The Walt Mossberg Brand

It is a momentous day not just for those of us who write about the tech industry, but anyone who has paid any attention at all to consumer products for the last 26 years. From Walt Mossberg, at The Verge:

It was a June day when I began my career as a national journalist. I stepped into the Detroit Bureau of The Wall Street Journal and started on what would be a long, varied, rewarding career. I was 23 years old, and the year was 1970. That’s not a typo.

So it seems fitting to me that I’ll be retiring this coming June, almost exactly 47 years later. I’ll be hanging it up shortly after the 2017 edition of the Code Conference, a wonderful event I co-founded in 2003 and which I could never have imagined back then in Detroit…

In the best professional decision of my life, I converted myself into a tech columnist in 1991. As a result, I got to bear witness to a historic parade of exciting, revolutionary innovation — from slow, clumsy, ancient PCs to sleek, speedy smartphones; from CompuServe and early AOL to the mobile web, apps, and social media. My column has run weekly in a variety of places over the years, most recently on The Verge and Recode under the Vox Media umbrella, where I’ve been quite happy and have added a podcast of which I’m proud.

So I see retirement as just another of these reinventions, another chance to do new things and be a new version of myself.

Mossberg undersells himself: a necessary prerequisite to “convert[ing him]self into a tech columnist” was inventing the very concept. That I had to make such an observation — was there really a time in recent history in which major publications did not have someone focused on technology? — is itself a testament to Mossberg’s vision.

Mossberg and the Birth of Consumer Technology

What made Mossberg unique was tied up into his job description: there were certainly tech journalists and reviewers and publications like PC Magazine, but they were writing for people who already cared about technology, whether because they worked in the industry or because it was their hobby (like it had been Mossberg’s in his time as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal). Mossberg, as he told The New Yorker for this 2007 profile, had a different audience in mind:

The Journal may have an élite business audience, but, as Mossberg puts it, “I write my column for the average person.” He adds, “That’s one of the reasons I write about it as a class war” — techies vs. consumers…

In a seven-page, single-spaced prospectus that Mossberg sent to [then-Wall Street Journal managing editor Norman] Pearlstine on May 1, 1991, he wrote:

If it works as I envision it, this column…would be the voice, the champion, of the individual person actually faced with buying and using the core hi-tech devices — the customer whom industry calls the “end user.”

When the new job was settled, and Mossberg told [Secretary of State James A.] Baker and [Assistant Secretary of State Margaret] Tutwiler that he was leaving the national-security beat, Baker was baffled. “To this day,” Tutwiler told me, “Jim Baker has never owned or operated a computer, or a BlackBerry, or a cell phone.”

In fact, Baker’s obliviousness to technology, at least in 1991, was pretty normal: computers were increasingly prevalent in businesses, but still, there were only 18 million personal computers sold that year (as a point of comparison, there were about 18 million smartphone sold every four days in 2016), and the majority didn’t even have a graphical user interface (Windows 3.0 had come out the year before, but DOS was dominant until Windows 95).

Moreover, there wasn’t much of a consumer market at all, in part because many of the apps we associate with consumer usage barely existed: Microsoft Word and Excel had launched, but trailed the market leaders — WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, respectively — while Adobe Photoshop had launched the year before. id Software, perhaps the company most responsible for making the PC into a gaming device, was founded in 1991, but its first game, Wolfenstein 3D, wouldn’t come out until the following year.

However, it turned out that Mossberg’s timing was far more momentous than he probably knew when he sent that prospectus to Pearlstine: it was around the same time, in January 1991, that Tim Berners-Lee switched on the servers that hosted the first ever web page; in other words, Mossberg invented the position of technology columnist right when the technology that would ensure the industry’s impact was felt by every single person on earth was invented.

Mossberg and the Evolution of Media

As I’ve noted on multiple occasions, including in a recent appearance at the Code Media conference (itself a creation of Mossberg and Kara Swisher), the industry that has most dramatically felt the impact of the Internet is the media, and the arc of Mossberg’s career as a technology columnist reflects that.

Mossberg’s first column, How to Stop Worrying And Get the Most From Your PC, was only available in print — remember, the World Wide Web had only been invented a few months prior.

The role of the Wall Street Journal in Mossberg’s rise to prominence, though, went deeper than just owning printing presses and delivery trucks: it was the Journal’s brand name and status in the world that gave Mossberg credibility right off the bat. From a 2004 Mossberg profile in Wired:

When Mossberg “launched “Personal Technology,” Pearlstine wanted him to move to Silicon Valley. Mossberg refused to uproot his family. “How will you see all the new products?” Pearlstine asked. “I’ll go there a few times a year,” Mossberg responded, “but they’ll come to me whether I’m in Juneau or Fargo, because I’m The Wall Street Journal.”

Indeed, a big reason Pearlstine even gave Mossberg the opportunity to launch his Personal Technology column, over the objections of many at Dow Jones, was that Mossberg had long since proven his value over the 18 years he had spent at the Journal as a reporter: at least when Personal Technology started, the power flowed from the masthead, and it took Mossberg nearly two decades to earn the right to wield it.

