Veteran tech journalist Kara Swisher, Executive Editor at Re/code, recently sat down with Anna Kiplin, an analyst with Tencent’s Penguin Intelligence, at the Tencent Media Summit last week, to discuss her podcast Re/code Decode, the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley, how she started her media company Re/code and principles in tech reporting.
Below are excerpts from their interview.
How did you begin with your podcast Re/code Decode?
Swisher: We’ve been doing these [tech] conferences for years, 12 or 13 years, where we interview people on stage and we do about 16 interviews at the main Re/code conference……We might as well do 100 interviews versus just 16.
The podcast format is super intimate. It creates a really intimate substance of conversation. Even though this world has sort of becoming twitchy and short form, people love a great conversation with smart people. Like the [Marc] Andreessen interview was an hour-long and we had enormous listenership on it and they listened all the way through. Because here is someone who is a legend, who is not just famous but insightful, difficult. You get a real sense of his personality in a real substantive interview.
You have a reputation in Silicon Valley that people are scared of you but they also trust you at the same time, what do you think of that?
Swisher: I think journalists in Silicon Valley can be a bit cheerleader-y. They are a bit in awe of the people they are covering, a bit like covering celebrities. And they are celebrities. Tech people have become celebrities. Mark Zuckerberg has become a global celebrity. Steve Jobs obviously still remains a global celebrity years after his death. I think what I tried to do is to approach them not in that manner. I tried to treat them like, here they have a business, I tried to assess it fairly. I tried not to be mean, but I tried not to sort of kiss up to them. I think their version of scared is I don’t kiss up to them. I think I’m relatively fair. I think I do my homework. I spend a lot of time researching things. I spend a lot of time talking to people. I think a lot of people don’t do that. I think they are scared because I know more than they do.
I’m also super old. I have been around longer than they have. So when I talk to a lot of the entrepreneurs – I knew Steve Jobs, I know Bill Gates, I’ve known Jeff Bezos from the time he started his company – I have background that other people don’t have. So when I’m interviewing someone like that, if I meet the Google guy in a garage, it’s a very different relationship. You see them in a different light and I think because I’ve known them since they started it’s a different relationship.
How has the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley evolved?
Swisher: There’s a lot more money. When these people started, they weren’t wealthy. Now they are wealthy beyond belief, in fact obscenely so. I think it’s an industry that has created some astonishing innovations. At the same time has become kind of a parody of itself. There is a show on HBO called Silicon Valley. It’s really true. I consult with them every now and then, they called me to give them my insights. What really funny is a lot of it is real. They don’t even need to make a joke. It’s actually happening in that way, and it depicts people as they kind of are in Silicon Valley.
It is an interesting phenomenon when you become parody of yourself. I do think there is still a sphere of innovation you don’t find in other industries across the United States. The car industry has sort of played itself out in the U.S where it started. The car industry doesn’t own the innovation cycle anymore. I think Internet companies in Silicon Valley really still own the innovation cycle right now. But there is still some really interesting stuff especially in China, it’s probably the most compelling competitor. I think finally China is not a copier but a creator of innovation. I have been using WeChat this week and I love it. I have used it in the U.S. but I find it incredibly compelling compared to Twitter and Facebook. It’s a really interesting product. I think they definitely now have some serious opportunities for global dominance with their products.
How do you look at diversity in tech companies?
Swisher: If you want to be a truly global innovative company, your employees have to reflect the global community as far as I can see. There is study after study showing it creates better businesses, creates better ideas, creates better products. On a moral level, it’s the correct thing to do. One of the things big in Silicon Valley is the idea of meritocracy. And yet, the entire board of Twitter is composed of all white men, like how does that happen? It can’t be all that good. I have been using this expression, it’s a “mirror-tocracy”. They are looking at themselves and reflecting themselves and not anybody else. I think that has to change.
I still think the main people running Silicon Valley still look like Mark Zuckerberg or it’s still going to be reflected in the employee base unfortunately. People like Mark Zuckerberg have to look up and say I want a diverse population in my company. This is not right for all kinds of reasons: business reasons, moral reasons, innovation reasons. I’m gonna try really hard to find a more diverse group. For me, it’s one of the the number one issues. It’s what made America great. It’s diversity. That’s why America has done so well. It’s a diverse population. But it’s going to suffer if it does not include all kinds of different people.
How did you get started on Re/code with your long-time business partner Walt Mossberg?
Swisher: We started AllThingsD. All Things Digital was the first iteration. It began earlier in 1999, 2000. I have been covering digital for a number of years since the early 1990s. And I was convinced that publishing was finished. It was all going to be digital publishing. Traditional publication was dead. Not a lot of people shared my opinion. But I felt like digital publication was the future. And I turned out to be right. I wanted to create a content property that was only digital. The Wall Street Journal wasn’t very interested in that. But they were amenable to do an analogue conference. Walt and I talked about it a lot. Walt was one of the few people at the Journal who really understood where things were going, so we met.
And then this past year, when I saw that there was a lot of change in the content industry, we hooked up with Vox Media, which is an amazing company, very similar to us on ethics and quality, and we were bought by them.
We decided [to sell to Vox Media] because companies like the Buzzfeeds of the world, the Business Insiders, the Vices were getting enormous funding. If you are a tiny little fish in a place where other fish are getting bigger, you either need to get more money – we could have raised more money ourselves – or hook up with one of the bigger players. We picked the one we thought was the right partner for us.
What about the principles of tech reporting. Business Insider got investment from Jeff Bezos, do you think a reporter from Business Insider can write stories about Amazon objectively?
Swisher: I think it is harder. I wouldn’t have taken money from Jeff Bezos. In the old days, many publishers were owned by business people. It is an interesting problem. Because the Washington Post was owned by a business person, not a media person in its early days. People like Jeff Bezos, or say Bill Gates, and others are very interested in media properties. When you are that wealthy, what do you do with your money? He happens to be in the media business and he wants to invest in a media company. He bought the Washington Post. He is a good owner probably for the Washington Post.
Now in our case when we were owned by Rupert Murdoch, we insulted Rupert Murdoch all the time. When he was involved with that whole debacle in Britain, over the tapping of the phones. We gave him a hard time over that issue. I never heard from him. He was a good publisher and he never interfered with us. The same thing with NBC. When the Brian Williams thing happened, we wrote about it in quite a tough manner, because it was a mess. There was nobody at NBC who ever called us. When we wrote about Comcast and net neutrality, we were pretty tough. I mean we were verging on super tough with Comcast. Vox has received investment from Comcast, by virtue of Comcast being the owner of NBC. So it’s a difficult time in the media not to have some conflict of interest. I think what’s more important is to disclose it.
(Top photo is handout by Kara Swisher)