Where did all of Australia’s technology journalists go? Hint: mostly into public relations

As some of the world's biggest tech stories break, Ben Grubb has a worrying feeling that there's no journalists left to cover them.

It’s often joked among the remaining technology journalists in Australia that the ratio of technology public relations (PR) professionals to journalists is wildly unbalanced, with PR professionals far outnumbering journalists.

“Public relations professionals?”, I hear some of you ask who aren’t in media circles. They’re the people who “spin” (they’d say “create”) stories about technology companies and “spam” (they’d say “pitch”) them to journalists (I’d know; I had a go at it). They’re paid to do this by those they represent.

Far from a joke though, it’s true that they do in fact outnumber reporters. The same can be said about the journalism sector more broadly versus PR.

And with journalism salaries not going far beyond $68,417 per year, a great number of specialist tech journalists have in recent times left the space for greener pastures, where they can in some cases earn six-figure salaries.

Many others are doing corporate writing or policy roles at various organisations, in tech or banking, or working at content writing production houses.

And, as some have pointed out to me on Twitter, their skills are being put to other uses as well, particularly in translating technical topics into something that internal staff can understand.

Furthermore, some have left for news sites run by companies that wouldn’t traditionally have been thought of as news publishers (think Telstra or the Australian Computer Society’s online “Information Age”, InnovationAus, backed by Espresso Communications’ Corrie McLeod, or comparison website Finder.com.au’s various sub-sites).

Journalists leaving for communications roles isn’t a unique or new thing. After rounds of redundancies began around 2010/11 in the Australian media landscape, hundreds, if not thousands, of generalist Aussie reporters have been going into communications-like roles too, either in government or the private sector.

I too left for these pastures for just over a year, only to return in September 2017. I originally left for more money, plain and simple.

Others leave because they have a family to support, or ambitions of owning a home, meaning a larger salary is required. Some just get bored of journalism or tired of “churning” articles, aka rewriting other peoples’ articles for clicks.

I returned to journalism for several reasons (I won’t bore you with them all). The main one being that I realised it was time to follow my passion again. And like an artist, unfortunately the passion doesn’t pay very well. Alas.

So as Australia’s national broadband network gets rolled out; Facebook suffers a privacy scandal; the federal government pushes forward with a plan to effectively unravel encryption; and various tech companies push crap up a hill at the Australian stock exchange, I thought it might be timely to take a look at who is left in the mainstream tech journalism space and who has recently left the space more broadly and why, in an effort to explain to those regularly asking me, ‘Where the hell have all the specialist tech reporters gone in Australia?’.

Keep in mind that when many people leave the mainstream mastheads they were previously at, they often don’t get replaced. At the smaller mastheads, they do, thankfully. But when a journalist does leave, they take with them years’ worth of Encyclopedic knowledge, thus meaning readers lose out.

They also lose out in another ways. As lawyer Leanne O’Donnell points out, there’s also been a decrease in journalists turning up to tech-related court cases.

Another trend I am starting to notice is that tech is starting to become less specialised, with general reporters or those from other rounds starting to cover it more. This coincides with mainstream news sites either combining their tech sections with the rest of their site (the ABC), combining it with science and the environment (News.com.au), or removing it from a dedicated space on the homepage (SMH/The Age). Sometimes when generalist reporters tackle tech, errors and misunderstandings about technology can come about, which is not good for anyone. The same often occurs in science reporting.

If anything, it’s really the investigative capability of the mainstream technology press that has probably suffered the most. It’s very hard for a freelancer to spend months investigating something that might turn out to be nothing, as freelancer Anthony Caruana points out.

The list (which you can read in full here) is in no way comprehensive. It covers some of the tech journalists that have gone in and out of tech journalism since ~2010, not necessarily into “PR” roles. Some have gone on to do external or internal communications, or research-type roles. Others have had complete career changes.

Ben Grubb is a freelance technology writer. This post first appeared on his blog.


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