Alex Williams, founder of The New Stack has been a tech journalist since the 1980’s. He runs through the history of tech journalism and how dev ops opened up as a new niche which The New Stack is catering towards. He also answers questions about tech journalism career advice and better-developing audiences focused on software engineers.
How-to and trends
Jump straight to Alex’s advice for trend spotting, audience growth how-to and the tech trends that lie ahead in tech journalism.
Vahe Arabian: Welcome to the State of Digital Publishing Talk. State of Digital Publishing is an online publication covering media technology trends, perspectives, and news for online publishing and media professionals. We help our audience better develop audiences by encouraging others and sharing knowledge, experience, and practical advice, and act as the bridge between startups and established companies. This is episode three. I’m speaking with Alex Williams, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The New Stack.
Vahe Arabian: How are you, Alex?
Alex Williams: I’m great. I’m great. Thank you for having me on your show.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome! You mentioned that you were on the road. Hope that everything is going well.
Alex Williams: It’s been a good trip. Came up to Seattle from Portland and met with some people. I’m a journalist by trade, so I always love having chats and talking about things. I find I learn so much by being on the ground.
Vahe Arabian: That’s awesome. Yeah, I think being on the ground always helps give you a more clear perspective on things. For everyone who doesn’t know about the New Stack and about your background, do you mind just explaining your background?
Alex Williams: Yeah, great. I’m a journalist by trade. I started working in daily newspapers in the late ’80s and went on to work for magazines, one magazine, in particular, then went into the broadcast for a little bit, and moved online. I think I started getting really interested in technology back in the mid-’90s and had a journalism career and then went into marketing for a little bit just to help keep the household funded, but that was a great experience in itself. Then in 2003, 2004, I started doing webcasting. I did an event called RSS Winterfest. That was an online event and it was all about RSS and it crossed between a webcasting environment, and IRC, and a WIKI. Tommy Love at Asynchronous Communications helped me better understand why social media did have such big impact on all our lives because this is really something that came out of that early work on the ReadWrite web.
Alex Williams: But I went into technology blogging as a full-time kind of way in 2008, 2009. I covered the enterprise and I was really interested in writing about how these new ways of thinking about the ReadWrite web were affecting the way that IT was managed. I found, pretty much, it wasn’t really in consideration. Then I realized later that, really, the developers were really the ones who were making the shift here, or they were the one commanding the shift.
Alex Williams: That kind of carried me through a lot, through the work I did at ReadWrite web, and later at TechCrunch. TechCrunch is a great publication, but it’s a lot about breaking news, and I thought, “There’s an opportunity here to do more explanation analysis about these technologies because they’re evolving so rapidly and they do speak to why there are so many startups out there.” There’s just so much disruption in technology stacks. I thought, “Well if I was going to start something, would it be an enterprise blog? Would it be a cloud blog?” I thought, “Those terms don’t really cover it.”
Alex Williams: I was asked to start a publication and I thought about it, and thought about it and wrote this plan for it. I’m like, “The New Stack makes sense as a name.” That helped kind of crystallize a lot because what we were really trying to do was provide explanation analysis about at scale development, deployment, and management. The scale is the one thing everyone wants. They want to build out their operations, they want to be more connected, and scale affects everyone. So, this has been a real kind of golden opportunity because there were lots of changes happening in how people think about their own IT infrastructure and the cloud services that are out there. But at the heart of it, the scale is the big question. So that’s been, really, our focus, since the beginning when we started in April of 2014.
Vahe Arabian: You mentioned how you worked at TechCrunch. Why do you think more of those types of publications are more attractive or … Because, DevOps, like you said, it’s about scale, it’s about the stack. Why do you think sites like TechCrunch have been considered more than DevOp publications, for example?
Alex Williams: Well, I think TechCrunch did a good job. They got off to a very strong start in the beginning and just rode that wave of venture capital investment. They were able to really closely cover the venture capital community and startups. They were part of that community. I think they were just at the right time, at the right place. They really surpassed many of the players that were out there. The ReadWrite web is a shadow of its former self. There’s VentureBeat. It’s still there, but TechCrunch really dominates the space. GigaOm had a fallout.
Vahe Arabian: Had a good presence but now it’s not … Yeah, had a fallout, like you said.
Alex Williams: They had to close their shop, then they found some people to help start it up again, but it’s much different than it was before. So, in my view, TechCrunch does a great job of covering the news and about what’s happening at the moment, breaking stories, and writing funding news. There’s just a big market for that because it hits across consumer and tech publications. We really write for software engineers and developers, so we’re definitely going to be more narrow in how we define our editorial voice. I just think that’s just the difference in you seeing historically in the industry that has formed around news coverage, where there’s always going to be a need for people’s who are more specialized. They need to know ways to help understand the seeming chaos that surrounds them all the time, especially as open-source software has become more popular and that creates a whole different approach to how you think about.
