Wednesday 11 December 2019

The woman holding Silicon Valley's tech titans to account

Recode co-founder Kara Swisher is a media trailblazer, combining old-fashioned journalism with profitable new business models. She spoke to Adrian Weckler

Kara Swisher, who previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post says Recode avoids ‘getting into bed with’ tech leaders or trading access for a softer approach. Photo: Bloomberg
Kara Swisher, who previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post says Recode avoids ‘getting into bed with’ tech leaders or trading access for a softer approach. Photo: Bloomberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

In an age of media industry uncertainty, Kara Swisher walks tall. The former 'Washington Post' and 'Wall Street Journal' journalist struck out on her own with fellow WSJ tech scribe Walt Mossberg, creating one of the technology industry's most critical new organs, Recode. Regularly breaking stories about what's happening in Silicon Valley, the company has also crafted a highly-lucrative events and online podcasting business. As such, Swisher has become one of the most influential and successful media executives covering global technology. Swisher is outspoken on some issues and has relentlessly pursued tech companies she feels are behaving badly.

She recently sat down with tech editor Adrian Weckler to talk through a number of issues, from misogyny in the tech business to getting the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together and making money out of the media in a climate where so many others are struggling.

1- On tech leaders not acknowledging that their products and services sometimes cause harm.

One of the things that's irritating about most of the leaders in Silicon Valley is that they're almost religious in how they look at their jobs. They believe they're benign and they imagine that they don't cause harm. They imagine that they're changing the world for good and that their billions of dollars don't make them different from you and I.

They live in these bubbles of privilege, people constantly licking them up and down. People tell them they're smart all the time and so they change.

But they don't think they change, they perceive themselves as the same simple people who were in the garage. So one of the things that I try to get through to them is how people are scared of them, that they're dangerous, that they're not thoughtful about the impact of their platforms.

These companies are hitting things, they're breaking things and they pretend that they're not breaking them. But they know they are. There's a famous thing at Facebook, they have these posters on the wall saying "Move fast and break things". It's a very famous thing that Mark [Zuckerberg] says. They literally have these giant posters on the walls of these companies. They think they're adorable. I was up there recently and I turned to one of the executives and said you have to stop f**king breaking things, you've broken enough. And now we have Trump, I'm sorry to say, and they had a big impact in that. They may not have had the key impact but they definitely had an impact and they have to take responsibility for control of it.

I think growing maturity will be part of it as leaders start to have kids and they start to think about the impact.


2 - On misogyny in the tech industry

I think a lot about this. It's a deeply misogynistic and sexist culture. Uber is the perfect example of that. They had a culture that was just built on misogyny.

Their cultural values were around destruction. The only way it's going to happen is that there are more women in charge, more people of colour in charge, different ages in charge. It's almost like seizing power seems to be the only way to change things. In journalism and tech, several of the major sites are run by women. So there's a reason why this is getting coverage and it's important news.

If you have a more diverse group of people in charge, you ultimately link together decision-making. This has been proven again and again. A diverse culture is a better culture. They require that you make a business case but it's also because it's the right thing to do. So, just being in charge, that seems to be the only way. We need bigger, more diverse boards, more women in positions of real power, more people in colour in positions of power and we need age differences too.

3 - On EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who has fined companies such as Apple and Google billions of euro.

She has been out front and a pioneer - and she has had an effect. When you talk to US politicians they try to say that she's protectionist or that Europeans are against innovation.

But I think she recognised years ago the dangers of these large platforms and the possibilities of abuse. So I'm a big fan of hers because she does that even though she's attacked by a lot of people for holding back innovation or being too regulated.

4 - On taking sides when other US media insist their journalists may not express personal views on social media.

I think that's bulls**t. I know why the 'New York Times' is doing that and I have huge admiration for Dean Baquet [executive editor, New York Times]. The work they did, along with the 'New Yorker', around the Harvey Weinstein stuff is amazing.

But if you're covering Trump and you can't say negative things? I mean I get that you're the White House beat reporter. But when you get lied to every single day, there's a point where you have to say these people are liars and that's a factual statement not a bias. I'm tired of being lied to by people every day so I don't know how the White House beat staff handle it. And they get decried from both sides, it's fascinating. They're trying to be right in the middle but is there a middle here when someone lies to you? Do you really have to play by the old rules when they don't even have rules?

Similarly, I have a point of view on the responsibility of tech companies. I'm going to keep saying it and we'll keep reporting on it. If they don't like it, they can lump it.


5- On creating new, commercially-sustainable media models in an era when social platforms hoover up most of the new ad money.

Podcasts have turned out to be very lucrative. It's not display advertising. It's spoken advertising, radio advertising. It starts at Squarespace but the other day I did Citicorp or something.

It's like cable. Cable started with Viagra ads and now they have better ads. They still have the Viagra ads at night but you progress as a media bridge. Podcasting is very lucrative because it's very low-cost. There are a lot of them but if you do the right one and you hit the right audience, it's certainly very lucrative.

There's almost no cost to it and you can replicate it. So we can take all our events and put them in podcasts and then sell advertising against it. So you're making the money on the events and then you're making money on the advertising. I think a lot about how to cut up our stuff.

6 - On how to get Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on the same stage at your conference event - the only time they ever publicly appeared together.

They wouldn't have done it themselves. But they're smart people who like a challenge. And, of course, they were aware of their place in history together. Also, nobody had asked them before. It was like a prom date, you know? Nobody asked them.

We also had a place where they knew they would get a fair go. We're known for being tough but we're not mean. Smart people like smart questions, they just do. They don't want to be kissed up to. I mean some of them do but we don't care about those people.

Our reporting is our strength. Because if you notice, we break a lot of stories too and then they talk to us because they know we don't need them. I don't care if they talk to me or not. I'll find out one way or the other. Like a lot of our Yahoo coverage, she [Marissa Mayer] zeroed us out of everything. I don't care. Good. I'll find out anyway, I don't need you. You don't want to be in bed with these people, you just don't.

7 - On how Mark Zuckerberg is coping with running Facebook

You want mature leaders who evolve and I think Mark Zuckerberg is evolving - I think he's a thoughtful person. He's trying to get it right but I think he does it real slow.

It's not to say that Facebook was directly at fault but their platforms were used and abused by the Russian government. Facebook didn't do enough, or they didn't anticipate it.

I don't think they said 'Let's help Trump win the election' or 'Let's let Russia to use our platform'. But I think that they didn't have full control of their platforms and therefore someone else took advantage of it. They also didn't anticipate that someone would kill on Facebook or that there would be suicide. And when you start to get this amount of power, you have great responsibility.

8 - On maintaining friendships with senior tech leaders

It's not my job to be their friend. At heart, a lot of them are good people.

For years we've been hard on Silicon Valley about diversity and women's issues and now it's obvious why we were. We were right. It's the same thing about a lot of the companies. I was really hard on Yahoo, but it turns out [Marissa Mayer] was a bad CEO. We stake out narratives and we stick to them on things like sexual harassment.

It's the same when looking at the uses and abuses of power. I covered Microsoft and am very aware of what happens with unchecked corporate power. You'll have decent arguments with them but so far, we haven't had a problem with access or talking to them. What we don't want to do is to promote access journalism, that we trade our access for being softer on them. So far, so good.

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