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Crappy Tech Journalism

June 11, 2019

Sometimes I long for the days of printed trade journals. Print was so expensive that a staff of editors was required to curate the material, to ensure only the most important information was presented, and it was dished out in a literate and accessible fashion. The Internet doomed these publications, and, worse, as the magazines went online-only, staffs were slashed. Copy editors are as extinct as dinosaurs, yet their role was to ensure the material was presented in clear and correct English. Now it's common to see sloppy mistakes. Just as code inspections harness multiple minds in a quest for perfection, one person simply cannot reliably edit his or her own work. I find errors in my writing and wonder what slips by me.

Many of the web sites that masquerade as technical journals are just collections of extended press releases. For instance, Electronic Products just ran a piece about TI's new 10 GSa/s 12-bit ADC. The specs are truly impressive, and I'd sure like to play with one.

But one critical spec isn't mentioned at all: price. TI's web site lists this IC at $2786. The price alone makes this part a poor fit for nearly all applications. How can an article in a tech magazine not mention this critical fact? Price is as important a parameter as sample rate or distortion, as it's generally a huge factor in device selection.

Oh, also not mentioned: it's not available. So cool part, nice bit of shilling by the magazine, but without price and availability the information is pretty useless for a working engineer.

I sampled a half-dozen other tech publications and none had price and availability info about this part. Some of the articles were nearly word-for-word identical. I assume they simply parrot a TI press release.

Or consider the home page of so many tech web sites. Here's a sample from Electronic Design:

An example of crappy tech journalism

The blurb under the title is just a snippet from the beginning of the article. I imagine a robot creates these. These are not sentences and convey little meaning.

Too many other sites follow the same practice. Embedded.com was once my home, but I find it almost unreadable today. You can't tell if you want to read the article without reading the article. I guess that's good for clicks and to sell advertising, but it doesn't address the needs of the engineer.

Some have maintained their journalistic integrity. Edn.com's layout hasn't changed in years and still does a good job of summarizing each article with one pithy sentence. EEtimes.com is excellent. EEworldonline.com is good, as is embedded-computing.com. Eeweb.com also provides decent summaries once you get deep into the home page, but first you have to navigate a picture header with titles like "Three steps to an efficient…" Efficient what? Bathroom? That's meaningless and doesn't entice me to read further.

And the same site puts forum responses ahead of article summaries. Forums are where very specific questions get asked. The articles appeal to a wider audience. Lead with the general, then present the highly-specific later. If a first-year calculus text started with the integral of (1/x)dx and later talked about limits, well, it wouldn't be useful at all.

In the early days of Embedded Systems Programming the editor wouldn't allow any articles written by vendors, fearing their bias would not be of service to readers. I thought that a bit extreme, as sometimes the vendors know more about an issue than anyone else. But today, with shrunken editorial staffs and a desperate need for "content," more and more articles are written by marketing folks. While vendor-supplied material can be very valuable, too much is just an ad for their products dressed in some high-level background material. Read the author bylines: you'll see what I mean.

Want to read the very first (print!) edition of Embedded Systems Programming? A PDF is here.

Worse, some bylines don't give the author's affiliation so you just don't know who they are working for. That strikes me as a deceptive practice. Part of the code of ethics for professional journalists reads: "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

Most printed trade publications came out monthly. A few, like EETimes, were weekly. Now content is added hourly in a bid for a leading Google search position. So one could say we're in a golden age of publishing, as never has so much material been available to engineers.

But I sure wish they'd replace some of their overpaid C-level executives with editors tasked with careful curation.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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