the bell curve. I have great respect for people that are serious gamers, they are just not the heart of my audience. I have great respect for people who do heavy duty Photoshop or Final Cut, but again they are not my main audience. Nine out of 10 people on the street have never heard of Final Cut, and they don’t use Photoshop. They just don’t. Now memory or storage is a different question. With phones, music players and tablets, storage is more of an issue so I will get into that. There will be a point where will all be the same and it won’t matter.

Q. How do you think technology has changed since you have been writing for the Wall Street Journal.

It has changed dramatically. If you look at any product, there have been half a dozen attempts to make it before what it is now. Many products started out with memory and processor speed, of which the size is so little you would be shocked compared to what the rates are today. Technology changes a lot. I think it’s a huge mistake for people to buy tech products based on specs. How fast is the processor? Unless you are a person who spends hours and hours a day playing serious games, you want the fastest processor. But for most people it’s a big mistake. What really counts is the overall experience. Ease of use is number 1, reliability, portability, versatility, are all factors for the average consumer. Software to me is also much more important than processor speed. If Apple had come out with the iPad 2 and it was exactly the same as the iPad 1 but it had dual core processor, there would be some bloggers who would be orgasmic about that. I would not be among them. I haven’t noticed anyone walking along the streets with an iPad 1 saying, “man, this is slow” or “man, this screen sucks.” The fact that they say, “wow this is fast” or “the screen is beautiful,” is more important. If you give me a tablet that has a better resolution screen, but it takes three different steps to get to a menu that is in one step on the iPad, that last thing would be much more important to me then how many cores the processor has. As time changes they are all going to have dual-core. I have yet to see software where that makes a difference on any of these, but once I see, I may change my opinion. I am not one of these guys who thinks you are to just go down a list of hardware specs and you can figure out what to buy, it’s really all about the overall experience.

Q. To what extent do you think young people have had an impact on technology?

Huge! Some entire categories of things that we consider part of the technology driven frame work of life have been propelled by young people. Texting, social networking, you name it. Young people are always on the vanguard of these things. The only thing I would say is that, there are budget issues sometimes. I mean when the Iphone came out, it was $400, $500 dollars, not that many young people have that money. To me, one of the main reasons why Blackberry’s are used by consumers at all, is because it is really behind on all the other phone plans and its versatility is BBM, and that is heavily used by young people. If they didn’t have BBM, their consumer sales would be much lower. Money is a big issue for younger people, so many young people in the country don’t have a couple hundred dollars to spend on a product.

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