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Sorry, would-be Walt Mossbergs, but the day of the great mass-media technology critic is over

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The world of mainstream technology reviews has undergone a major shakeup in the past few weeks, with legendary columnist Walt Mossberg cutting his ties to the Wall Street Journal (s nws) after almost half a century, and David Pogue leaving the New York Times for Yahoo (s yhoo). As a result of these changes, Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker wonders in a recent piece who the “next great technology critic” will be, the one who will assume the mantle left by these two giants, and how their job will have to change as a result.

I think the premise of the piece is missing something, however: namely, a sense of how much the media world has changed since Walt and David started — and how much the tech market in particular has fragmented and evolved. Rather than any single source taking over the mantle, I think it’s more likely that no one will, or rather than many people will assume parts of it.

The media market has splintered into niches

Image 1 for post Walt Mossberg: please stop writing mobile tech reviews( 2006-07-20 20:31:20)

As Buchanan notes in his piece, Mossberg has stood astride the North American technology media like a colossus for decades. His reviews of software like Windows 95 (s msft) and devices like the iMac or iPhone (s aapl) were guaranteed to move markets, and to move units for retailers as well — and as a result he got almost unprecedented access to tech leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Now he is moving on to help run All Things Digital, the company he formed in partnership with Kara Swisher that has severed ties with the Journal (and may have to get a new name). Pogue hasn’t been around quite as long, but he also wielded incredible influence via the NYT for a couple of decades, especially when it came to consumer-level hardware. Between the two of them, Mossberg and Pogue dominated the tech-reviewing scene.

Over the past decade, however, the whole concept of “mass media” has imploded like a star collapsing in on itself, to the point where media theorists like Tom Standage of The Economist and researcher Lee Humphreys argue that a market in which mass-media publications broadcast to a largely un-differentiated audience was a historical anomaly. Thanks to the democratization of information, what we have now are a series of specialized niches, each with its own Mossberg.

For some, a blog like Boy Genius Report might satisfy their need for breaking news, while Daring Fireball might cater to a desire for inside information, and Boing Boing might appeal to those who want to put tech in a broader cultural context. Others are going to look to a site like Wirecutter for insight — the kind that the ailing Consumer Reports used to provide — or to someone like our own Kevin Tofel, who does compelling hands-on reviews from the point of view of a regular husband and father who just happens to love technology.

Let a thousand technology critics bloom

Old TVs

The New Yorker piece acknowledges that the technology market has changed, arguing that anyone who wants to assume the title of “next great technology critic” will have to look at the field not from the point of view of a gadget reviewer — obsessed with bits or bytes — but from the point of view of the user as part of society, and of technology as deserving of thoughtful critcism, the same way art or music is.

“it needs to be deeper, and different, than what Pogue and Mossberg did. There can be beauty in aluminum, glass, and polycarbonate; art in the design of software; and elegance in coding. Or ugliness and chaos. These are rarely, if ever, meaningfully captured in newspaper technology criticism”

This is undoubtedly true — technology is much more mainstream and deserves to be treated that way. But I still think Buchanan’s piece is based on the faulty premise that there will be one or two giants who will lead everyone to the promised land of tech reviewing (and while we’re at it, we might even be able to find some that aren’t just the usual gang of old white guys).

The point is that looking for the next Walt Mossberg is like looking for the next Walter Cronkite: he’s never going to appear because the market dynamics in which that person emerged and came to hold that position simply don’t exist any more. That’s not to say there won’t be prominent tech writers, because there will — in fact, there are probably more of them than there have ever been, covering tech from as broad a range of perspectives as possible.

And isn’t that better than just one or two mainstream-media superstars? The embarrassment of riches we currently have in tech may not be as easy for product managers or PR departments to navigate, but I would argue that technology users and consumers are ultimately better off.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Dario Lo Presti

6 Responses to “Sorry, would-be Walt Mossbergs, but the day of the great mass-media technology critic is over”

  1. I would argue the economy is a key driver of the tech pundit sphere.

    In the 2008-2012 period, we saw an epic boom of tech pundits. This wasn’t purely because of mobile or general technology rising, but because Millenials couldn’t get jobs! Overnight, if you couldn’t get a job, you weren’t unemployed… you were a technology blogger. Which is better on your resume, after all?

    I think, rather, I hope, that the economy continues to recover from Great Depression II, and the best tech pundits out there will keep their titles. The rest, hopefully, will be able to get real jobs.

  2. As we see more fierce competition in the tech space we increasingly need a “referee” to call companies out on their false advertising, benchmark rigging, etc. This is the role that these tech pundits play – that’s why we need someone with the imprimatur of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times to call it like it is.

  3. The next Walt Mossberg has already emerged and his name is Anand Lal Shimpi. But the world doesn’t need 100s of Anand Lal Shimpi’s so the author here is wrong and has bought in lock stock and barrel to this stupid idea of the alleged “wisdom of the crowds” notion.

  4. Good piece here, but I’ll still disagree.

    Yes, the Internet has enabled niches of fragmented interests and perspectives. But a lot of news consumption is really an exercise in social norming and positioning, and these impulses will tend to create and maintain mass market commentators (in the same way that TMZ is so powerful in celebrity gossip).

    We will find or create the next Mossbergs and Pogues because tech is important, tech has become personal, and we will want to be able to discuss tech from common reference points with friends and strangers alike.

    My bet to you – a beer, in 5 years. We both win either way…

  5. snuggles

    Mossberg and the All Things Digital folks (Kara Swisher as well) were great. Pogue, not so much. He had the heft of the NY Times behind him, but no depth to his writing.