Vahe Arabian: I think, as well, there are other publications … Referring back to TechCrunch, it’s more B2C as well, like people who, tech enthusiasts, want to look at devices, products, that read more of those as well. Whereas, The New Stack, like yourself, is more B2B and you are able to target the professionals. That’s my perspective anyway.
Vahe Arabian: In terms of just training to become a journalist in a company like your company, publication, is there a difference? It’s technically still a tech journalist, right, but is there a difference in the type of training or type of development that this will require, from a career perspective?
Alex Williams: Is there a training that’s required? I think that’s experience, really. I was taught as a journalist on my early days that if you’re a young journalist you’re coming in with almost no experience in anything in the world, but you can learn a lot about it. If you have to cover city government, you’re going to have to learn something about public works, for example. Or, there’s always issues of any city will have to think about the infrastructure as it relates to water and sewage, so you end up learning more about water and sewage and how the infrastructure is built for that, and what are the costs with that. Those are just things you need to know to be able to report the story, so you have to ask a lot of questions and do your own research. I think that’s true of coverage in our space too.
Vahe Arabian: Do you need to have hands-on experience, because it is about talking about different stacks? Do you find that more journalists need to have that technical hands-on experience? Because a lot of times what I’ve heard is that it’s better to have that background and then become a writer rather than becoming a writer and then trying to get that background.
Alex Williams: Yeah, I think there’s something to say about that. I mean, I’m not a developer. I have never been a developer. My father was a hospital administrator. He was never a doctor, but he learned an awful lot about the profession, and I think that’s where I come from. It’s the “you can learn enough to write about it clearly”.
Alex Williams: Now, I will say this that we do seek out developers who can write on topics that are relevant to our community out there, and they’re invaluable. But I think, in the end, if you’re a journalist, you have a curiosity about technology, you can cover it in a manner that is accurate and helpful for people. A lot of it does require making sure you have the people who you can go to for verifying what you’re writing, making sure that it’s accurate. It’s, in many respects, just like focusing on the fundamentals of being a good journalist.
Vahe Arabian: Definitely. I guess I agree with that as well. It’s a good point of view. Just in terms of The New Stack, I guess if we could take a step back a bit. Because of your beginnings, where did you start and how did you grow to where you grow today?
Alex Williams: When I was at ReadWrite web, we had a channel called ReadWrite Hack, and I was responsible for managing that. I couldn’t believe how much traffic the stories were generating for developers. A lot of it was these articles that we were reading from developers that the developers were writing about on their blogs. At ReadWrite web, our focus was on saying, “Let’s just try to summarize this topic and then share it with our readers.” The traffic was just, boom. That taught me that with explanation and analysis, this will be useful for people who are just trying to figure things out.
Alex Williams: Just recounting the experience I had with write stories that did reach developer community, they were read voraciously. I think that speaks to the public perceptions about developers and how they’ve been treated over the years because until really recently they were in the backroom. They were considered almost grunts, and they really built their own world for themselves because a lot of them just want to make things more efficient and more effective and be able to develop more quickly. That movement really was an organic one in itself, and we kind of feel like that community is always looking for ways to learn more. So, I was pretty confident from the start that we’d be able to effectively reach this community.
Alex Williams: The other thing is, too, is that you mentioned TechCrunch and these other publications, if you look at their coverage, they write lots about Microsoft, Google, Facebook, lots about the great big companies. They’ll cover product news and stuff from the smaller companies, but there are not that many outlets left for people to go to for coverage. The ratio of PR people to journalists is … God, I can’t even venture to guess, 20, 30, 40:1; 50:1; 100:1? It’s so unbalanced. One of the things we really try to iterate with our sponsors is, “Hey, we want to help you create a space for yourselves, so you can have some effect on how people think about a particular subject matter.”
Vahe Arabian: Alex, just on that point, in terms of, then, you’ve got these articles, and then you built out the website, I noticed like you mentioned, you’ve given the space to a lot of the sponsors. Did you then decide to structure the site in that way, in different topic hubs so that you can support the sponsors? Or how did you then progress that path of building out?
Alex Williams: Our focus is on explanation and analysis, so that’s critical. That creates an opportunity for a sponsor to explain something that often will be as popular as an article, as you’ll see something written by one of our writers on the news site of The New Stack. So, we find that that’s effective.
Alex Williams: We did not really organize the site for, what I think what you’re thinking about in terms of our categories and our hubs. The hubs are kind of a work in development, and we’re looking at that as a way for people to quickly be able to reference information on particular topics. I don’t know how sponsors may fit into that at some point. But more so we’re focused on doing event-based coverage, doing eBooks, taking contributor posts, working with sponsors on all those kinds of things, so they become part of this narrative for how things really work, and that seems to be an effective approach.
