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Episode 3 ● Part 1

Steven Levy

Publishing the story you can't find anywhere else

In the early ’80s journalist Steven Levy was assigned a story about computer hackers and, just as the world sat poised on the brink of something wild and new, a technological revolution that’s still going strong more than 30 years later, Levy tumbled down the rabbit hole. It’s safe to say that he has never fully emerged. That first Rolling Stone article evolved into a career as a tech journalist and author, affording Levy a privileged perspective on the intersection of journalism and technology.

The future of news, as Levy sees it, is not compromised or threatened by technology. Instead, technology is a new platform for journalism--a springboard for inspiration and an anchor to grant heft and legitimacy to the journalists and readers who crave authenticity.

One year ago, Levy began working for a digital publishing platform called Medium, and dedicated himself to bridging the divide between traditional journalism and exploring the voices and opinions of everyday people with something to say, embracing the hacker mentality and spirit that tends to dominate such startups.

About Steven
Tech Journalist | Innovator | Editor-in-cheif

Steven Levy is the editor-in-chief of a Medium publication titled Backchannel. He is a former senior staff writer for Wired Magazine, contributor to Rolling Stone, a former senior editor at Newsweek, and the author of several books about technology including "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution"; "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives"; "Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government Saving Privacy in the Digital Age"; and "Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything", among others. Perhaps most importantly, Levy had a first-row seat for some of the most significant technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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The Interview

How did you get started in journalism?

I went to graduate school in literature and found that I really wasn’t cut out to be a scholar and looking for something to do. A professor took pity on me and actually arranged an internship for me as a graduate student at the local newspaper in Central Pennsylvania. I thought, “This looks interesting.” After I got out of graduate school with a masters, I went back to my hometown–Philadelphia–and started writing for weekly newspapers and then magazines.

At first I wrote a lot of music; I was a rock critic. I wrote about sports and all the the things that freelance writers write about. And in the early 1980s I was assigned a story about computer hackers and that blew my mind, because these people were amazing and it was clear that this was going to be a giant topic. I slowly began writing more and more about that until I was technology writer.

Did you learn anything from those hackers?

At the time hackers weren’t thought of as people who break into computers, who mess you up or steal things from you, but they were thought of as these hapless losers who just sit in front of a computer and don’t talk to people and don’t do anything interesting really. But I found them to be really fascinating people, explorers and creators, and I learned a lot about the way they view the world, about the way to take charge and try to shape the world to the way they want it to be.

I wrote about that in the book but it wasn’t until many years after I wrote the book that I actually wound up at an internet startup, like Medium. I have been here less than a year. I joined last summer, and to me this is a place that really has that hacker mentality built-in, as a lot of these startups do. I really wanted to be part of that, and I’m able to be comfortable here because I’ve been intaking that hacker vibe through my reporting for so many years.

Tell me about that first article you wrote.

My first article on technology was an article about hackers for Rolling Stone magazine. That was the one that introduced me to them. I went to California, which I hadn’t been to except for a trip in college, and met the people who invented the personal computer industry.

These people were amazing. And this technology was amazing. It was clear that it was gonna change all of our lives for the better, and that was a real revelation for me because when I went to college in the ’60s and early ’70s, we all thought computers were gonna dehumanize us. But it’s been quite the opposite. They’ve empowered us and allowed us to do things we couldn’t do otherwise, and let us connect with each other in ways we couldn’t do otherwise.

What did technology look like then?

Twenty years ago you pretty much date to the beginning of the internet as we know it–the internet where regular people are starting to use it. A lot of the companies, Amazon, Google didn’t come until a little later; Yahoo came up in 1995, and that was really a breakthrough year for the Internet there.

I was working for Newsweek then. There’s two things that I really didn’t get right away. One was how the internet was going to impact where I was working. I knew it was going to have an impact, but I really wasn’t aware how devastating it would be to a lot of people in my industry. And the second thing was it was very hard to overestimate the impact of the internet. People thought I was nuts when I would say: “This is gonna be huge! You’re gonna have an email address. There could be like 100 million people on the internet, in this internet here, a hundred million!” And even that sounded so outlandish, I hardly believed it. But I never would’ve thought that it would be billions, and the vast majority of the world’s population where it’s eventually gonna go.

Was there a singular moment that signaled change for journalism?

The effect of the internet on journalism is sorta like the frog in boiling water. It was getting hotter in there, but you couldn’t jump out until it was too late. You were sort of hardboiled by the time you realized the impact it was having. I think it was compounded by the fact that the people running the big media institutions knew that they really couldn’t leave their business models, they were locked into them in a way. It wasn’t that they were dumb, but they had difficulty taking the really hard steps necessary to make themselves adaptable to internet journalism. And to this day there really is an open question to whether digital journalism will replace the profit margins of traditional journalism.

