Writers I Read: Joshua Schnell

Editors’ Note: This is the first interview in my new “Writers I Read” series.

Joshua Schnell is the Editor-n-Chief of Macgasm, a Mac-centric blog based in Ottawa. I currently moonlight as the Senior Contributing Editor for Macgasm, and have enjoyed working with Josh closely on the site. However, I’ve read Macgasm for years, enjoying Josh’s writing style and no-nonsense attitude towards some of the silliness in which other Mac sites partake.

Stephen: Josh, thanks for being agreed to be interviewed. I know you keep busy running your Mac-centric news site, Macgasm. It’s been in my RSS reader for a long time. What got you started in the tech writing world?

Joshua: It was probably a little bit of a personal perfect storm. I was pretty enamored with ZDTV and TechTV growing up. Around the time that G4 started bastardizing the network, I began to lose interest in their programming, and I found myself trying to keep up with the original TechTV personalities online. It’s kind of weird, but once TechTV collapsed, it kind of left a technology void to be filled.

Between 2004 and 2007, I started dabbling with a personal blog. Around the same time, I made the switch to a Mac in 2005/2006. I found myself without any available resources when it came to the Mac (turns out that I just didn’t know where to find them), and I started keeping notes on interesting things I found on my personal blog. By 2007 I started to notice search engine traffic coming to those posts, and I figured it was time to throw my hat into the ring. Macgasm remained a bit of a personal hobby from 2007 through until 2009, but then I really started to ramp up coverage, and one thing led to another. It’s been an extremely exciting and frustrating ride over the years.

I’ve always had a disposition to writing about technology on the internet. When I was in high school (from 1995 to 2000), I dabbled with starting a video game website (e-central.org), but it ultimately led nowhere. It also helped that a good friend of mine managed to sell off his video game website for close to $200,000 at that time. Today $200,000 might not seem like all that much, but seeing someone with that amount of cash while still in high school really put the potential of the internet into perspective for me.

Stephen: I too fell into the Mac world in high school. For me, it was at the student newspaper. From the way you describe it, it sounds like you were almost destined to write on the web, and you’ve been doing it for a long time now. How do you think the landscape has changed over the years?

Joshua: I love the Mac community, and generally everyone who contributes to it really gets the culture that most of us have come to love. Maybe I had naive beginnings, but there’s a feeling I can’t seem to shake: something has definitely changed. Somewhere along the way it became less about helping others and more about making a living. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like there’s more emphasis on getting eyeballs to websites than there is about writing responsibly. Corners get cut, Via links dry up, and some people even like to pretend that they’re a conduit for every minute detail that comes out of Cupertino by demanding link-backs. One of the reasons I started the blog was to help people make the switch, and I think this is probably true for most, but somewhere along the way it’s become less about giving back to the community and more about taking from the community. We’re not perfect—far from it actually—but we constantly reevaluate the way we do things in an attempt to rid ourselves of any of the “new media douchery” that comes with running a blog these days.

I don’t know if it’s the economics of running a technology blog, or a general change in the culture of the Mac community, but sensational headlines rule the day.

Stephen: That’s interesting. I see the Mac new world in three sections. Pros (like Macworld), prosumer (MacStories) and then columnists like Gruber. Writing style and content make up a lot of it, but attitude means so much to me. I like that Macgasm is trying to be different. How has it been trying to run against the current?

Joshua: To me, the most fun thing about this gig is trying to figure out who our primary audience might be, and then figuring out ways that we can provide things a little bit different than the others. We don’t always pull it off, but I like to think of us as a bit of a hybrid website. We’ll never beat any of those websites you’ve listed at their own game. They all do what they do extremely well, but I think providing news alongside commentary is something that a lot of people are looking for today. Straight up, news sites don’t have much of a chance anymore. Twitter has taken over the “fastest-post” market. People get news in 140 character chunks these days, but what they’re missing is commentary. Any time we can provide insights or thoughts on the news, we do it.

Being mentioned in the same breath as the examples you listed is an honor, but we don’t want to be like them. There’s no value in that. We’d only be playing second fiddle. Trying to run against the current has its own set of challenges. Some people won’t understand it, but others embrace it. Providing commentary is a bit more difficult than regurgitating the news like some of the other websites on the internet. Some people appreciate it, while others have no problem calling you a fanboy, troll, or idiot. It is what it is, but by not catering to the masses, we’re not going to see mass appeal and growth. That’s what we want. Don’t get me wrong, we’d love the extra traffic, but we’re not about to sell our souls to get it. We want to be something to someone, not everything to everyone. We’ve been around since 2008ish, and I don’t really see us going anywhere anytime soon.

We try to avoid the sensationalism because we don’t want to be associated with the hot air. A lot of people leave us positive responses when they notice that. They’re tired of being baited into clicks, and they’re tired of being treated like idiots. If giving them a positive experience means that we’re more selective with our titles, it’s worth the effort.

Stephen: I think you’re right. I know I’ve stopped reading many Apple-centric sites over the years because of their coverage, poor writing or traffic-grabbing tricks. As you so clearly put, you aren’t willing to “sell your soul” for traffic. That’s pretty ballsy when it comes to advertising revenue.

I also liked what you wrote when the news about Steve Jobs’ leave of absence broke: “If we hear anything more that’s based on fact we’ll be sure to update you. Other than that we’ll avoid conjecture and rumors on Jobs’ health issues.”

Its sad that your stance isn’t the default stance on the topic of Jobs’ health. Why do you think that is?

Joshua: I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s painfully difficult to make a sustainable income from writing about tech news, unless you already have a following. I’d love to get my hands on they guy who decided that advertising value on the internet should be based on clicks. When we slice away all the other possible reasons for traffic-grabbing posts, it really comes down to people needing the eyeballs to feed their family. It’s hard to blame a lot of people for going that route, but it’s not something we want to be associated with. To me, it’s that simple.

I’ve always said that I’d rather close the website entirely than compromise my personal ethics, but I fully understand that personal ethics are subjective. There are probably people out there who have a problem with some of the things that we do, so it’s difficult to point fingers. Frankly, Apple news sells, and that’s clearly evidenced by the number of blogs that are available online. But, to me there are limits about what we should write about. During 2008, when Jobs was battling liver problems, we had to make a conscious effort to not write about all the speculation and hype. It was difficult seeing the traffic flow to other blogs that were posting 5 or 10 articles on the topic, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invade someone’s privacy like that. Someone would probably say that that makes us bad journalists, that we shouldn’t care, and that we should just cover the news, but I don’t see it that way. Sometimes I feel like I need to draw the line, and when it comes to health concerns, there’s a pretty clear line. It’s one thing to write about rumored technologies, and it’s another to write about someone’s personal life.

For me, writing about personal life rumors are over a line, but to others, it helps them pay the bills.

Stephen: Traffic-grabbing is slowly ruining the web, I fear. People seem to be willing to do almost anything for clicks. I appreciate that you don’t run Macgasm that way. I think you’ve struck a good balance between paying the bills and selling your soul.

Ultimately, that makes your job harder, doesn’t it? Where do you see Macgasm in the future?

Joshua: Right. Everyone needs to keep the lights on, but there’s a line, and pop-unders, pop-ups, and interstitial ads are the line for us.

Writing a story for the clicks is probably a bigger detriment to the internet than advertising in my opinion.

Right now we’re focusing on paying the bandwidth bill and other expenses. Once that happens we can focus on expanding our team. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but we’re almost there.

We’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline. We’re working on a video podcast and iPhone app, as well as some other stuff that we can’t talk about just yet, but it’s going to be a fun year at Macgasm. 🙂