Vahe Arabian: I guess, just from the first impression, it seems that most of the monetization, it comes from sponsors. Is that correct or have you diversified that?
Alex Williams: We’re entirely funded by sponsorship.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. Okay. Does that present any challenges? Or do you see any further opportunities from that model?
Alex Williams: Because of the focus on explanation and analysis, we strike a balance between a traditional news operation and an annuals group. We fit right up to the middle. We’re not a breaking news operation but we will follow the news cycle, so that gives us a chance then to really look into issues. So, we’re looking more for the explanation, the analysis. One of the things we’re very strict about, though, is … Libby Clark is our editorial editor and Joab Jackson is our managing editor. Joab runs the news side of the operation, so I always am very clear that a sponsor is like, to say, “You need to talk to Joab about a news story. That’s his domain.” If Joab decides it’s not worthy, then that’s the way it is. That’s his decision. So we really try to keep those things separate.
Alex Williams: There is an editorial marketing cross-over and that’s where Libby comes into play. Libby runs the editorial operations for the company. She just joined us from the Linux Foundation. So, she works with me and works with Joab. So, I work with her on more sponsored materials. Our focus is really to keep editorial separate, under Joab, so he can really run the news operation, so he has the confidence to run stories that he thinks are merited in being run. So, that’s how we balance it.
Alex Williams: It can get tricky at times, you know, but the sponsors have been pretty good about it. They get it. They’re not going to try to push something and get it done, just because we think we’ll do them a favor. If they have a contributing post they want us to look at, we’ll look at their posts before we’ll look at the other ones though. And we’ll give them feedback about whether we think it’s viable or not. So, that’s kind of where we sit with things. It’s worked out, for the most part.
Alex Williams: We have had some stories that we just felt that we had to run because it was important for the community. So, our first real focus is on those readers, that community that comes to New Stack who comes to us for that analysis. There’s one story we ran that it involved one of our sponsors and it was one of these stories we just couldn’t ignore. It was just such an important story and we ran it. It had its fallout, to some extent, but we had to do it. We inevitably will have to face that issue again, at some point.
Vahe Arabian: How do you guys make sure that you keep current with the information that community members are looking for? What are some of the sources of truth that you guys look at to be able to keep fresh, without going down the path of breaking news?
Alex Williams: I think it’s just through our research that we’re always doing. We keep very close look at open-source communities that are growing, and we get to know the people in those communities because that’s very important to us. We’re on the ground quite a bit. We’re reporters by trade, so it’s kind of our job to make sure we do know what’s happening.
Vahe Arabian: Does that mean you guys are going to the events? Are you actually going to companies and asking them specific questions? Like hands-on …
Alex Williams: Yeah. There’s no secret sauce there, it is basic fundamental journalism.
Vahe Arabian: Okay. I understand. For a new journalist who wants to get into the tech space, how do you think is best for them to break through and be considered and be noticed by organization or publications like your publication?
Alex Williams: That’s a good question. I think we’re always looking for people who want to learn how to be a part of this world that we write about. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for writers. First of all, I say the writing life is a good life. I’ve always believed that. I just think it’s a wonderful lifestyle if it appeals to you. You get to travel. You get to make some money. You’re never going to be … I mean, you may have some venture that you do in life, but for the most part, you’re doing it because it’s sustainable. You can make a living doing it.
Alex Williams: I think people who are young and want to get into the technology space, and be technology writers, they should think about understanding better the technology itself. Because if you can learn the technology and understand it, you can write about it more effectively and your stories will just be better. It’ll give you, then, the opportunity, to write for a publication like The New Stack, and we’re always looking for people.
Vahe Arabian: So, what would be a standout way, or have there been examples of people that have caught your eye? Or journalists that have caught your eye?
Alex Williams: Yeah, I mean, like we hired someone … Well, there’s a podcast producer Kiran Oliver, I read an article he was writing for a technology company and I just thought it was pretty good. We got in touch and he started writing for us as a freelancer and then helped started managing our podcasts, and now is our podcast producer. We have people like TC Currie, who had been a technical writer, but now writes for us quite a bit. We have other writers like Alex Handy who has been a journalist for a long time, wrote for SD Times and now is writing for us.
Alex Williams: I think, you know, what I learned when I was learning about this space was just to write about it effectively, I had to research every technical term I was writing about. I think just the reading in itself was immensely valuable. I can’t stress that more, that if you’re interested in this space, try writing about something, and then as you’re writing about it, start doing the research and see what you find. I think that’s a path that you can take to start really learning how to be a journalist who can cover the space effectively.
Vahe Arabian: What should they start writing about? Should they start writing reviews on specific stacks, or specific products that might come out from a B2B perspective, or what do you think’s the best angle they should start off with? Or should they become an expert in a specific niche? Or what’s the best way to help them be known for something, I guess?
