Interview with James Cook, Tech Editor in Business Insider UK
Tech editor James Cook tells about his journey into the realms of tech journalism, and explains how tech journalism can provide a translation for the mainstream on what’s going on in tech news. He goes on to tell us about what he is looking forward to regarding what’s coming up in the tech scene.
Could you give me a background about yourself and when and how you joined Business Insider.
I left school when I was 18. It was seen as a very unusual thing to do at the time, and I was very much discouraged from going to work in tech. But I went and I joined a tech startup, an Italian social network. I went to work at Google Campus in London, a co-working space. I did marketing for them. Then there was an art startup called Zealous, and I went to do marketing for them. I was basically in and around the London startup ecosystem, absorbing and learning, and I found IT and the people involved fascinating. You meet so many people which you don’t in any other job. Then I had a call one night from a friend of mine who ran a tech news website and he said ‘Look you know, you are ok at startup marketing, but I think you would actually do better at writing about startups because clearly you are interested in the people and clearly you know what is going on in London.’ So I thought that I would like to try it out. I went to work at his publication and reported on tech in London. We broadened out to tech in Europe and tech worldwide. I had a lot of fun, we basically started off as three of us in a room and then eventually we had half a floor of office space in London and we really grew that and then sold to an American publisher. Then I heard that Business Insider was launching in Europe and I really liked Business Insider from when we had dealt with them a bit in the past.
What exactly did you like about this kind of publication, why Business Insider and not another one?
I guess I was a bit attracted to publications that aren’t afraid to take risks. A lot of British media publications, especially newspapers, are scared to take risks, whereas Business Insider has a kind of attitude to it, and an informality which I quite enjoyed. I also saw Business Insider as an opportunity to grow a much larger team. So in 2014 I joined them as a tech editor and hired a team. The real battle for us is establishing Business Insider in Europe, in the UK, and then within tech as well. Building relationships with VC’s and startup founders, to make sure that when people have news they come to us.
I believe there is high competition with other potential publications. What was your step by step strategy to build trusted audience?
We tried to work with startups for a long time, we tried to be very nice about it, and we realised that by asking politely you don’t really get anywhere as a journalist. We changed that strategy and we would just write about them. Write up other people’s news, write up what we thought about it, and we’d make it clear to them that we were gonna keep learning about them, whether or not they talked to us.
Usually people love it when you talk about them right? So it shouldn’t be complex and difficult to get them onboard?
Well that is true, but as a new publication people don’t trust us. They don’t want to put their CEO in a room with us because they don’t know us basically.
So how did you build the trust?
We built the trust by reporting on them in an intelligent way, and spotting things that other people might have missed. And by trying to show that we have an understanding of their business. It wasn’t really a matter of asking, it was a matter of us going out and doing the reporting anyway and then eventually companies want to be a part of that. And then with regards to events for example, we are always at the events, but it is now that we have a level of recognition and we are being invited to speak at them.
How much time did it take to be invited as a speaker?
I started speaking at events in the past year. I think in part it is due to doing TV and radio which I do a lot of because I think many of the people who go on TV to talk about tech don’t really understand it. If I can go on and explain what is actually happening in a way that is understandable to people I think that is of benefit.
Can you give an example of the TV or radio shows which you have spoken on?
I did BBC Newsnight, which was an exciting one. I sat with Evan, the main presenter, for about an hour, talking about Apple, iPhone sales, the Chinese market etc. They really get into it, and they really want to understand and there’s a desire for them to get a really high-level analysis of what is happening in tech. Which is great to see. That was quite fun!
What is your core area that you like to cover?
I think one area that I am always interested in is music startups. It’s tough to build a successful business because you’ve got licensing, you’ve got the incumbents who have been there for, in the case of some of these music labels, decades, and you’ve got companies like Spotify, Tidal, and SoundCloud. There are new companies who are saying ‘We are going to change the world with music’ and they are doing that, but it is very tough. And also it’s tough to turn a profit doing that.
Which other industry do you enjoy covering?
