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5 Minutes with Peter Wells

By Seamus Byrne in Media News on
What do you do and where does your work appear?
I write about technology and podcasts for the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a lot of fun. I also have a day job in IT, which is less fun but pays the bills.
 
Anything else in your career you’ve been known for?
I guess I fell into this by convincing my good friend (and Mactalk owner) Anthony Agius we should do a podcast. This was 2007, when only Apple nerds listened to podcasts, so we’d often outrank Hamish and Andy back then.
 
What did you really want to be when you were growing up?
The first job I really wanted was as a radio DJ - completely by chance, I was probably 12, delivering Chinese food to a radio station (helping my mum on a casual job) and everything about the studio was cool as hell. Radio kept me sane during uni, and then I discovered podcasts, and I’ve always loved that intimate connection of audio.
 
Which story or stories are you most proud of?
I’m not sure I’ve ever been proud of a tech story I’ve written, but I’ve been proud of a turn of phrase every now and then. Having said that, I really love when I write about a small indie podcast and they suddenly get an uptick in listeners, or they’re just so proud to be in the paper. Those moments are wonderful, and remind me how cool this gig is sometimes.
 
What's your secret superpower?
I can barely remember a name, but I can remember every detail of every scandal in tech of the last twenty years.
 
What are three top tips you can give PR pros for working with you effectively?
Understand that I only have one column a week, and as much as I would love to write about everything, I have to sift through the things I’m playing with to determine what deserves to be written about; because it is better than most, has a unique selling point, or is unbelievably bad. Most products or services fall in the middle of the bell curve, they’re not good, bad, or even interesting enough to write about, in that one spot a week.
 
Related to that, there’s a good chance I might not write a review about your product, but getting to know your product makes me a better writer and commentator, so please don’t stop sending review units, just because you’ve missed coverage a few times in a row. Some of the best innovations come from the most unlikely sources. I always think back to how well Blackberry, as it was circling the drain, came up with the best work/life balance on a smartphone. I still refer back to it in reviews to this day. So I may not review your product, but it may appear in another review as “Samsung did this better” or “LG did this better”…
 
I absolutely hate the new trend of receiving a product 8 hours before embargo releases. I understand you don’t want leaks, but if you have a product you’re proud of, at least give us two weeks to play with and get to know before we’re expected to write a review.
 
How do you like to start a PR relationship if you've never been in touch before?
Awkwardly, as I start all relationships. Generally I find some really cool new product, then search my email for another product from that brand. I email the person who says “oh, we don’t rep that brand anymore…” And then I try to figure out who does. By the way, if you know who does, just tell me! I’ll love you forever if you do.
 
What's the most important lesson you've learned about journalism?
I don’t think anything I do could be considered journalism. But the most important lesson I’ve learned about writing reviews is that if you write something that ignores a glaring fault, when you read it back a few years later, you’ll be really disappointed in yourself, and you’ll wonder how many people bought that thing, and will never trust another word you write. Not that I think the average person pays that much attention to bylines, but to sleep at night, I need to point out the faults when I see them.
 
How do you hunt for good stories?
Because writing isn’t my day job, I have to be pragmatic about the stories I write. For the most part, I write reviews, which I do think serve a purpose, but they’re hardly pulitzer material. But three or four times a year I’ll give myself the time to gather a story with a bit more research and effort. Mainly these are about the way technology intersects with society, be it social media's role in shaping social discourse, or sexism in technology, or whatever. I don’t really hunt these down, they’re more big picture issues that I really want to write about, because I’m frustrated by those kinds of things daily, but want to make sure I get my point across concisely.
 
What's been the biggest change in the industry over the past decade?
I’ve only been around half a decade, but it’s sad to see how many tech journalists have retired or moved on. If it were up to me, the tech section of our national newspapers would be bigger than the sports section (and I’m one of those rare nerds who loves sports) because I think the impact of technology on our lives is probably second only to climate change (which is also a technology story), COVID not withstanding.
 
What do you think is the most important issue facing the tech industry today?
Ethics. So many tech companies seem to value growth and shareholder value over the impact they have on society. Facebook and Twitter could have been amazing tools of social building, instead both companies are tearing society and democracy apart, so their shareholders get a few extra million. On YouTube, it takes just a few recommendations to start at a Bananas in Pyjamas clip and end up at a white supremacist video. It’s so fucking depressing.
 
What's the biggest issue facing journalism?
Money and time. The best stories take time to research, to interview, to investigate. When there’s no money to do that, there’s no time to do that.
 
Exclusives are everything. Discuss.
Eh. Depends who’s calling it an exclusive. If it is an exclusive story, fair play to you.If it’s an exclusive press release, you know 48 other people have also been given the exclusive.
 
What do you wish you'd never have to explain to readers ever again?
Apple’s Butterfly keyboards.
 
Name a recent story you wish you'd written.
I wish I’d written something on the COVIDSafe app performance on the iPhone. My colleagues Ben Grubb and Tim Biggs at SMH did excellent jobs, and so did many other Australian journalists, but I really wish I had the chance, because I felt that was in my wheelhouse.
 
Who is the best journo in the industry and why?
Kara Swisher. She’s taken the time to know everyone and everything. She is confident enough to know when she is being fed bullshit, and she will point it out point by point. But she also has a humanity to everything she writes, she gets that tech isn’t just products, there are people involved in every step, be it the narcissist CEO or the starving worker on the supply chain.
 
Which industry publications, podcasts or other productions are on your unmissable list?
Pivot - with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway.
 
How do you keep up with what your colleagues are writing?
I follow them on twitter. :)
 
Which app has changed your life more than any other?
I still think the most important app of the smartphone era is Google Maps. Seeing it on a friend’s imported iPhone (before they were on sale in Australia) I realised everyone would have a smartphone in a few years.
 
Favourite screen-free hobbies?
Walking with a favourite podcast. Does that count?
 
What’s your go-to song at karaoke?
Freedom ’90 - George Michael.
 
Favourite sporting moment?
 
What's your favourite game of all time?
GTA IV - the last great GTA when they still cared about story.
 
Name five discs you'd want to be stuck with on a desert island?
Crooked Rain
Fear Of A Black Planet
Paul’s Boutique
The College Dropout
Surrender
 
What was your favourite TV show of the 2010s?
Battlestar Galactica, even though the last season sucked. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost…
 
What vices do you lean into when you're chasing a tight deadline?
Beer, of course! And when in Europe, a cheeky ciggie.
 
What's the most ridiculous buzzword in the industry?
It really depends on the context. If you tell me your new virtual assistant is powered by AI, cool, if you tell me your new gaming mouse is powered by AI, I might be a little more skeptical. See also: blockchain, agile, vertical, etc.
 
The PR fairy calls saying you can have the interview of your dreams. Who's it gonna be?
Depends… Elon Musk or Travis Kalanick if they’d taken a truth serum. If not, I would love to chat with Hairforce One - Craig Federighi.

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