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So What Do You Do, Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor of

'The way to be an influential journalist is to be accurate and to be fair'

By Andrea Williams - April 24, 2013
For all of the Facebook and iEverything successes from the past two decades, there have been just as many tech flops that fizzled before the ink on the dot-com registration could dry. But at least one player in the digital game has remained a constant.

In an industry that is less than welcoming toward women (see Adria Richards), journalist Kara Swisher is almost as ubiquitous and long-standing as the Internet itself. While much of her longevity can be attributed to her having the initial foresight to see the tech revolution coming, the Silicon Valley staple has a much more powerful tool in her arsenal: hard-core reporting chops.

Name: Kara Swisher
Position: Co-executive editor of and co-executive producer of the D: All Things Digital conference
Resume: Worked at an alternative newspaper in Washington, D.C. before moving quickly to The Washington Post, where she started as an intern and was later hired full-time. Wrote How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads and Made Millions in the War for the Web in 1998 (the sequel followed 5 years later). Recruited by current partner Walt Mossberg to join the Wall Street Journal where together they launched the AllThingsD conference in 2003 and later expanded it into a website.
Birthdate: "I don't ever give the date, but everyone knows I just turned 50."
Hometown: New York City
Education: B.S. from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, 1984. M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, 1985
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Michael Lewis ("He's a great writer and really good reporter"), Connie Bruck and Nora Ephron
Favorite TV shows: Law and Order, Game of Thrones, Scandal and Nashville, among others
Guilty pleasure: Eating donuts and sleeping
Last book read: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Twitter handle: @karaswisher

You've been covering the digital scene for so long. With so many new ventures popping up daily, how do you determine which are newsworthy?
After doing it for almost 20 years, you see a lot of things and you start to get to know the people involved. A lot of the companies have a lot of the same people involved, so you get to know people and you get to know their record and their ability. So, I think you can make some pretty quick editorial judgments based on your experience. I think that's pretty much it. But at the same time, you really can't know what is going to pop. I think things can surprise you. I mean, I loved Instagram from the minute it started, but I think it surprised a lot of people how quickly it got huge. You have to balance not being cynical with understanding that anything can happen in this industry because it's so innovative for the most part, and it's so full of new ideas almost consistently. It's one of the few industries that is like that.

"People make a bigger deal of it, but I think I just work harder than other people."

You're known for breaking stories and getting scoops before anyone else. Which one are you most proud of or excited you the most when you were writing it?
I'm pleased, obviously, with some of the stories around Yahoo! and the different CEO problems that they had. I think one of the things that was difficult then is that people kept saying I was wrong -- and then I was correct. So that's nice. I think it's the consistently being accurate that's heartening for us on our site. There's so much speculation and rumor mongering, that it's really nice to stick to getting it right every time. We really spend a lot of time on building relationships. And so when everyone is like, "How do you break so many stories?" it's because I build relationships. I do it the old-fashioned way, and I build sourcing relationships, and then I take advantage of those relationships over time. So, whenever someone says, "Oh, how do you do it?" I tell them that I make more calls then they do. I don't think it's that big of a deal. People make a bigger deal of it, but I think I just work harder than other people. That's all. There's no secret sauce or anything.

How can other journalists become influential in their own reporting?
Well, it's really easy. Be accurate; know your stuff. I think what's really amazing is that people just jump into it without any kind of expertise. People just start mouthing off on things or printing rumors without doing any checking, and they think that's the way to glory. It's the way to laziness. And I think the way to be an influential journalist is to be accurate and to be fair and to get things right and to really characterize things in an honest way, versus being really snarky or cheerleading. There's sort of a happy medium between them, where you're excited about some of the things, but at the same time, you want to give the reader the truth because this stuff can get hyped pretty quickly.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, David Ho, Mobile and Tablets Editor at The Wall Street Journal?

During the D: All Things Digital conference, you have interviewed top technology leaders, including Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. What is the key to getting good answers from high-level people, who typically only give PR talking points when discussing their companies?
You have to ask really good questions. Really smart people don't want to say stupid things, and they really don't want to be a part of a PR-engineered interview. People really do want to be smart and they want smart questions. So, if you ask smart questions, there's no way you can't do well.

