The stories that tell a story about my year writing stories

Being a journalist means I have the rare luxury of having a body of work I can point at and say “That is my year’s work”. 2013 was the first year in which all that work was online, which means it becomes easy to do a retrospective.

This is it.

It’s not exhaustive, nor is it a collection of stories that try to show my work in its best light. I wrote over 800 stories this year. Some broke news, sometimes important news. Others were re-writes of press releases or blog posts. This is the stuff I like and the stuff that tells the story of my year.

Let’s get into it, starting back in January when I felt that enthusiasm for Smart Watches seemed premature, so I asked around about them. The result was a few analysts telling me that smart watches are already out of time, which I think is worth recalling as these devices remain a very-hyped category of product. For what it is worth, an effort from Samsung flopped and the conversation drifted towards “wearable” computers, not just smart watches. Looking back over the year, maybe the story was prescient.

In February I attended the Kickstart Forum, a conference I’ve been to most years for the past seven or eight trips around the sun. It was on the Sunshine Coast but the sun didn’t: heavy rain dominated. Then-shadow-communications-minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a talk and in response to a question from yours truly thought bubbled that the UK model of making fibre-to-the-premises a user-pays option was an idea he admired and one that might work for Australia’s National Broadband Network. Lots of other people had the story, but I can smugly say I asked the question that produced the policy thought bubble. It later become policy, one of those nice moments when you can see your work having a real-world impact.

The back story is that the first half of my question was founded in ignorance and Turnbull mocked me. I mocked him right back, because I think his whole philosopher-prince act is a sham. But for a while it looked like I’d come up dry and made an ass of myself in in front of 50 rivals.

So a good moment, but only just.

I’m proud of this story because it came from a grass-roots, user-organised, VMware user group conference and resonated very strongly with readers. We did a shout-out to readers to share details of their own home labs and it generated many replies. The story detailing their efforts was also a big traffic-generator. I didn’t get as far as I wanted to in terms of linking to user communities this year, but probably made a decent start.

I discovered Professor Simon Chapman this year and quickly found myself admiring the man after listening to this podcast profile of him on Radio National. Chapman has fought against Big Tobacco for years and has now decided to debunk the anti wind farm lobby. In the podcast he explained that in Europe many wind turbines are initiated and owned by communities, so the noise is not an issue because people take pride in the facility. Here, a lucky farmer with a windy ridge-line gets money for nothing from an electricity company that puts wind turbines on their land and the neighbours feel so jealous. When campaigners come to town and talk about illness that wind farms create, they attribute various malaises to the turbines. Fascinating stuff! When his research explaining this idea emerged, I just had to write it up. Oh gosh, you ask, what about journalistic objectivity? Good question: but for my readers the idea that a lobby group can all-but invent a disease plays.

I learned a lot about Reddit this year after this story about Julian Assange’s electoral prospects unexpectedly generated a heap of traffic months after it was written. Reddit discovered it, lots of Redditors liked it and the traffic is history. I don’t chase Reddit popularity, but later in the year this story spent about 24 hours on its front page and delivered a deluge of traffic. When the big numbers roll in it is humbling to think just how much attention my work can sometimes gather. I’m going to spend a lot more time in Reddit in 2014 so I understand it better. Yes, there’s a commercial motive, but I also feel it behoves me to understand why so many people spend so much time in the Reddit community. I draw the line at 4chan – those folks seem mean. And the first story was, I thought, a decent attempt at explaining Australian elections to foreign readers.

In September I was saddened to learn that Frederik Pohl had died. Frederik who? Pohl was a science fiction author I greatly enjoyed and admired. I own about 20 of his novels. While very sad about his passing, I felt privileged to write this obituary. Moments like that when my personal life makes me better at my job are affirming. A similar moment came when I was able to write about a revival of TV show The Tomorrow People, which I adored as a child. I liked the show so much that when it went off air I wrote to the local TV station, which did not reply. I remember it as an innocence-dispelling moment: adults weren’t responding to to my passion and I could not understand why. I’m pretty sure Mum knew someone who worked there, pulled some strings and got someone to send me a reply: they’d run out and may or may not get around to showing more.

I haven’t watched the revived show – it looks dreadful.

I sometimes joke that journos don’t have friends, just contacts. Two of my friends turned contacts for this piece on what it feels like to be fifty and unemployed. My friends gave of their time and shared some private thoughts with me, a humbling experience that I think produced a decent and unusual piece of journalism. As a 45 year old in a very challenged industry, I think perhaps I was writing this one for myself just a little. I also know that my readers skew a bit grey-ish, so it is not as if I was indulging myself consciously!

Scarcely a week goes past in which I am not told about big data tools that can find searing insights about a business somewhere inside dozens of terabytes of data.

I love to burst a bubble, so when the folks who ran Obama For America’s IT shop came to town and said that their efforts relied on just a had a few gigabytes of data and used one question – “Do you support the President?”- as the key to their vote-winning efforts, I lapped it up. To hear the Obama guys say lots of personal data was not necessary to win an election was right up my alley. And news because it countered other trends.