How did you get involved with Medium?

I was working at Wired and I really liked it. I’ve been involved with the magazine since the beginning, but I thought I wanted a change. I wanted to do something a little different. I found that stories from Medium–this network that people can post stories to, founded by Evan Williams who’s a really well-known entrepreneur for Blogger and Twitter–kept coming up in my in my reading, in my newsfeeds, in my Twitter account timeline.

I thought it would be interesting to try to start a publication on Medium, and a different kind of publication, one which didn’t try to do everything, but took advantage of the lithe aspect of Medium, and you could make an impact with very little resources. I mentioned that to Ev, who I ran into at a TED conference, and he picked up the ball and we started talking, and I eventually left Wired and came here to do something different in journalism.

Your announcement of your move mentions “experimentation.”

Recently I did something which was sort of the canonical experiment, that I’ve done on Medium. A lot of people on Medium have organically posted their experiences with the Apple watch. It’s something that makes people want to write and share their impressions of it. I thought some of that writing was pretty good, so I started actually a separate little mini publication on Medium, called the Apple Watch Project.

The idea was to invite some of these people who were writing interesting things about the Apple watch and their impressions, to move their pieces onto this collection and then invite other people to read the pieces and recommend them and highlight them, with the idea that eventually we would take some of the more interesting passages and weave them together into one sort of uber-review. My idea was it would read like a single person wrote it but actually there’d be multiple voices in there. And that’s what we did.

We just published the review from the Apple Watch Project, and it’s maybe 2,500 words, it reads like one review, but there’s 25 different voices in there. So we, the designers here, had a good idea to use a little icon, like an emoji for the Apple watch, and every time it appears in the story, a different speaker is carrying the baton to the finish line, and writing his or her little piece of the review. That just came out a couple days ago, and it’s gotten a tremendous response.

You like the Apple Watch?

You know, I’m like the reviewers, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot of innovation in it, but it’s very much 1.0.

Does the wide open format detract from the brand?

In the internet you read things, and some of them are paid for, and some of them are contributions that people just give, they wanted to share. Medium is all about people wanting to share. A few people get paid for it, but we want to share it too. I think that really reflects the reality of the internet. A lot of people who write without the expectation of getting paid have important things to say.

From the very first day of Backchannel I brought in what we call UGC–user generated content–to maybe play with the line between professional content and non-paid content that people wanted to contribute. Part of what I wanted to do here, because it is a platform, is sort of experiment with how permeable that membrane is between a professional journalist and a writer who just has something really good to say.

I want stuff that people can engage with, I want stuff that people don’t see everywhere else. One thing that is happening in journalism today is that it is kind of a commodity. A business model at a lot of places is to have have lot of content and try to write something about everything, whether your reporter did reporting or not.

Sometimes reporting is reading someone else’s story and writing a few paragraphs about it. Maybe if it’s a very diligent website, you will make a phone call or add an original thought about it, but there are a lot of places that in addition to what original reporting they do, feel that they have to weigh in on everything. If Microsoft buys a little company, they’ll write about it as soon as a press release comes out or somebody else writes a story about it.

People hunger for places to have the story you can’t find anywhere else. That’s what I always look for–whether it’s content that’s already organically on Medium, or stuff that I assign or stuff that I write myself–is stuff that you can’t find anywhere else on the internet.

Is there pressure to cover everything?

There is definitely for these places a pressure to publish because that’s their business model–aggregating clicks, right? Some places have reporters writing three, four, five stories a day or more just to get those clicks. I don’t know whether that’s a sustainable business model, but it’s nothing that I’m interested in pursuing.

How do you keep up with the pace of tech journalism?

There’s always too much but actually, with the tools we have, our world is pretty organized. There’s all these aggregators who are are curating the web for you and finding the best stuff. If you have a well populated Twitter feed, pretty much you’re going to see the stories you want to see.

It’s really hard to find a really great story that goes unnoticed, and that’s one thing that’s been gratifying here. Even though we’re starting a publication from scratch, every time we’ve put the effort in and come up with something really good, it finds its audience. So that’s very gratifying.

I think the one huge issue in journalism today is how a couple places, particularly Facebook, are becoming a major source of of news. In some ways it is an awkward fit because the Facebook newsfeed really began as a way to keep up with what your friends are doing, and everything you read that is a news article on your Facebook newsfeed means that’s one less piece of information, given your fixed amount of time, about something your friend is doing.

Facebook says, “We engineer the newsfeed to give people what they want.” If all you want is stuff about your friends, then that’s mainly what you are gonna see. But Facebook has expressed a desire to be a big source of news. They’re partnering with companies there.

