Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bigger Than Bits

As some readers of the Times may have noticed, I’ve got a new role. I’m now covering telecommunications, both for the Bits blog and for what we refer to as “the paper,” which really means longer articles both in print and online.

The immediate reason behind the switch was simple and common enough: The Times needed a body, and I was there. Matt Richtel, who has been covering telecom (with Jenna Worthham who continues to do so), is now working on some special projects. So someone needed to write about telephone, cable and related companies.

When Damon Darlin, the technology editor, asked if I was interested in filling in for Matt, I leaped at the chance. That was a change for me. A few years ago, I had turned down an offer of the telecom beat. I thought that the companies were too big and slow. I had already spend enough of my life covering banks.

But over the past two years editing Bits, I have come to become very interested in so many issues related to communications networks and the devices that connect to them.  Apple’s iPhone and everything spawned has been the single most frequent topic on Bits.  I also wrote about last year’s auction of the radio spectrum now abandoned by analog television, giving me an introduction to covering the Federal Communications Commission. And earlier this year, I got fed up with people hearing about how broadband was faster and cheaper in other countries, and I wrote a series of posts explaining what is and isn’t different about the United States.

I’m defining the telecommunications beat as business that moves information from here to there, whether by wires or radio waves. That includes cable and satellite TV companies, many of which increasingly resemble phone companies.

I’ve long been interested in the rise of Internet video and how that is disrupting the existing television business. My new beat lets me keep covering all that.

I’m not going to focus on the content of communications. We’ve got lots of technology and media reporters to ferret out which iPhone App helps you pick restaurants best or which cable cooking show has the biggest audience. But I am going to keep an eye out for economic arrangements that underlie how content of all sorts is distributed on networks.

I am going to look at the devices that connect people to the networks. The contest for dominance of the cellphone handset market is one of the most hard fought and interesting battles in business these days. And I think that we’re just seeing the beginning of gadgets like Amaon’s Kindle that fit the guts of a cellphone into a very different package.

I will do some of our coverage of the Federal Communications Commission and other telecom policy issues. And I'll continue to watch a couple of my long term interests, including Internet privacy.

People keep asking me if I’m happy with this switch. I very much am. That’s not to say that I didn’t love Bits. It has been a great platform to explore a very wide range of topics related to technology and to meet interesting people in every corner of the industry. And it allowed me to write with more expression and variety than the 150 year old conventions of newspapers permit.

But that flexibility stopped with anything more ambitious than about 800 words (500 words, if my editors had their druthers). And the people I met were those who had come to New York.

By agreeing to limit myself to the (fascinating) telecom industry, I get a license to explore it in depth. I can climb telephone poles, wander cell phone factories, and (much more commonly) sit in the offices of people involved in this business wherever they are. And I can write what I find as profiles, features, hard news stories, Week in Review essays, as well as blog posts.

Yes, I’ll be writing a lot for Bits. Indeed, the reason why Bits no longer requires a full-time writer is that all the technology writers are contributing to it regularly as part of a balanced diet of reporting. For me, my experience on Bits, gives me new ideas about how to use blogging as part of covering a beat.

The blog format gives me more colors in my crayon box to draw pictures of the telecom industry. I can simply point to articles on other sites with interesting facts, adding whatever perspective comes to mind. I can extend features written for the paper, with additional information.

Most important, blogs have become our best tool for bringing a community of readers into the inquiry that is journalism. It’s already become a cliché to talk about blogs as a conversation with readers, but it’s also true. As people write comments to posts and send me e-mail, I’ve learned a lot, and shaped my reporting by what readers are interested in.

I hope to do this all the more in my new role. So please join our inquiry the rapidly transforming networks that connect us and how they are changing our lives. Please e-mail with questions, information and ideas and add your comments to Bits.

No comments: