Escape to New York

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005; 10:33 AM

I expected criticism when I started writing the Random Access column in March, but I wasn't prepared for the first piece of hard-hitting commentary that turned up in my e-mail in-box.

An editor would have loved it. It was short, direct and contained no hard words. In fact, all five words fit into the subject line: "You are a f------ a------!"

For a moment I thought John McLaughlin dropped me a note. "Issue One! You cannot write!"

This was 173 days and 120 editions ago. Since March 14, I and my editors at washingtonpost.com have brought you a helping of Random Access nearly every business day.

We tried to give the readers my take on the big tech news of the day. If there was no there there, it was up to me to spot the trends and find the unusual. It was my job to pretend that I know enough about technology to tell you the way things really are, and to learn from the import of letters to the editor like the one I shared with you above. For a time it was one of the kinder feedback submissions.

I think that I succeeded. I don't really know. I do know that I fulfilled a goal I've had for as long a time as I've written about technology: I gave people who couldn't care less about that word some idea of why they should.

That mission was based on personal desire. I got into the technology beat by accident. I was a city hall reporter in 1995 at a tiny newspaper in Alexandria, Va., whose checks frequently bounced. One of my sources, a community activist, was an editor at a technology newsletter and one day he promised a raise, not to mention a non-rubberized salary. I wrote boring, hesitant stories about the latest advances in document-imaging technology.

I didn't know that I would parlay that into yakking it up with porn stars at the Consumer Electronics Show, being among the first "dot-com reporters" to travel with the White House press corps on a nationwide tour with President Clinton, and drinking booze on Capitol Hill with Thomas Dolby. (I'm sure that he doesn't remember.)

Through all this, I developed the crazy notion that technology reporting wasn't living up to its potential. There are some great tech journalists out there, but most of us fail to reach the sweet spot that we need to achieve: reporting the news with intelligence while making it easy enough for the mainstream audience to understand. No one outside the tech geek community will spend time browsing Slashdot postings (though some are worth the effort), while even people who aren't wired experts will agree that we don't need one more story that tells us that there are these things called iPods and they're, like, totally revolutionary.

I'm not saying that I found that sweet spot. Instead, I got to shoot my mouth off about things I don't know all that much about. What I did more often than not was read several dozen news sources every day. I found amazing technology coverage at my own newspaper as well as at the competition, the New York Times. I became a daily consumer of the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Tribune and Sun-Times in Chicago, both the big Seattle papers and the Wall Street Journal and News.com. I also became a connoisseur of some of the nation's smaller newspapers that produce surprisingly interesting and quirky tech stories, usually in the smallest communities in remote corners of the United States.

It was my job to read all that news, not to mention the blogs, and write something, anything. Sometimes I scored a direct hit. Usually I missed a bit. In both cases I found enthusiastic readers who applauded my efforts, as well as more knowledgeable ones who gently steered me in the right direction. Through all that, I matured as a reporter and a writer, and that benefits you the most. Thank you.

And while I'm at it, let me try to hand out a few observations I developed from reading your letters:


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