One thing that has been a problem in the Facebook newsfeed that I know they’re trying to address, is something I call the dozen doughnuts theory, which means that if you start work at a new office, and they ask you the first day “would you like a dozen donuts delivered to your office” you’re probably gonna say no. I’d probably get fat if I had a dozen donuts in front of me everyday. So you wouldn’t want it. But if the dozen donuts were there when you walked into the office, you’d probably pick up a donut, because wow that looks really good, I’m gonna nibble on that donut there.

I think the Facebook news feed, traditionally is something similar, ’cause they reward your actions. When you click on something and read it, they’ll put out something which is the new equivalent of empty calories, right? Maybe a vapid story about a celebrity, or 10 outrageous prom pictures, or something sexual; you’ll click on it because of curiosity. There’s bonbons in front of you. What Facebook has to do is figure out that when we click on it, it doesn’t mean we really want that kind of stuff in volume there. And they’re doing different things to stop that. One thing that I read about in Backchannel is a project [that] actually asked people what you want to see, as opposed to just watching what they click on when it’s put in front of them.

What’s up with the heads up on time length?

I read the New York Times on my iPad and sometimes you’re a couple paragraphs into the story, and you realize, “Wow this is a magazine story, this isn’t really a brief story.” I’m getting my morning news dose and all of a sudden I’m launched into a 10,000 word magazine story, right? There’s no heads up.

We provide that. We’re trying to provide a lot of cues to readers because we don’t break up our stories on multiple pages. That’s one thing that a lot of places do in order to bolster pageviews, they’ll break a story, particularly a longer story. You’ll get to the bottom and you’ll have to click. We don’t do that. We just put it all on one page that you can scroll so it’s helpful to know just how long the scroll is.

Where do you see tech going in the future?

I really believe that tech journalism is going to go up in quality. I think that the era of clickbait is coming to an end. Maybe I’m kidding myself but I think it just reached the limit here, of people who are getting tired of being lured to stories that turn out to the false promises in the headline, or are just not edifying, not interesting.

At Medium, we want our stories to be the center of conversations about important stuff. For instance, I had a really good story submitted to me couple months ago. It took a contrarian view of philanthropy and talked about how social impact investing where companies give some amount of their profits to some social cause really wasn’t a good thing. It really didn’t serve the cause too much, and gave the customer a false sense of satisfaction, and the writer had a spirited attack on this.

I was gonna publish it of course, but I also went through our network and asked a few people to write responses to it in hopes it would generate an organic conversation within the Medium community, which indeed it did. That’s one good thing about Medium is that our conversations aren’t trolling comments or people saying nasty things to each other or harassing each other, but actually commenting on the content of the story. We’ve managed to do that, and I hope as we scale out and becomes as big a company as we want to be, we maintain that quality in our discussions.

How did you stimulate those responses?

I sent a draft to a few people. One of them was someone I had met recently. He was a subject of a story I wrote–Kimball Musk, who is an entrepreneur in the food area who is very much interested in social impact investing. He is Elon’s brother of course, but he makes his own mark in food entrepreneurialism and in my story I follow him around Memphis for a few days as he was setting up this very complex deal, where he would open his restaurants there and serve the community and he would be getting these low interest loans from these local foundations on the grounds that he do some deliverables in helping the social sphere, in helping the way Memphis eats, to improve the food habits of Memphis and deliver a certain amount of jobs and things like that. So he seemed a natural to respond to this, and he did a great response. Name of the story was, “How would you feel if Mother Teresa drove a Ferrari?” And his response was, “Hey let Mother Teresa drive a Ferrari, I’m fine with that.”

Has your writing changed?

I don’t think my writing per se has changed. My writing style has changed. I have to admit I’m old enough that when I began my career [I] was using a typewriter. Around the time I started writing about technology, a lot of people who did what I did, freelance writers, were asking themselves “Should I leave the typewriter and get an electronic typewriter?” Which was distinguished because it did a couple lines and you hit the return key.

“Or even go full blast and get this word processor, even have a computer on your desk. What?!” After I did that hacker story of course, it was resolved. I was getting a computer no matter what. I got an Apple II and did my writing on that. And over the years my style has changed, compiling a story has changed. Originally in the typewriter, of course, you’d write a draft beginning to end, and then you scroll a fresh piece paper in the slate and start over again. You look at the first draft and you rewrite the whole thing, and you would literally cut and paste stuff there so you wouldn’t have to type the whole thing over. Some people are shocked to learn that’s where cut-and-paste came from.

But as I used the word processor I realized that I didn’t have to start at the beginning, I can start anywhere. So now when I write I just sorta start at a point where I know this is something I want to get out there and sort of compile things. Before it was more like building brick by brick, my story, in a linear fashion. Now it’s more like developing a picture, like dipping it in and different parts come into focus, and I tweak the whole story as different parts come in.

