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April 8, 2011

iPhone coming to Sprint — or, why the Washington Post needs a technology columnist

Filed under: journalism, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:00 am

The Washington Post’s technology columnist, Rob Pegoraro, announced yesterday that he is leaving his position.

The proximate cause is management deciding that the sort of review and analysis of technology that I’ve been doing for most of those 17 years is no longer part of the Post’s core mission. As I understand it, the paper places a high priority on covering Washington the city (as in, local news and sports) and Washington the story (politics), but other topics may not be assured of column inches or server space.

Instead, the Post seems to be focusing on providing news reports on policy by staffer Cecilia Kang and a TechCrunch-lite feed of technology news. Although Rob’s picture is on top of the latter, in recent months it has been dominated by briefs written by an inexperienced staffer. Few in the technology industry would find the feed valuable and few outside the industry would care about it.

Rob has worn a variety of hats in his current role. He has written about technology trends, reviewed new products, answered user questions and live-blogged Apple events. I’ve questioned why a paper like the Post would go to the expense of sending someone to live blog an Apple event, when it adds little value over what TechCrunch, engadget, Ars Technica and dozens of others provide. (Likely answer: writing about Apple is a surefire way to generate page views.)

Rob has also written about technology as it relates to public policy. That is where his contribution will really be missed. Technology is an increasingly important part of Washington (the story). Every day, it reaches deeper and deeper into our lives. As computers get faster, more mobile and more pervasive, their influence and the influence of the companies behind them gets stronger. Consider just some of the public policy issues:

  • Net neutrality. Can last-mile providers such as Comcast and Verizon discriminate among the types of traffic on their networks? Can they charge Netflix more to deliver its bits because they are worried about Netflix cutting into their television revenue? Or can they just block it altogether?
  • Privacy. Companies like Google and Facebook are building unparalleled databases full of our innermost thoughts and actions. Publishers are tracking our every move across the Web and selling them for fractions of a penny. (The Post’s home page has five different tracking cookies.)
  • Spectrum allocation. As wireless usage grows, the allocation of spectrum will become increasingly important.
  • Copyright. Congress’ near perpetual extension of copyright robs the shared experience of this country, despite the fact that many works have no commercial value even just five years after creation. Some content, like cable news, has little commercial value five days after creation.
  • Patents. Business method patents stifle innovation and increase costs for consumers. (I say this even though I’m an inventor on one such patent.)
  • Antitrust. Mega-mergers like the recently approved Comcast and NBC deal will reshape our culture. If approved, deals like AT&T/T-Mobile will raise consumer prices and stifle innovation.
  • Civil liberties. Many people don’t know that data stored in the cloud has much less legal protection from government searches than data on your hard drive on your laptop. Snakeoil salesmen from companies like Rapiscan and L-3 Communications conspire with government bureaucrats to digitally strip law abiding Americans.
  • Digital rights management. Companies are using DRM to constrain content sharing and consumption.

There are many more such issues, including the Universal Service Fund, ILEC termination charges and immigration. What they have in common is that they sit at the intersection of technology, economics and public policy. They are incredibly complex. Clear understanding of these issues is critical to our digital future.

One only needs to read the oral arguments in CITY OF ONTARIO, CALIFORNIA, ET AL. v. QUON to see how little our leaders understand technology. Rob’s columns were one way of educating them. Writing about technology policy isn’t going to generate a fraction of  the page views as completely unsubstantiated rumors about the iPhone coming to Sprint (you heard it here first!), but it is something that Washingtonians should care about. The nation needs them to.

Although I didn’t always agree with Rob’s views, he certainly understood the technologies and issues he was writing about. Too often, stories get undercovered because many journalists don’t understand technology. Likewise, some stories get blown out of proportion by journalists summoning the Internet bogeyman to chase ratings or politicians looking to grandstand.

To be sure, Rob isn’t the only one who writes about these issues. Om Malik does a terrific job of covering telecom-related issues. Danny Sullivan has strong views on privacy and civil liberties. (Oh, the crazy antics with the Newport Beach police!) Lawrence Lessig has written extensively about copyright and patents.

But Rob had a unique platform in the hometown paper of the nation’s decision makers.

These are undoubtedly tough times for the newspaper industry. As someone who has written extensively about the newspaper industry, I know that cuts have to be made. Most newspapers don’t need their own technology columnists (just as they don’t need TV or movie critics). But the Post does. Covering the business of Washington is core to the Post’s mission. And the business of technology is core to the business of Washington.

Disclosure: Rob is a friend and occasional drinking buddy. This post was written independently, without any consultation with Rob. I used to work at washingtonpost.com and have worked for Internet companies including Microsoft and AOL. My brother and numerous friends work for Google.

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