David Pogue has become a household name in tech criticism from his “State of the Art” column in New York Times along with multi-media contributions to PBS and CBS among others. Last week, Pogue launched Yahoo Tech at CES in Las Vegas to much fanfare. The new digital magazine is quite sophisticated in its fit and finish, and it remains as such no matter the device with which it is accessed. Its innovative article tiles allow readers to read articles while all other articles remain on the same page. As Pogue explains below, this should make the site stickier and more psychologically satisfying.
When I last spoke with Pogue in mid-2013, he was firmly planted at the New York Times and referred to his post as “the greatest job in the world.” I wondered what had changed in the ensuing six months and what else he had planned for Yahoo Tech.
Peter High: David, congratulations on your new role as VP of Editorial at Yahoo Tech. When we last spoke in July of 2013, you described your role at the New York Times you seemed very happy. What lured you away from your dream job to Yahoo!?
David Pogue: Honestly, I never expected to leave the Times. I truly thought it was the greatest job. I thought for sure that I would be there until I died or until they asked me to leave. Yahoo! approached me last summer, and indicated that they were going to make some sweeping changes to the company, and they wanted me to join them.
When I asked them what they saw my involvement entailing, they responded by saying, “we want this to be your playground.” I asked if it would involve a new website; they said, “yes.” I asked if it would involve apps; they said, “yes.” Conferences? Check. Staff? Check. When I listed my dream team of collaborators, the Yahoo! executives indicated that they would hire them. Everything that I asked was provided. It really did feel like a playground was being built for me. It seemed like there were limitless possibilities. In fact, the site that we just launched is exactly what I had in mind. It is exactly the writers that I dreamed of and it has the tone, the slant, and the humor that most readers identify with me.
This is not the story of my leaving “old media.” It is the story of my jumping at a new, remarkable opportunity. It meant a much bigger audience. Yahoo! attracts 800 million people per month. The company wants to develop a variety of digital magazines, and Tech is one of the first two along with Food.
PH: You covered many of the most innovative companies in the world in your column in the Times. This included products and services offered by the likes of Apple, Google, and Amazon among others. Yahoo! was noticeably absent because the company has had a difficult stretch in recent years. Were you at all worried that you were trading down in leaving the Times for Yahoo!?
DP: Clearly there was the possibility of losing prestige in this move. The New York Times is as good a byline as there is in the world. Also, one can’t deny that Yahoo! had had a period “at sea”, so to speak. I did not accept this job until I had spent two full days at Yahoo! After that, I came up with two main reasons to join the company. First, it was not at all the same company as the one you had been paying very little attention to. 42 percent of the 14 thousand people currently at Yahoo! were not at the company when Marissa Meyer joined a year and a half ago. That is astonishing. It quite literally is not the same company.
The second reason I wanted to join the company was the morale and the internal drive that I felt among the people I spoke with. There is a real start-up mentality and a fire in the bellies of employees that was palpable.
I should also mention that I was excited to build something new. To be candid, I had not done that before. Yahoo Tech represented the opportunity to build something from the ground up with the incredible support of a giant technology company.
PH: How will the content change relative to what you covered for the New York Times?
DP: The mission is largely the same. My experience encountering America’s citizens has been sculpted by writing the “For Dummies” books, writing for general interest computer magazines, writing for 13 years for the New York Times’ layman audience, answering a thousand emails per week from people expressing their concerns and expressing their problems with technology, giving fifty talks per year where it is constantly reinforced for me that people struggle to keep up with the pace of technology change. Therefore, the mission is the same. It is still serving normal people to help them make better decisions.
What has dramatically changed is the format. Yahoo Tech is a digital magazine. There is absolutely no reason why any coverage should be limited in format, in length, in timing, in multi-media structure. It should be what it wants to be. We have launched something called “Today’s Mediation” which are essentially one sentence long quirky observations that the other columnists and I have. Sometimes one line is all it will take. There will be one thousand word articles, and there will be three thousand word articles. There will be videos, audio clips, and each of those will also be embedded in articles. It will be available across devices.
DP: In the last couple of years, I noticed that more of the great ideas were coming from crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. It is a way to short-circuit the usual process between inventor and audience. Ideas come faster; they don’t have to be as mainstream; they don’t have to be vetted through endless committees. I saw a gulf between the importance of these inventions and the perception of them in the public eye. They shouldn’t be under-the-radar. They should be every bit as celebrated and analyzed and critiqued as shipping products. We can help shape the success of a product through a review. Nothing makes me more giddy as a critic than throwing my weight behind a useful , important, promising idea, and helping it come to market.
PH: I suppose you’ve had to develop some new caveats related to the fact that you are commenting on ideas without a full understanding of their inventors’ ability to execute, however. Is that right?/>/>
DP: Absolutely. We are quite clear that these are reviews of a prototype. We even define the differences between the prototype that I am testing and the finished product that the consumer will get.
PH: As you mentioned earlier one of the things that Yahoo! offered in the playground that they built for you was additional team members. As you thought about how to fill out a team, what did you look for?
DP: There were two sets of people we hoped to hire. First, there will be a column like mine every day of the week, so there are five senior weekday columnists. I am one of them, so we had four more to hire. I basically hired my favorite writer:, Dan Tynan, Deb Amlen, Rob Walker, and Rob Pegoraro who are all fantastic, and they will each handle a day of the week along with me.
Second, we hired editors and managers. Again, we hired excellent people to fill those spots.
PH: Will you be able to continue your work with PBS and CBS among other affiliations you have beyond Yahoo!?
DP: I think I will. Although I am busier than I have ever been with Yahoo Tech’s launch, I now have a team of 12 people that I did not have, so I think it will actually work out well.
DP: There are three reasons we elected to do this. First, they blink at you while you are trying to read, and they are distracting and painful as a result. Second, when you view our site from a phone, as 50 percent of our readers do, there is not enough screen space to give up for an ad. Third, banner ads and display ads are being ignored to a great extent today.
What will replace them will be contextual ads or sponsored posts. We choose the topics we will cover, and we offer advertisers to contribute their own articles on the topic, not as explicit commercials for their products or services, but informational pieces that are as interesting and well written as the Yahoo Tech generated content. As an example, today Ford wrote a sponsored piece about the future direction of car propulsion. It included thoughts on apps that are migrating from the phone to the dashboard. It is an interesting piece, but it does not tell you to buy Ford cars. Instead it is something more interesting that represents a win-win for our readers and for the companies that contribute such pieces.
PH: I noticed the tile system that you’ve created for the Yahoo Tech site, and when an article is selected, it does not take the reader to a new page, but rather opens up the article on the same page with the content above it and below it is still in place.
DP: I love that change. It takes away the psychological pain of clicking on an article and moving away from other articles that may be more interesting. Everything remains. This is a true innovation.
PH: Are there any other innovations that are planned?
DP: We have not included a comments section to our site because we are waiting to unveil an innovative new way of managing comments. As you go to most sites that allow comments, so much of the space is taken up with hateful sludge that actually works against a productive dialogue between writers and readers. I asked the executives at Yahoo! if we could rethink the way in which this is managed. They gave me access to some of the company’s best engineers and computer scientists from Yahoo! Labs, and I think we will set the standard for interesting, non-abusive commentary on our site. Stay tuned for that change coming in the next couple of weeks!
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.