He’s a journalist, commentator and podcaster with a job almost as unique as his name.
Stilgherrian, Stil for short, reports on technology, cyber security and most internet-related issues, and his work has featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey, ABC, ZDNet and on The Project.
He recently visited Macleay College to talk about his tech journalism and the media industry. Here’s just some of what he had to say.
Q: So, what made you decide to be a tech journo? Did the journalism come first or the tech?
A: It happened around the same time. I actually majored in computing science at Adelaide Uni and I was also working at the same time in a tedious entry-level public service job. It was a job that now would be done by a computer, and it shat me to tears, so I just left. A friend worked at a local community radio station, so I started there. Eventually, once the internet became a thing in the public perception, I had experience working in the youth market and I had managed radio in Adelaide for a year, so I came to Sydney in ’95 just as the commercial internet was kicking off… and because there was a hole in the market for people with the knowledge about this stuff I just started filing stories for ZDNet, the tech masthead, and it just grew from there. So, I sometimes think, a technology journo? Well, no, I’m more a journalist who understands technology. So, which came first, I don’t know? it’s a chicken-egg thing.
Q: Do you think technology journalism is more relevant today than ever?
A: Well it’s only the greatest transformation of human society in history. This is going to change society as much as the industrial revolution did. The industrial revolution took 150 years to happen and people tinkering with steam engines or people running a little rail line a few miles from a coal mine to replace the horses, and someone else pissing about with a telegraph, no one knew that it would eventually lead to cities of 20 million people and cars that almost everyone could afford and flying between major cities… and we’re now doing the same thing. The industrial revolution replaced manual labour with mechanised labour. The revolution we’re going through now is replacing intellectual labour in the same way, so something astounding is going to happen but it will take a century to roll out.
Q: How do you keep on top of tech news? Is there someone you follow or any sources you’re in constantly in touch with?
A: The first port of call is actually Twitter. I don’t want to say a curated list of followers because a) that’s a wank and b) that’s not how I did it. You just follow interesting people. When a story breaks I’m following the malware analysts directly so I’m actually directly seeing people discussing and interchanging knowledge on this bit of malware as they’re doing it. So, from that, the food chain of tech journalism in breaking stories is [that] you’re following the analysts directly. There are some journalists who specialise in quite specific things… and they will file for very deep technical blogs… the general tech journos are following that, and then it breaks into the broader tech journos at places like the ABC and Fairfax or wherever… and that’s how the information flows, but Twitter has utterly transformed these things. The smart journalists know specifically who to follow.
Q: You work as a freelancer for a range of mediums like ZDNet and Crikey. Do you have a favourite, and why?
A: I love working for Crikey because they’ll let you say anything you want except the C-word. I’ve tried getting it into copy and no, unless it’s a direct quote, obviously. I love Crikey. They’re looking for quick commentary rather than investigative and they know that.
Q: Do you feel pressure to find stories in tech?
A: What I’m doing is such a specialised area. If you really want to understand it you need some sort of technical background in it. The number of journalists working on cyber security in this country is about five. Although Fairfax or the ABC or whatever will have people covering it they’re more broadly under a national security beat. If you’re right up the front (of the food chain) you have two key advantages there. One, you can tell when a vendor is telling you bullshit about their new product, and two, you actually have the respect of the analysts or whoever you’re talking to. You speak their language and you can translate it for the next level of the food chain.
Q: We are all wondering about the origin of your name?
A: It began as a nickname amongst a group of friends, adopted legally. I was at university at the very end of the 1970s and I think that’s self explanatory, if you know your history.
Q: What advice would you give to journalism students about the industry?
A: Get out of the industry before you go mad? Learn to drink now because you will drink later? (Laughs) I think, don’t take the current structure of the industry for granted, it’s not going to be around much longer. Fairfax is a particularly rank example of this because they’ve been utterly clueless about the internet for more than 20 years and there are lots of reasons behind that, which we don’t have time to go into. But I will say, they were given the option back in whenever of buying realestate.com.au for $19 million and they turned it down. [realestate.com] are now operating at about a dozen companies and they are worth $3.4 billion, which is more than Fairfax is worth. What happens to journalism in that field, I don’t know. – Interview and video production by Jayson Gardner