New and emerging technologies have long been popular subjects for the news media.
Two linked strands of content developed through the mid-20th century. First, post-war science reporting signalled the increasing pace of invention. The press celebrated the remarkable achievements of researchers and popularised the radical and sometimes disturbing possibilities of a shrinking world. From the late 1940s, public enthusiasm for ‘electronic brains’ such as CSIRAC, the early Australian computer, generated considerable media coverage, alongside related topics including robotics, satellite communications, nuclear warfare, and jet travel.
Technology reporting evolved out of a second strand of journalism, less concerned with the remote wonders of science and more interested in the appearance of new technologies at work and at home. Here the subject-matter was the uptake and practical applications of new devices, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s with the complexities of acquiring and listening to radio receivers, and shifting over time to television, and then its associated and successor devices.
‘Technology’ has continued to evolve as a reporting field with this particular orientation towards the everyday uses of information, communication and media technologies. Within a week of its launching in 1964, the Australian was reporting on computers and automation, and by the late 1970s the Tuesday computer section, bursting with advertising, filled half the edition. By the 1980s, technology stories and supplements were regular features in Australian newspapers. A notable instance was the Sydney Morning Herald’s extensive ‘Computer Monday’ section, edited and in large part written by Gareth Powell, an entrepreneurial journalist and former magazine publisher who also managed the newspaper’s travel section.
The content and subject-matter of technology articles in the 1980s and 1990s was a mix of product reviews of new hardware, software and peripheral devices, expert commentary, industry news, and discussions of trends—often based on reporting from international trade conferences, with a market-making focus. At the time, this content attracted criticism and controversy; the ABC’s Media Watch devoted considerable attention to the ethics of the Herald supplement. However, the appearance and brief flourishing of technology supplements marked a remarkable period of economic and social change. They clearly secured broad readerships, and played a major role in providing publicity and visibility for what had once been an arcane area of professional and trade knowledge.
Computing magazines to emerge included Australian Personal Computer (1980– ) and Australian PC World (1997– ), along with more specialist titles such as Australian Hi-Fi (1970– 88) and, for gamers, PC Powerplay (1996– ).
The frequency of regular print coverage of technology matched the rapid development and distribution of personal computing in its take-off phase. Middle-class metropolitan households led the wave of home computing—and that demographic was well matched to the larger broadsheet readerships. Those households included younger enthusiasts encountering computers at school and university; parents and frustrated users at home and work; and professionals and managers dealing with technological change. They were not early adopters, but constituted a vital, dynamic populous market.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ early surveys on IT in households conveyed the rate of change, reporting that the number of Australian households with a computer rose from less than two million in 1994 to over three million—or 47 per cent—by late 1998. Coverage in the print media played an important role in what was effectively the creation of a new domestic market for technology goods and services: promoting what was new, educating and advising consumers, and providing critical feedback to manufacturers, retailers and distributors. Advertising was crucial to this phase: it came from local distributors of hardware and software, and from the growing number of employers competing for qualified IT professionals in what was then a tight, specialised labour market.
Technology reporting also signalled some of the longer-term social and economic consequences of the changes associated with computing, not least as these were reflected in journalists’ own changing working lives. One of these was an emphasis on portable computing; another was the increasing time available for and given over to work—especially as modems and computer networks became better known. What may have been less apparent to readers was the contingent and temporary nature of the underlying economics for this kind of reporting. The impact of the internet on mainstream press journalism is now well known; in the technology field, the dynamics of increasing competition and declining advertising became obvious earlier. Readers interested in technology news found more immediate and richer sources of information on the web, often on US sites, but also via Australian online magazines such as TechGuide. Advertising followed the readers, but was also subject to structural change. The parallel importation of software and hardware, enabled by the net, began to undermine what had been a historically high-margin industry. Job advertising also shifted online.
Technology reporting, however, has by no means disappeared—in fact, it has transformed in important ways. Market-making continues, with product reviews and coverage for the major internet platforms, and enthusiastic treatment of emerging technologies such as 3D printing and online entertainment. But as digital devices have proliferated and multiplied, their use has become a feature of Australians’ everyday life rather than an exceptional or exclusive activity. Journalism has reflected that, with an increasing emphasis on the social and cultural aspects of technologies. Technology stories have not disappeared, but they have migrated from specific sections or programs to mainstream news content, and to other areas of sectional coverage, notably those dedicated to home entertainment. Technology reporters are conspicuous in the broadcast media, with coverage—sometimes sponsored—from the likes of Peter Blasina (‘The Gadget Guy’) on Sunrise (Seven Network), ABC Radio and 2UE, and Charlie Brown on Today (Nine Network), TV Week and 2UE. Brown also co-hosts CyberShack TV (Nine), a 30-minute consumer technology and home entertainment program that first aired in 2005.
The tenor of much technology coverage has also changed, with the negative aspects of technology use—especially for children and young adults—emerging as recurrent themes in media coverage. Business stories emphasise the internet challenge to retailing and other once strong industry sectors. As reporting on the social aspects of technology has increased, major new areas of worrying coverage have developed: cyberbullying, piracy, pornography, internet surveillance and threats to privacy, and the disruption of family life. Technology—perhaps no longer perceived to be a natural friend of journalism—is now reported and presented in a more critical light.
REFs: ABS, Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 1996 (1996) and Australian Social Trends, 1999 (1999).