Another one which interests me is cyber security, because there’s a lot happening in it, and it’s very easy for a young journalist with no training to get the scoop and get the story that no one else has regarding cyber security. Often you get young journalists who have come up from internet forums, sort of appeared out of nowhere, and they understand cyber security already, you don’t have to teach them that, because they have kind of grown up with that. You can’t teach a journalist that. Awhile back there was that story about Snapchat being hacked. I got that story because I had written about the iCloud hack. I wanted to really understand how you hack someone’s iCloud. So I was in chat rooms with the people who did this hack, as these photos were being released. They realised that I was a journalist, but I said that I am here because I want to report this accurately, I don’t want to criticise you guys, I just want to learn. And from that I had a text message saying, ‘Hey, just so you know, Snapchat has been hacked’. They just gave me that story.
How many twitter followers do you have, and how do you use your following?
Almost 10 000. Because every tech news thing that comes out I will be sharing, joking about it, talking about it. We treat Twitter almost as another TV show, like 24/7 news. ‘What does James Cook think about this?’ And you can go and look and I will probably be tweeting about it, because it’s being visible and showing that you understand. I have had really interesting interviews and things come from people seeing a tweet. One thing that young journalists don’t understand often is that the people who book you to be on TV, they just look at Twitter. So if you’re big on Twitter, they’ll book you to go on TV. People don’t understand that.
What are the things that you don’t like about tech?
I think there is a lot of bluster and things that aren’t genuine, and a lot of PR around tech is dishonest. I think it actually pays to be critical of it. Some people get really upset when you do that and they feel that you have a negative attitude.’
Where do you see the future of tech?
I think at the moment tech is very much removed from mainstream news and I think that this is going to change. We are starting to see mainstream publications realize that there is readership in tech. There are people that really want that news. I think that once you’ve got mainstream investigative reporters covering tech, when you’ve got people really digging around that’s when all the bluster and dishonesty with PR goes away. That’s why I’m looking forward to an increased spotlight on tech.
Our reporters will always go out to the conferences; we try and have at least someone there. But it won’t always be me.
How do you select in which events to cover, are you invited, or if not what are your key priorities for attending?
It’s not the title of the talks, that doesn’t really matter, it’s the people speaking. For me it’s always looking at the speakers and seeing the line up there. If it’s a non exciting line up, then we won’t go to it because.
How do you choose the topic, layout, content and angle for an article when you are covering an event?
The way I always try to do it, is I imagine I am writing it in an email to my Mum, who doesn’t really understand technology. If I can’t get my Mum interested by explaining it to her then I can’t get anyone interested. It doesn’t matter how interesting the topic is to me, I need to be able to explain it so that it is interesting enough that people will click on it and that they will come away understanding it. We did a really good story the other day, on an academic paper published by Google Deepmind about a kill switch for AI. The paper was really in depth, really technical, with artificial intelligence experts talking. But one of our reporters Sam, checked through that and said ‘Well here is what it really means.’ And that was really interesting because we could take this paper which came out and give people an explanation. And then everyone writes up a story, everyone notices it, because we did the hard work of translating it into something that people could understand.
Do you plan to be more visible on stage? – and if so do you have tips for people who want to build their path in public speaking?
I guess the important thing is to keep going to the events and keep doing what you are doing. Even if you are not a speaker on stage, or even if you are not on television.
So basically show you face, connect and be visible?
Yes exactly. Show your face and talk to the people involved. Because those are the people who book these events. You get to know them, you know the other journalists and then when they are in a situation where someone has dropped out and there is a free slot, then that’s where you get in. It takes time to write about the companies, to build relationships with TV, to build relationships with the conferences. It takes time, but it does start to pay off eventually.
How do you view the other tech publications and which ones would you recommend as complementary channels to get news and updates on tech matters in the UK?
One publication which I am a big fan of is The Register. It’s a bit more technical, and it is casted more towards people who work in tech. They have a very good team of writers who understand technology in more depth than we do. I think in terms of a complimentary publication that’s one. In terms of our competitors, on one hand there are the technological publications like Wired in London, on the other hand it’s all the newspapers as well. BBC News,City A.M., Telegraph etc, we are all writing about the same thing, so there is a lot of competition but I find that really fun, because often from that you get more interesting stories coming out of facts. I wouldn’t see this as a bad thing, there being competition.