On the Record with Silicon Valley Technology Journalists

PRSA Silicon Valley hosted a media panel on June 5, 2024. From left to right: Mark Albertson of SiliconANGLE, Scott Budman of NBC-TV Bay Area, Don Clark of The New York Times, and moderator Megan Fintland. (Photo: Lisa Hawes)

Insights and advice from elite tech journalists

The Silicon Valley chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) recently hosted an “Inside the Newsroom” networking event in San Jose with a media panel discussion as its centerpiece. Veteran reporters Mark Albertson of SiliconANGLE, Scott Budman of NBC-TV Bay Area, and Don Clark of The New York Times participated in a lively discussion touching on the pace of innovation, the seep of technology into daily life, qualms around generative AI, hybrid work schedules, advice for young professionals, and their most-hated buzzwords.

Changes in tech reporting

The three men have decades of experience in covering Silicon Valley developments. Technology is still the industry that drives conversations, but reporting around it has become more complex and it happens at a faster pace now due to digital media. As Scott Budman noted, what used to be a summer slowdown in tech news has evaporated.

Despite shorter attention spans and competing demands for eyeballs, Mark Albertson’s SiliconANGLE readers seem to like a mix of long-form reporting with their news briefs. The New York Times has grown its influence thanks to lengthy deep-dive investigative features that readers might not get elsewhere.

Scott Budman’s tech coverage beat has developed a wider scope. He does TV reports on schools, housing conditions, and other lifestyle developments as nearly every aspect of life now has an underpinning of technology. He also commented that he reaches a wider audience on social media platforms than on television. His social posts offer him a way to spotlight a topic or product or service that he might not be able to devote regular TV station resources to cover. And while his reporting may be regional, its influence spreads globally due to social sharing.

Meanwhile, because of the role of semiconductors in artificial intelligence, chips are sexy once again in The New York Times, keeping Don Clark busy writing feature articles about CHIPS Act-funded semiconductor manufacturing growth around the U.S. as well as in China.

Fears for the future

All three panelists expressed their concern about the future of journalism. Schools are cutting funding to the arts and literature, which hurts journalism and communications departments. The huge contraction in newsroom staff in the last decade means fewer journalists conducting political oversight at local level and reporting on the abuse of technology. Mark Albertson pointed out that all three panelists have professional editors who review their work, but many bloggers (and non-professional writers) now publish without anyone to fact check, second guess, or hold them accountable for solid sourcing.

Mark Albertson would like to see more coverage of the relationship between the technology industry and the government. He observed that, in terms of communications and alliances and lobbying, there hasn’t been much of a change in the last 40 years despite the growing influence of tech on the economy. Presidential candidates often come to Silicon Valley to hold political campaign fundraisers, but don’t spend enough time here in meetings of substance with industry leaders.

Jumping the AI shark

It was no surprise that these veteran professionals avoid using generative AI for their writing and in fact, could be fired for using it. Mark Albertson felt current forms lack nuance for understanding enterprise tech themes, but sees AI value in device processing at the network edge. Don Clark paraphrased venture capitalist John Doerr in noting that many technologies are overhyped in the short term but underhyped in the long term; he thinks AI is certainly important in chip testing. And as Scott Budman commented, if you follow venture capital investment, it’s mostly going into AI now.

There was agreement among the panelists that the huge negative environmental impacts associated with the growth in AI and its supporting data centers is not adequately understood by the general public. We’re currently still in the starry-eyed phase of AI media coverage, without enough focus on its outsized consumption of raw materials, water, and energy — and consequences for the electrical grid and climate change.

Working from everywhere

The reporters also discussed the pandemic’s impact on current media work norms. Don Clark was already working from home full-time, so his schedule hardly changed. The New York Times’ return-to-work policy is a minimum of three days a week in the newsroom. While that may be a struggle in the San Francisco bureau, he observed that many reporters in New York City are on-site five days a week.

Mark Albertson’s work for SiliconANGLE is very event-driven, as he interviews industry experts at conferences and covers keynote addresses. During the pandemic, when the media organization turned to virtual events, housebound executives that previously required chasing became more easily available for interviews.

Scott Budman of NBC Bay Area spent 420 days working from his car. As a field reporter, he’s constantly on the move to get to where the story is happening. Normally, the newsroom would serve as his base, but when it was closed by pandemic restrictions, his car became his office. He appreciates his time with colleagues in the newsroom more now.

Buzzword peeves

Don Clark noted that common industry phrases can obfuscate the technology they’re supposed to explain. He singled out “platform” and “solution” as two words he’d like to eliminate from marketing materials, while Mark Albertson dislikes the fuzziness of “digital transformation.” The panelists agreed that generative AI, with its long-winded and grandiose summaries, often makes written communications murkier rather than clearer.

The panel wrapped up with career advice for young professionals in journalism and public relations. Don Clark counseled PR folks to dig beyond the surface of the stories they pitch. Mark Albertson voiced a shared sentiment — that all three journalists love writing and communicating stories in a meaningful way. For young professionals starting out in careers — whatever they might be — his advice was to “follow your passion” as it will eventually take you where you need to be.

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