Telum Talks To… David Swan, Technology Editor at The Australian
You’ve been Technology Editor at The Australian for a few months now, but a very strange and definitely not “business-as-usual” few months. What has been the stand-out for you a) internally, in terms of the team, way of working and so forth; and b) externally?
Internally, it's felt like we've had a licence to really shake things up and experiment. We've started a live tech blog that aims to cover whatever's happening during the day as it happens, and a new podcast in partnership with IBM taking more of a deep dive on how tech's changing the world. Those are both things that may have still been possible pre-COVID, but all the disruption has meant we've been able to move really quickly and experiment. Working remotely has also meant the team has had to focus on communicating more purposefully, which is helpful. We're checking in with each other more often than we might've.
Externally, tech is changing everything more quickly than it was already, so it's been fascinating to be on the ground floor of that and be a real witness to history. There are more tech stories to document than usual, given how crucial tech now is to the economy and society's future. The physical newspaper has been trimmed - at least temporarily while advertising is still depressed - but we are getting more online subscribers and clicks than ever. It's an intense workload but one I'm relishing.
In June, The Australian launched a new tech-focused fortnightly podcast, Forward Slash, which you are hosting. Can you tell us a little about the focus and what it is geared up to do?
The podcast started life as a collaboration between The Australian and IBM, with both companies wanting to tackle how tech is shaping everything in a deeper way than a 500-word story. We're doing ten episodes - one a fortnight - and each one is examining a different theme with multiple lenses. The June 30th episode, for example, looked at working from home, but beyond the typical “get used to working in your pyjamas” angle. Some employers now want to put tracking software on their employees' home computers, to make sure they're working. Should we be pushing back on that? How do we retain privacy if we're allowing our bosses to monitor us while we're at home? We want to ask questions that we haven't otherwise had the space or time to be asking.
The tech media landscape seems to be shifting from product reviews to issues, but is there still space for product?
Of course. In the same way there's room for, say sitcoms and sober documentaries on TV, the tech media landscape has space for everything (hopefully that analogy doesn't offend any gadget reviewers). For me, it's just as important to be dissecting the impact of social media on our privacy as it is to know what phone to buy next. They're both important, just obviously different.
Where does the influence in the sector come from (e.g. influencers, bloggers, analysts, media)?
In terms of media, I think the reader now more than ever drives influence. We're constantly looking now at our subscriber numbers and our online traffic, more than we used to, and that does influence what stories we cover. If it's important to our readers then it should be important to us. I think a shift in engagement towards the readership can only be a shift in the right direction. Overall, consumers themselves have the ultimate influence in the sector, because they're the ones making the purchases and using the technology.
A huge chunk of the population has been working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. What do you see happening going forwards: will our way of working revert to something approaching normality; or will this be, to some extent, the “new normal”?
I used to cop a lot of flak and scepticism for working from home or co-working spaces multiple days a week, even though I was often more productive in those places. When returning to the newsroom I'd sometimes be greeted with a derisive "where have you been?", which shows a lack of understanding that work can often be done anywhere. This will be the new normal, given everyone can now see the benefits of no commute time, of added flexibility and fewer distractions. That said, I expect somewhat of a hybrid where many people will go into a physical office a couple of days a week.
Is this an opportunity for companies and employers to do more of a rethink than just a reset / restore?
It absolutely is, and it should force a deeper cultural rethink rather than just what tech tools a company is using, for example. It's a chance for every employer have a real look at everything that's working and everything that's not; do a Marie Kondo and take out the trash. I think ultimately, as the economy picks back up, we'll see a sharp uptick in mobility as workers can choose the workplace that best suits them - and that includes flexibility, values and mission. That'll force companies everywhere to be companies that people actually want to work for.
The Prime Minister recently announced a major cyber attack on the country, but there were no tech journos in the room who knew what to ask. What’s your advice to government - should press conferences be opened up to those working remotely too?
Press conferences and media opportunities, particularly as they relate to government, seem largely still confined to Canberra's press gallery. While we of course have gun journalists there producing the country's best political coverage, it means that some specialist reporters (science, tech, higher ed, etc.) are left out of the conversation somewhat. I can send a couple of questions to the Canberra reporters to ask, but that's not the same as having access. It'd be healthy to open that up, and we'd get even stronger coverage as a result. That'd be good for the public, democracy and the government itself.