A tragic decline

By Mic Wright on June 27th, 2012

I used to love the Guardian. I know, I know, I was young and naive. Hell, I even used to write for the Guardian when it would condescend to commission me. But that was some time ago, a time when the dedicated media and technology supplements were still being published, before many of the differentiating factors that made the Guardian interesting were shuffled off into dark digital corners.

Technology has suffered enormously. From a buzzing hive of analysis and information, Guardian tech has become a ghost town looked over by Charles Arthur, an increasingly frustrated sheriff shooting wildly at PRs and freelancers who dare to breach a law from his Big Book of Rules.

Fair disclosure: I have been commissioned by Arthur in the past, and I like him. But boy howdy is he a crochety fellow, with an increasingly lengthy list of reasons to be. Able writers, reporters and opinion formers of the likes of Bobbie Johnson and Paul Carr have long since left, or been pushed away, to new projects.

Arthur is stuck trying to hold up the technology section largely on his own. And there are rumours that even he might be getting unwelcome news in the not-too-distant future, as the Guardian looks to stem its huge annual losses by rolling under-performing areas up into the news desk. In the meantime, the tech section has been reduced to the reblogging of asinine commentary and lazy political prejudice masquerading as analysis.

His lonely task leaves him vulnerable to attack. Yesterday, blogger Guido Fawkes accused Arthur of outright plagiarism. The claim was that the Guardian had taken liberally from a report by The Register into the cataclysmic NatWest computer failure. Charles refuted the accusation, but it is easy to see why the Guardian might come under such fire. Fawkes isn’t the first person to note similarities between Arthur’s pieces and those appearing earlier on, for example, Silicon Alley Insider.

At a time when Gizmodo, Engadget, TechCrunch, The Verge and The Register are putting significant reporting time and resources into the sector, Arthur is taking a knife to a gun-fight. He simply does not have the resources available to him to produce a section of the standard Guardian tech readers came to expect just a few short years ago.

Kings Place is a depressing environment to work in, according to the numerous talkative Guardian types I end up gassing with in pubs. Swingeing cuts to staff and freelance budgets mean a further reliance on “crowd-sourced” material and quick pieces winning out over long form features. Certainly the Guardian is doing some interesting things in the area of data journalism, apps and APIs. But the traditional gumshoe stuff is suffering.

There has been talk around the Leveson Inquiry of a non-aggression pact between national newspapers, a sense that you don’t bash the competition. And my intention here is not to put the boot in, however tempting, simply to note how sad it is to see a once punchy and bleeding edge part of the Guardian’s output reduced to such a feeble beast. This is less Arthur’s doing than institutional neglect from the officer class at Kings Place.

The quantity and depth of stories from the Guardian’s technology team cannot compete with younger, nimbler competitors in its present form, which may explain rumours of nose-diving traffic. Its take on key issues often arrives long after the rest of the web has made its mind up. No longer is it leading the debate but rather following limply behind.

For an organisation that makes so much of its web savvy, often rather smugly, it is sad to see technology being so underserved. Like economics or politics, technology should not be somewhere you point generalist reporters, but a place for expert analysis and comment.

The Electoral Commission ran a campaign a few years back with the premise that “if you don’t do politics, there’s not much you do do”. The same can be said for technology. The NatWest story is a great example of why newspapers need strong technology teams with the sources, contacts and knowledge to unpick complex stories.

In allowing its technology section to wither, the Guardian has run away from one of the biggest topics in modern life. What a terrible shame.