Alex Williams: I would say one of the thoughts would look around and see what you’re interested in. I was always interested in infrastructure. I was always interested in the plumbing. I thought that was a fascinating topic, so I just read tons of it. If you’re interested in front-end development, read up on that. Look at all the companies that are in that space. If you’re interested, look at the product news that they’re introducing. Keep track of them and you might find an opportunity just to reach out to them and write a story about something they’ve introduced, and you write it, put it on your own blog. That’s a very effective way to get noticed. Learn about something; write down what you’ve learned and what you know. That should be a real opportunity.
Vahe Arabian: Alex, I guess, just to move towards the conclusion of our chat, how do you think in terms of looking ahead and looking at now, how do you think your publication and other publications have shaped the industry in general today?
Alex Williams: I think for The New Stack, we just fill that need out there to provide explanation analysis about complex technologies that are very new, that are very emerging. Explanatory journalism is not new, right?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah.
Alex Williams: So, I think there’s going to be a continued need for that. I think the pendulum has swung so far in terms of click bait and racy headlines and constant breaking news that a lot of it is lost in the process. I personally believe that there are all kinds of opportunities for journalists to focus on explanation analysis in multiple sectors of the market, tech or even in other spaces such as how cities work, or how governments work, or how local communities work. I think that’s an opportunity out there now.
Vahe Arabian: How do you think that’s impacted tech vendors, or tech providers as well? Has it helped them innovate and expand, or has that provided them an avenue to develop more streamlined tech stacks, or how do you see that contribution towards tech vendor development?
Alex Williams: I think that tech vendors rely on publications like ours. They want people to help understand the technologies. They need to have it from an independent source. I think on the other side of the coin is that the most effective technology organizations are those that really have a focus on self-publishing, really, keep being very thematic about it. I think part of the responsibility that they have is to be able to explain themselves clearly and effectively, and they can do that through blogging.
Alex Williams: I think that we serve as a place to further explore and analyze. I think that sponsors, for example, have found us very effective because we write these in-depth explanatory works. I mean, we did a five-part eBook series on The Docker & Container Ecosystem. We know that’s being passed around all the time. The downloads have been considerable, so that helps them teach their prospective customers what these new technologies are all about.
Vahe Arabian: How do you see tech journalism moving forward and The New Stack moving forward?
Alex Williams: I think tech journalism moving forward, we’ll continue to see the publications like TechCrunch out there. I think TechCrunch is just going to dominate in the short-term. I think the publications that have been around for 20 years or so, they’re trying to find their way to find new avenues. I don’t really think that they’re ever going to come into our space. I don’t see how they really could because the model is just so different. So, I think the models that we’re building at The New Stack are sustainable in the long-term, especially as we look for more ways to do the coverage.
Alex Williams: We’re always kind of looking for really good presentations or people who are doing interesting work, and the technology’s universal and people all over the world read The New Stack, but they’re all from someplace, right? I’m here in Seattle, I’m meeting technologists. I could be in Amsterdam and be talking to technologists. So I think that’s the real challenge for a publication like ours is we have to be compelling, we have to be relevant, we have to provide analysis. If we continue to do that, we should be just fine.
Vahe Arabian: Does that mean you guys would potentially be segmenting by geographic location, your publication? Or, what would be your strategy?
Alex Williams: I don’t know about that, but I think we want to get out into the world more, and be in Seattle to cover meet-ups and stuff. That’s just where there’s a lot of material out there that’s helpful to people, and we want to bring it to our community.
Vahe Arabian: All right. Okay. Are there any future plans or anything that you can share with our audience? Or anything else that you’d like to share with the audience on New Stack?
Alex Williams: Well, our eBook series are really great places to learn if you’re interested in these complex technologies. I think for anyone out there, they’d be smart to learn about how IT is changing and that’s what we write about. I think what we’re seeing is this full-on shift to container-based architectures, and people can learn more about that if they read The New Stack. But that’s going to really affect how development is done, not just on the infrastructure side, but it’s also going to start to have a much more deeper impact on how iOS apps are developed, or Android apps are developed. So, we’re seeing this server-side push out there, and I would just recommend people to pay attention to that.
Alex Williams: As for us, in terms of our future, we’ll continue to do these eBooks. I think you’ll see us do more live streaming and more podcasting. We’re always looking for new mediums so we can tell these stories effectively, but with different contexts.
Vahe Arabian: Awesome! I appreciate it. Thank you very much for joining us today.
Alex Williams: Well, thank you very much for reaching out. I enjoyed the interview.
Vahe Arabian: Likewise, I did as well. Thanks very much.
Vahe Arabian: This is episode three of the State of Digital Publishing Podcast with Vahe Arabian, founder and editor State of Digital Publishing. See you next time.