16 minutes with Walt Mossberg

& Mo Mfinanga

Walt.JPG
  • Published December 9, 2014
  • Portrait provided by Walt Mossberg

Walt Mossberg, a graduate of Brandeis University, is a journalist and one of the founders of Recode, an independent technology site. From 1991 to 2013, Walt was a tech columnist for the Wall Street Journal, known for co-producing All Things Digital, a notable high-tech conference with interviewees such as Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Elon Musk, among others.


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Mo: Tell me about who you were before you started at the Wall Street Journal and who you are now.

Walt: Well, I always wanted to be a journalist and I started in high school, working with my hometown newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. I worked summers and school vacations as a fill in reporter. I developed a lot of clips there, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times in college. I went to grad school at Columbia for journalism. When the Wall Street Journal hired me, my goal was to come to Washington and cover policy and politics—it was a big bureau here. 

Walt: I wanted to be on a big, powerful newspaper. [And] They were the big, powerful newspaper and the other two powerful newspapers, Washington Post and New York Times, did not offer me a national staff job post, but the Wall Street Journal did. My only hitch was that I had to work in a smaller bureau first, which was in Detroit. It was a great place to be because at the time the car industry was the biggest thing and at the centre of attention in business. I covered the labour beat there and then they transferred me to Washington—they kept their promise. I worked for about 20 years covering Washington policy, foreign policy, national security, energy, environment, labour and whatever. In 1991 I got my tech column.

 
You have to be more of a curator… You need to get to the point, you need to use video well, you need to use photos well, and that’s what we are trying to do.
— Walt Mossberg
 

Mo: How did you start the tech column? Did you take it upon yourself to start it or did WSJ appoint you with one?

Walt: It was my proposal, and the column began in 1991. I became interested in computers starting in about ‘81, so about 10 years before I had became a computer hobbyist. Personal computers were about four-years-old—mass market PCs. I started with very crude small computers, moved my way up to the Apple II then a Mac and DOS IBM compatible PC. I just got hooked on it and I realised that no one was writing about it in the general press who was on the side of average non-tech consumers. So I talked my editors into letting me start a column, which started in October of ‘91.

Mo: So when you started in 1991, what trends did you notice popping up within the tech journalist community?

Walt: Well, at the time, I started most of the writing was by “techies”, you know, by-geeks-for-geeks type of thing. I took the tactic that I would write for non-geeks, non-techies, yet not be condescending. You know, not using certain jargon, and also being critical of the companies particularly for not serving the non-tech inclined consumer very well. So, everything became a lot more consumer focused; everything became more competitive. Lots of people jumped into the game. 

Walt: Shortly after the web started, you began to see many tech websites, and there were tech conferences and all of that. There was a really big tech boom, and then there was a really big tech bust. I would say those were the main changes. You just saw the thing explode. The PC had basically come out around 1977, the mass market one, and when I say mass market I mean that it was just really small. 

Mo: Yeah, now that, that information is produced and read instantly and is at the tip of our fingertips, it can be a challenge for journalists.

Walt: I think the challenge today is to be more creative, more social. Those days were not very social with the readers. You have to be more of a curator. You have to decide what really is interesting and hope that it appeals to a significant body of readers. You also have to understand that people have less of an attention span now than then. You need to get to the point, you need to use video well, you need to use photos well, and that’s what we are trying to do.

Mo: Do you think there is an appeal for long-form journalism?

Walt: Well, actually, I feel that there is a turn towards long-form journalism. Sites like ours do long-form journalism. I do not think of long form as a 40,000 word article in a magazine, or a giant feature in a newspaper, but we, as well as other sites, are trying to move away from little snippets, or being the echo chamber or re-writing press releases, to actually writing something that has thought behind it and can provoke further thought from the readers. 

Walt: I consider myself as a reviewer; the iPhone 6 is an example. But, I also write thought pieces. They are not super long, they may be about 1500 word pieces, but yeah, there is still room for long-form journalism. You just have to assume that everyone will not read through the end of those pieces.

Mo: I think a lot of people have now been absorbed in having quality over quantity. How have you seen journalists appeal to that?

Walt: I don’t believe everyone is now more into quality over quantity. I disagree with you on that one. There are a lot of people within journalism, and some do the “here’s a slideshow of the most amazing, unheard of gorgeous people” or something. They are consumed by traffic and link-bait. That’s quantity not quality, and it’s traffic driven. The problem is you do need traffic, you need a business model, but our very strong belief is that we will rise or fall on doing stuff with quality. 

Mo: Regarding the publishing industry from the early 80s to now, what do you see differently in terms of approaching readers?

Walt: Forgive me if you are too young to know this, but the Wall Street Journal did not even run photographs when I began there, and it still took a long time after I got there. The Wall Street Journal is about 125 years old now, as of this year, and when I joined them in 1970, they were not running photos, they did drawings. They still cover their core areas in business, but they do a lot of other things as well. However, I am no longer there, so I am the wrong person to talk about the Wall Street Journal

Mo: What have you valued in life that has made the biggest impact in your work? Why?

Walt: I have valued most being surrounded by talented editors and colleagues.

Mo: What fuelled your decision to leave the Wall Street Journal and start Recode?

Walt: Well, I was at the Wall Street Journal and I was what you might call an entrepreneurial journalist. Even though I stayed living in DC, I moved from covering foreign policy to covering technology. I moved from being a reporter to being a reviewer and columnist. It was a risk that was entrepreneurial.

Walt: An even more entrepreneurial thing I did was join forces with Kara Swisher, who had been a columnist at the Journal at that time. She had been living in DC too, until she moved to Silicon Valley. So we got together and convinced them to start a major tech conference called All Things Digital. It ran for 11 years and became the premier tech/media conference in the world. Every CEO of every tech company or TV company or movie studio, including the well-known Steve Jobs and Bill Gates interview onstage together—that was entrepreneurial. 

