RECODE, RETIRED

Whatever Walt Mossberg’s next adventure may be, tech journalism owes him everything

Mossberg had the ear of Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs before him.
Mossberg had the ear of Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs before him.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Weeks ago, Walt Mossberg, arguably the most influential, most respected for his integrity (not the same thing) tech columnist announced his retirement at a young 70. Today, I salute his exemplary career, and remember the “good old days” of traditional newspapers. And I also wonder what led to his decision.

During the three weeks we just spent in France, I got to indulge in a favorite activity: Driving off into the countryside in the wee hours before traffic coagulates, rewarded by sunrise over Burgundy or the Loire region. France’s well-maintained country roads are a delight, as are a few of the bigger motorways such as the mostly toll-free A75 autoroute that leads to grand Cévennes landscapes and to the majestic, elegantly curved Millau Viaduct with its cable stays spread like sails. (I accidentally found out that the viaduct has something in common with the latest Apple Stores and Cupertino’s Apple Park: the Foster + Partners architecture firm.)

During one long, calm journey to the Lot region, aided by low, low AC blown in my face, warm clothes, a wool cap, and a small dose of Provigil, I reminisced about the recent Code Conference held from May 30th to June 1st, right after Memorial Day. The conference’s signal moment wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s attempt to explain her defeat, but the salute to conference co-founder Walt Mossberg as he looked back at his long (47 years) and laudable career as a tech journalist. The lively, filled-with-precious-memories interview, conducted by Dick Costolo, was met with a joyous standing ovation.

As I thought about the audience’s reaction, I wondered: Were we simply, and rightly, honoring a man of exceptional gifts, or did the celebration include a dose of nostalgic contemplation of a bygone newswriting era?

I’m taken back to my early days in the Valley and the miraculous sound of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Mercury News, and San Francisco Chronicle landing on my doorstep in the early morning. (Miraculous isn’t an exaggeration: There are no newspaper routes in Paris.) For a voracious reader, four newspapers with coffee on the kitchen counter—this was heaven. For a geek it was doubly so: From 1991 on, it was an opportunity to revel in the wisdom of Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal.

Mossberg rose to the pinnacle of his profession through a deft mix of technical competence and keen understanding of business issues. His unintimidated scrutiny of tech titans and thoughtful analyses of budding entrepreneurs and their toys won him the respect (some say fear) of the technocracy… but the tech “players” were never his audience. Mossberg was driven by his advocacy for the common computer user.

In his very first Personal Technology column Mossberg made his position clear: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.” Two-and-a-half decades later, in one of his final columns for the Verge, he continued to deliver straight talk:

…to steal from the late, great B.B. King: for most people, the [PC] thrill is gone. And that’s because the PC has become the furniture of our digital lives. It’s absolutely necessary. You wouldn’t want to be without it. But you don’t get very excited about it, don’t brag about it, don’t replace it very often, and don’t expect revolutionary new features when you do.

Opinionated without being insulting or vulgar, the “fair and balanced” label, maligned as it has become, is rightly applied to Mossberg’s style. I once gently chided “Uncle Walt” for being too fair…why his lack of persistence in pursuing lines of questioning when his subject was clearly giving evasive and misleading answers? “Never underestimate the audience,” was his answer, “They can see what’s going on. Let the fabulist torpedo his or her own ship.”

Mossberg’s highly valued tech writing— he was rumored to be the highest paid journalist at the Wall Street Journal—led to D: All Things Digital, an industry conference that he and fellow Wall Street Journal columnist Kara Swisher founded in 2003.

Sadly, the Wall Street Journal connection broke down in 2013. Mossberg and Swisher left the Journal, taking the conference with them and re-christening it <re/code>. And in an even more unfortunate move—perhaps because running a conference and web site is expensive and complicated—Mossberg and Swisher sold their venture to Vox Media (owned by NBC, a subsidiary of the philanthropic Comcast).

And so the nostalgia sets in. As Mossberg maintained his patient, sober attitude, the tech reporting milieu shifted underneath him, from traditional newsprint to the more complicated web genre with its murky idiosyncrasies, clickbait competition, and aggravating ads… all of the bad habits that recode (as the site now calls itself) must critique yet still practice, sometimes with reckless headline abandon.

As bleak as this sounds, I can’t help but wonder why Walt, a young 70, has decided to retire. Is he really tired of it all? His Twitter presence would say the contrary. Or does he, too, yearn for the more traditional, less click-baity form of analysis and newsmaking? We shouldn’t forget that Mossberg spent 21 years (!) at the Wall Street Journal, from 1970 to 1991, before getting the tech columnist role that made his reputation.

Whatever his next adventure, here is my salute to Walt Mossberg, the uniquely talented provider of tech news and analysis. In a business that too often rewards sycophancy and “hot takes,” Mossberg maintained his competence and integrity. Will we see another like him? We can hope.