What was your primary motivation for launching
Well, we started with the conference. We actually wanted to start with the website, but the people at Dow Jones didn't want us to do that. But we felt like there was a real lack of accountability, fairness and accuracy involved in tech blogging, and we felt that we could bring all of the traditional standards of old media and mix them with this very exciting new medium that has quickness and wit and fun and immediacy. We liked all that, but what we didn't like was the rumor mongering and the lack of standards. We felt that we could combine them both, and I think we've done a nice job of that. We just really thought it was a great way to reach readers, and we're going to go where the readers are.

Your wife is a Google exec. You've disclosed how you keep her job from interfering with your reporting, but how do you ensure that your job doesn't interfere with your marriage? Do you have a "no talking about work" rule at home?
We don't talk about Google at all. I don't have any financial stake; we separated our finances. It's very clear on the site what we've done, so there's no financial benefit for me. The second thing is we don't talk about what she does, and I don't tell her what I'm doing. She reads about it like everybody else. I avoid things that I think she's near. She's moved on to a different part of Google, which I've never covered, so that makes it a lot easier.

We had one instance where I ran into her when I was writing about Facebook, and the minute I found out -- and not through her -- that she was working on it, I got off the story, and I explained it to readers. So I moved off the story; I didn't ask her to move off her job, and I said I would give [the story] to someone else until she was out of the equation. It's only happened once, and we explained to readers immediately why I wasn't going to write about the story anymore. It certainly hasn't had an impact. I think it's only hurt her career at Google, if anything, only because I insult them a lot. I've made a lot of commentary around their issues of privacy and power and monopoly. I think I was very tough on them when they were trying to hook up with Yahoo! a couple of years ago.

"People just start mouthing off on things or printing rumors without doing any checking, and they think that's the way to glory. It's the way to laziness."

Has she ever told you that she was bothered by something you said?
She's never said a word. I've heard it internally from other people, though. I covered Google a lot before she got there, so I have relationships myself. I suspect it probably has hurt her, but I don't know. She's never said anything. But, you know, people can think what they want. The only thing I can say is that we have it in the disclosure [on]; you're either going to have to believe us or not. But that's the truth.

Adria Richards was recently fired after the backlash surrounding her tweets about sexual harassment at the PyCon Tech Conference. What are your thoughts on that situation, particularly her tweeting pictures of the alleged offenders?
It's a terrible, terrible situation. Most of all, it's an interesting issue regarding what social media can do right now. I'm not clear she should have published their pictures. I don't know. It's a great debate [around] what should have happened in that situation. When you're irked by somebody in a car next to you, do you tweet a picture of them swerving into your lane? It's sort of really interesting how we deal with these normal, everyday occurrences of irritation between people and difficulties between members of society. And usually they say something, throw the finger and move on. But now you have these tools that amplify your voice. The question is how much amplification should you be doing?

I don't know what happened [with Richards]; I don't know if it was an overreaction, and I don't know if it was an under-reaction. What I do know is that what was horrible about the whole thing were the comments that happened after it from other people. It was really interesting that people feel like just because they can say something that they can say something -- and they can't.

With the success of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, there's been a lot of talk about women leaders in technology and business. Why do you think there aren't more women and people of color in the tech space? Is the onus on those groups to "lean in" or technology leaders to reach out?
That's a big question, and I've talked to a lot of people about this. I think it starts really early, for both women and minorities in terms of joining a club that's full of a certain kind of person. If you want to be the "only," it's really hard to be the "only." And so, one of the things that's interesting, and someone told me this recently, is that people can only tolerate one differential. So if you're black, you can't be a woman. And if you're a woman, you can't be black. It's a really interesting thing, and, if you think about it, it's actually true when you start to look at things. It's a super interesting question of where it starts and how we can change that so that math and science become attractive to everybody, so that we can find talent everywhere versus just this self-selected group of people, which is typically white males. You change the equation, and then you create more opportunity for everyone; then you create more diversity; then you create better products. It's a deep question of where we begin, and I suspect it starts very early in the elementary school time period.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, David Ho, Mobile and Tablets Editor at The Wall Street Journal?

Andrea Williams is a freelance writer based in Nashville. Follow her at @AndreaWillWrite.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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