I also banked some of their comments for an opinion piece considering enthusiasm for technology startups in Australia. For years I have felt that Australia’s cultural cringe has manifested itself in a desire to ape Silicon Valley’s methods of fostering new technology businesses, complete with fawning coverage of local startups. This piece took months to polish and I braced for an angry backlash, which didn’t come. Maybe no-one cared.

“My headline of the year: “Oh Mr Darcy! You’re PRESSING MY BUTTONS”. Here’s the story it belongs to.

In the late 1990s I seethed when Microsoft PR created a syndicated, soft, lame Q&A column for Bill Gates that newspapers around the world ran as if they had direct access to the great man. These days hardly anyone recalls that Microsoft rose to power on the back of some very sharp business practices. I haven’t forgotten, so even though it is hard not to praise Gates for his current activities when he appeared on local television and talked about multinational tax avoidance it was my job to record his opinion that there is no moral dimension to the issue. I relished the job.

A couple of little scoops that made me feel like I was Doing My Job As Required. This piece on HP considering a HANA-as-a-service was a global scoop and later proved correct too! EMC’s CTO came to town and used language that effectively demoted the company’s flagship product. I estimate this kind of thing interests about five thousand people around the world, but it’s nice to be able to target that kind of niche.

This story reports on one storage vendor (Pure) stating its intention to take on another (EMC). Dull stuff. So dull it was later cited in court as evidence that Pure is targeting EMC employees as part of a messy “you stole our people and they brought trade secrets with them” lawsuit. A nice feather in the cap.

In August and September I travelled a lot, firstly to Vietnam and came back with stories like this one about the servers powering Facebook</a>. The next week I was in San Francisco for VMworld and this story about an argument between Marc Andreessen and Pat Gelsinger which made Techmeme. Later in the year I was in Bangkok for an event at which HP CEO Meg Whitman revealed the company will get into 3D printing. That story made Techmeme too. I mention Techmeme because it is often held up as important to appear there, but the site gets things wrong: it ignored this real scoops on IBM shuttering its home-grown cloud in favour of one it acquired. Enough of the shop talk grumps: I’m very fortunate to travel so much.

Another amazing trip I took this year was from Darwin to Adelaide to observe the World Solar Challenge. I’d never driven through the dead heart before and learned oodles along the way, not least during my visit to Willowra, a remote aboriginal community.

I hope the story speaks for itself but if you’re a TLDR kind of person I went there to visit a newly-opened adult learning centre that has brought 10 public PCs to a remote community. I wasn’t expecting most of what I saw there, especially literacy as a barrier to internet use. Go on. Read it. It isn’t that long. If you like it, this is a companion piece and explains a visit I made with the family to a floating village in Cambodia where mobile phones have quickly become ubiquitous. We spent a night in the village and awoke to learn that our hosts had a caged crocodile!

The Cambodia trip also produced a piece for Lifehacker. We flew to Cambodia on long-haul budget airlines. Long story short, very cheap flights plus a third world destination made it possible to do 12 days in Asia for the price of 7 in Australia, with rather more unusual things to see and do along the way. I don’t know of the trip was a fin de siecle indulgence, a wonderful experience or both. I’m grateful to old friend Gus Kidman for letting me contribute to Lifehacker, a nice gestures from someone who’s technically a rival. It’s grand that the IT journalism community doesn’t get narky about this kind of thing.

If you’ve ever thought that journalists use black arts to nourish contacts, the next two stories will dispel that notion.

This piece about a big tool chest came after a visit to Bunnings (Australia’s B&Q/Home Depot Analog).

And this piece is a result of regularly watching a website and noticing something had changed.

It’s probably also the best piece of news journalism I wrote last year.

The back story: Australia has been working on a new schools curriculum covering digital technologies for the first time. It’s not revolutionary but is, I feel, an important recognition that if kids can wield computers – not just operate software – they get more out of them. Industry thinks likewise: it’s complained for years that it can’t hire people with the skills it wants, so was very happy to see the topic of computing addressed at a national level.

I tracked the curriculum for more than a year, used freedom of information to gain access to feedback that had been withheld from public view and, once I knew the final document was due, visited the relevant website daily. On one of those visits I noticed that release of the final curriculum had been delayed.

A flurry of email brought confirmation of the delay and the reason: Australia’s new government wanted to review the curriculum and bring in new experts to do so, despite the fact industry and other stakeholders have spent the last 18 months working on this one and were about to sign it off after several drafts.

I strongly suspect the review is politically motivated and that the government wants to look at some aspects of the history and English curriculum to get the lefty bits out. Teacher groups told me their members lack the skills to teach the new digital technologies curriculum. I fear those objections, and the fact that resources will be needed to address them, mean the digital technologies curriculum will be watered down, excluded on the basis of the curriculum already being crowded, or cut.

When that happens I expect the mainstream media will get interested in a story that, to date, has been a labour of love for me in my little trade journalism niche. And by labour of love I mean stories on this topic generate little traffic. It would be more commercial significant if I rewrote rumours about Apple.

Which seems as good a place as any to sign off. My job is fulfilling, takes me to extraordinary places and brings me into contact with fascinating people. I’m very fortunate and privileged in so many ways and I hope the stories show that I use that good fortune to do work that stands for something.

Happy New Year to you all. May it bring prosperity, health and peace.

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