Did you write your earliest hacker stories on a typewriter?

No. My first hacker story was on a typewriter, but my book Hackers, which came out in 1984, was written on the Apple II. To give you a sense of what that was like, they used these floppy disks that you put into the computer; there were no hard drives then. And the floppy disk didn’t hold that information, some chapters could not fit on a floppy disk, some chapters had to be spread over two different floppy disks. So if I was writing something, and I wanted to get at something in the beginning of the chapter, I’d have to take out the floppy disk, save the thing, put in the new floppy disk, and you couldn’t move anything from the end of the chapter from one to another. You’d have to swap disks and store it in memory.

What advice would you give your 18 year old self?

I would say the best is yet to come, don’t worry, hang loose. I have a son who is out in the world now, and his generation, I think, has had a tougher time. There were super wheel-to-grind people, when I grew up, but there weren’t very many of them. Most people who I know, at least in my cohort, we drifted along, we thought we’d do okay. I came from a middle class neighborhood, not a high middle-class neighborhood, row homes, and people just wanted a good job. So for me, my expectations have been exceeded. I never thought I be doing anything as interesting as I do now, let alone covering what I think is the most important story of our time and getting a front row seat to it, and being able to get to know some of the people who are changing the way we live.

Is there one piece of technology that you remember above others?

The one thing that I look back on that really was a mindblower, transformative, is the Macintosh computer. I heard rumors, everyone knew the rumors actually, that Apple is working on this new kind of computer called the Macintosh.

Some people compared it to some computer that IBM was working on, called the PCjr, the peanut, it was code-named, which turned to be totally uninteresting. But I convinced Rolling Stone to give me assignment to write about the Macintosh. I called Apple and said I’ve got this Rolling Stone assignment and I want to come in there and see it early so I can write about it and the story will come out when the computer comes out.

It was little problem for us because Steve Jobs wanted the cover of Rolling Stone, and in 1984 that wasn’t gonna happen. But he got over that and I remember very clearly the first day I went to Apple to see this computer, and I thought this is gonna change everything. This computer is totally different, it’s a computer that you don’t need a consultant to learn how to use, anyone can use it. It’s changed the way people write. Instead of having these phosphorescent letters, they had letters just like regular text on paper. Even the kinds of professional magazines and newspapers you could do. You could produce copy like that, it was amazing. You could draw on it. It was totally different.

That was an amazing day for me because the people who put it together were amazing. I always write about the people who do the technology. I find them fascinating and a great window into the technology, and the people I met that day–the Macintosh team–were amazing and that event was over 30 years ago. There are several people who I met that day who became my friends for life. Literally. I went to a birthday party for one of them a couple weeks ago. Our families know each other.

And, of course, I met Steve Jobs that day too, and interviewed him the first time. That was sort of memorable, and that was all one day that I met the computer that would change my life , the way I work. We all use Macintoshes now, no matter what you use because of the system, and I met people who projected us into the future.

What do you think about .NEWS?

It’s interesting. For a long time people thought that these domains were gonna be less and less important, and they are less important. People don’t type URLs into address bars too much anymore, and they basically follow links from sites they know, or bookmarks and things like that. But there is still a value to this. The .com is still worth zillion times more than anything else. It’s not a make or break you whether you have the .NEWS domain. As we go to mobile people type in that stuff even less, so that’s even less and less important. The people live within apps worlds and the browser is less important.

Got any new ideas on how to tell stories?

We’ve refined a lot of ways to tell a story that needn’t be messed with. For a while there was this idea that you have all these interactive stories, that people would choose the next path and things like that. People like to be guided through a narrative, and I’m a very strong believer in narrative. All my books are narratives. I like to take the reader through a journey, and I love the experience of commanding attention for people for tens of hours, whatever it takes to finish the book. So that’s sort of like the antithesis of a network, right? It’s not a network, it’s a cave that I’ve got you locked into, so I like that too.

Is there anything you’d like to leave readers with?

A few years ago in journalism, there was doom and gloom and doom and gloom. People thought that the downward curve of hiring, which is gonna go down down down down down. There’s a lot fewer journalists now than there used to be, but there’s many, many places that are hiring. There are newsrooms with hundreds of people now. It didn’t exist five, six years ago. You go into one of these newsrooms, it’s just like full of people, lot of young people.

I think it’s a great time for people to enter journalism, whereas maybe 10 years ago the conventional wisdom was you are entering the buggy whip business. I don’t think so. I think that there’s always going to be an appetite for great, original work , and it’s going to show up in forms that we can’t anticipate now. It takes a certain amount of time for people find the native way to express yourself in a given form. And I think we’re just beginning to find that in journalism.

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