It didn’t take long, though, for Mossberg to make that power his own; Personal Technology was immediately a hit, both amongst Journal subscribers and, just as importantly, the company’s ad salespeople. And, five years later, when “The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition” (i.e. the online version of the Wall Street Journal1) launched, Mossberg’s influence only increased as his column was now available to everyone in the world. Along the way, as noted in The New Yorker profile, something interesting happened:

Eric Schmidt suggests that, while the Internet may yield enormous amounts of information, it is easy to drown in it. So consumers, Schmidt says, “go to brands they trust.” He adds, “Walt is a brand.”

For the next decade Mossberg was, as that Wired profile is titled, the “Kingmaker.” Mossberg is credited with helping AOL overtake Prodigy, for killing Microsoft’s abusive and intrusive Smart Tags, and, perhaps most of all, for chronicling the rise of Apple.

Mossberg and Apple

There have always been grumblings that Mossberg is “biased” towards Apple. In fact, though, while Mossberg did by and large favor Apple products — Apple made five of Mossberg’s 12 most influential products — the bias, such as it was, was right there in his first column:

Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.

Mossberg was Steve Jobs’ favorite columnist — and Mossberg a frequent admirer of Apple’s products — because both had the same vision: bringing these geeky, impenetrable, and rather ugly boxes of wires and chips and disks called personal computers to normal people, convinced said computers could, if only made accessible, fundamentally transform a user’s life.

What always made Apple different from other PC manufacturers, to its detriment in the 80s and 90s, and its tremendous benefit this century, was its resolute focus on the user experience, even at the expense of business-focused priorities like compatibility or extensibility. The payoff was a computer that was actually approachable for normal people, which is what always mattered to Mossberg. Mossberg wrote in a lovely column after Jobs’ death:

This quality was on display when Apple opened its first retail store. It happened to be in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, near my home. He conducted a press tour for journalists, as proud of the store as a father is of his first child. I commented that, surely, there’d only be a few stores, and asked what Apple knew about retailing. He looked at me like I was crazy, said there’d be many, many stores, and that the company had spent a year tweaking the layout of the stores, using a mockup at a secret location. I teased him by asking if he, personally, despite his hard duties as CEO, had approved tiny details like the translucency of the glass and the color of the wood. He said he had, of course.

That mattered to Mossberg just as much as it did to Jobs, and if caring about the entire experience meant he was biased towards Apple, then I rather wish not just every tech writer but also every product manager and CEO would be biased as well.

Mossberg and the Internet

Probably the ultimate manifestation of the Mossberg brand was the “D: All Things Digital” conference he started in partnership with Kara Swisher, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering the tech industry. Steve Jobs was an annual guest, from the first iteration of the conference in 2003 on, and nearly every major executive in the industry sat in those famous red chairs at one time or another, including a memorable joint appearance by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates:

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Ten years later Mossberg and Swisher would take the conference and the tech-focused news website they had built around it independent, rebranding it from All Things D to Recode. By all accounts the conference (and its various offshoots, including the aforementioned Code Media conference) continue to be a success, but the website struggled, drawing only around 2.5 million unique visitors a month 18 months after launch, leading Mossberg and Swisher to sell their new company to Vox Media.

It was tempting after the sale to presume that an individual brand can only take you so far, that you need a big media company behind you, but I think that’s a mistake; as a counter-example, consider John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, which as of 2011 had over 4 million visits a month. Granted, many of those are repeat visitors — Daring Fireball’s unique visitors were about a fifth of that — but that’s kind of the point: if you care about Apple, for example, would you rather read Mossberg once a week or Gruber once a day?

Obviously this point is personal: three months after Recode launched, Stratechery added the Daily Update, a subscription offering for people that wanted daily content about the business and strategy of technology. Note the narrowing: Mossberg was the arbiter of all consumer products; my goal is to not really cover products at all. Not only do I not have Mossberg’s eye, I am also cognizant of the fact there are a multitude of sites and hundreds if not thousands of writers focused on nothing else but doing what Mossberg did alone way back in 1991. Consumer technology used to be niche, and on the Internet, niche is powerful; now it’s a commodity, and the economics reflect that.

Mossberg and Trailblazing

Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Mossberg is just as much of a trailblazer as the companies and products he covered: that writers like myself can build businesses and brands independent of established publications is simply the natural evolution of how Mossberg built a brand bigger than the Wall Street Journal, fueled by the Internet and its atomitization of media. Mossberg told Wired in that profile:

As PC sales skyrocketed in the early ’90s, he sensed a historic shift: “I believed that the tech market was about to broaden and democratize, and the column could catch the wave.”

Catch the wave Mossberg did, and in the process, created the blueprint for another. That’s a pretty good career.

  1. My favorite tidbit from a New York Times story about the launch:

    The news will be posted on the Web site about midnight, said Neil Budde, the Interactive Edition’s editor in chief. A few articles will be withheld until 2 or 3 A.M., he said, so that competing newspapers will not be able to see them until the day’s editions are printed.

    Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that the stories could be posted to other websites!