Walt: And so Dow Jones, which is the company that publishes the Journal, let us eventually start an All Things D website and let us hire a small staff. So we had a conference business and website business. It was profitable and it was journalistically high quality, I would say. But both Kara and I, being entrepreneurial people, wanted more. We asked for investment, which was difficult though, because it was a big media company with all of these many demands on it. So, we decided to start our own media company and raised money for it. We didn’t fight with the Wall Street Journal. Our contract was up in 2013. We found people to back us—NBC News, and an investor named Terry Semel who had formerly run Yahoo. So when our contract ran out, we only waited one day and on January 2nd of this year, [2014] we launched Recode.

 
You have to really like the product you are creating, and you have to push hard to really do the right thing.
— Walt Mossberg

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Together in 2007 at D5 Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are interviewed live together at the D5: All Things Digital conference.

 

Mo: How do you want Recode to be seen compared to other tech sites?

Walt: We want to be known for doing more of the quality type of journalism. You know, we are only nine-months-old and we were lucky enough to be able to get all of our staff from All Things D, and hire another half-a-dozen good people, both on the editorial and business side of things. What we are trying to do is reimagine covering new topics. We now have the funds to hire additional reporters. 

Walt: We have a beat-called culture; it does not mean art, but culture of tech. We talk about how that culture sometimes clashes with the culture of the community, especially in somewhere like the Bay area, which of course is at the heart of tech. People feel that housing prices have pushed the working class out because all these tech guys have money. It's about air-conditioned and wifi-equipped buses that leave San Francisco and go down to Silicon Valley every day. They were resented because they were causing traffic problems in the city. Also, when they are not working, people who have created all these things at Google, and Facebook may be partying, so we cover the social scene.

Walt: We also brought on one person who deals with biotech and science, and then just science that has nothing to do with your laptop or your phone. We have dispatched reporters to different cities and they are doing these stories called Innovation Nation. They are packages of stories that let you know not everything is happening in Silicon Valley, letting them know that there are tech hubs in loads of other cities around the country. The most recent one was in Boston, so we are working on more cities and we have reporters there right now. We are on television a lot more now because of our affiliations with NBC.

 

A few hours after announcing their $3 billion deal, Apple SVP Eddy Cue and Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine came to the Code Conference to talk about what brought them together, and what they want to do next.

 

Mo: When you talk about tech hubs, are there any trends you find between them despite being in different cities across the country?

Walt: I think they are all a little different. The trends that are similar is that you have these small start-up entrepreneurs that are trying to interrupt and innovate the status quo created by older industries. That’s the common base, but if you are in LA they are doing more things that seems natural for there, or believe it or not Las Vegas, who is becoming huge be it from their growing gaming tech industry, and Boston who have a lot of stuff dealing with health. We also did a series called the Instant Gratification Economy. This is probably not something you would see a lot of in Detroit, but in San Francisco, New York, and a little bit in DC. You see how you can get anything in under an hour to your door. It’s kinda the whole “Uberization” of everything. We did a whole series on that.

Mo: What’s your opinion on the whole “Uberization” of things? Do you think it will take off as an industry standard?

Walt: Well, I think it has potential to take off, however, the key word is potential. A lot of these companies will not survive. Some will. We are just at the beginning of it, and we stress that within the series.

Mo: And within the past 5-10 years, what companies have you witnessed have a radical, positive change?

Walt: The number one example—the one people will write about for a long time—is Apple, of course. In 1997, they were 60 days from bankruptcy and now they are one of the most valuable companies in the world. I would say over that period of time, they have been the most influential company. This is not to diminish any of the competitors. Others who have had huge impact are Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all these new things like Nest.

Mo: You’ve had the opportunity to do a joint interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What did you take from that experience?

Walt: It goes beyond that one joint interview. I interviewed them both multiple times alone, sometimes with Kara. I also spent hours with each, talking privately in the course of my work. And you know, I think the main lesson I took from them, and the lesson they themselves would enunciate would be, “If you are going to change the world, you have to really, really believe in what you are trying to do.” In case of Gates, it was the concept of software as a standalone business unconnected to hardware, and going after the creation of this PC business. In the case of Jobs, it was the PC itself originally, and then as you know the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, among others. 

Walt: You have to really like the product you are creating, and you have to push hard to really do the right thing.

Walt: Another thing they would always stress is hiring the best people and having these people around you. You can have all these ideas, you can do all these things, but you have to surround yourself with the right people. And you know even with Recode, it will never be an Apple, Microsoft, or Facebook. It won’t be a Twitter or any of those guys in size or power, but we have taken both of those lessons to heart and tried very hard to believe in what we are doing, challenge ourselves, and hire the right people.

Mo: What were some of the risks you faced when starting Recode?

Walt: You could fail, you could run out of money. You know, being inside of a company has its own risks. You are kinda in the bosom unless you get fired but to actually fail, it’s really hard to fail when you are a part of a big enterprise. It happens, but it’s harder because you have a lot of inertia around you. We are a start-up, we have very supportive investors, and a fantastic staff of colleagues. I think we will be successful, yet we are a start-up and are vulnerable to failure. 

Mo: What type of industries do you see Recode bleeding into, if any? 

Walt: I think there is danger in losing focus, so we will not become a sports site, we will not change and create a host of different sites on different topics. We will always be in some way related to tech and media; those are our main topics. We do have a conference though, and it’s now every year; it’s pretty big and very important to us. Its now called The Code Conference and its very much running off the same principle as the All Things D Conference. We have smaller events focused on Mobile, and on Media.
 

 

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