David Pogue was voted the most influential tech writer of our times today, as well as the most influential tweeter, even beating out Mashable’s social media maven Pete Cashmore. It’s a reminder how powerful a personal brand he has built, and why the NY Times hasn’t given him the boot after numerous conflicts of interest.
“We’re talking about a guy who was trained as a pianist and a magician,” said Jeff Yablon, a tech writer who met Mr. Pogue in the early 90’s, when Mr. Yablon was the president of the Computer Press Association and Mr. Pogue’s writing career was still in its earliest stages.
Mr. Pogue’s entertaining tech coverage has conjured a massive and devoted following, but his greatest trick might be convincing the stately Times not to make him disappear—despite raising some of the more thorny conflict-of-interest questions the paper has confronted in recent years.
Mr. Pogue has been accused of being an insidious shill for one of the most powerful technology companies on the planet, Apple, and was reported to be dating a publicist who represents many of the same companies he covers for the Times.
Seven days prior to the video’s release, Mr. Pogue and his estranged wife were each charged with disorderly conduct by police in Westport, Conn., after he allegedly hit her with—what else?—an iPhone.
In the video, the bite mark he reportedly received on his arm during the incident had apparently healed, or was well-concealed. It wasn’t noticeable. Not a single scratch.
If anything, it was classic David Pogue.
An Ohio native, Mr. Pogue graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1985 with a distinction in music. According to the biography on his website, Mr. Pogue moved to New York City after college, and worked a series of jobs in Broadway theater, with an ambition to compose for musicals. He eventually took up teaching at the New School and the Learning Annex, and went on to program and write manuals for various music software programs.
From there, he began teaching composers and Broadway stars how to use their computers, which evolved into—as he put it on his website—“Hollywood and literary celebrities, from Mia Farrow to Harry Connick Jr.”
“The first time I came across David Pogue he was working as Liza Minnelli’s geek-for-hire,” said Mr. Yablon. “He was doing social media marketing before that term existed. The routine was, ‘You know me, I work with these big names, you can trust me, I’ll set you straight on technology.’”
Mr. Pogue has often outlined his entertainment background as a foundation for his current work, once telling a music website that, as the youngest of three children, he is “a natural-born entertainer.” And, after a rare interview with Steve Jobs was criticized for a lack of skepticism, Mr. Pogue defended himself by saying, “I am not a reporter. I’ve been an opinion columnist my entire career … I try to entertain and inform.”
In 1988, Mr. Pogue began a regular column for the Apple fan magazine Macworld. In 1992, he wrote the second book in the “For Dummies” series, Macs for Dummies. He has written more than 50 books, making him, in the words of his own biography, a “ridiculously prolific author.” Only two of the books are fiction: a 1993 “techno-thriller” entitled Hard Drive and a 2010 young-adult book, Abby Carnelia’s One and Only Magical Power. (The Times’s own review noted that “Pogue, the personal-technology columnist for The New York Times and a former magic nerd himself, clearly has a lot of affection for kids.” In the second sentence of the review, the review’s author admits to crying at the end of the book.)
In 2000, Mr. Pogue brought his entertaining brand of explanation to the Times, where he was hired as the Personal Technology Columnist, and, since then, his State of the Art column has appeared regularly on the front page of the Thursday Business section.
He arrived at a crucial moment. Around the time of his hiring, the objects of Mr. Pogue’s affection and study—personal technology—started to transcend their roles as utilitarian aides and objects of geek affection and become fashionable accessories increasingly central to the lives of those who adopted them. When Apple released the iPod in 2001, Mr. Pogue became the go-to layman for the company’s new gadgets, and when the iPhone arrived, he filled his prose with apostlelike praise. (His Times video on the first iPhone is the second-most watched video ever uploaded by the newspaper, with nearly one and half million views.)
Mr. Pogue’s influence metastasized along with Apple’s market share, and his 1.3 million Twitter followers now dwarfs the digital presence of other marquee Times writers such as Thomas L. Friedman and Maureen Dowd. It’s more than four times the number of followers that Jenna Wortham, the Times’s decidedly hip, young tech reporter, has; Mr. Pogue, in fact, has more followers than the entire tech reporting staff of the Times combined.
“He’s like the Oprah of gadget writers,” said Michael Sebastian, the managing editor at PR Daily. “A single tweet from him can put you on the best-seller list.” Earlier this week, the appropriately named Cult of Mac tweeted out: “@Pogue…our servers just melted melted from your sorcery.”
“A review from David Pogue is the holy grail,” said a spokesperson from Open DNS. “After he wrote us up, we experienced the single biggest day of growth in the company’s entire history.” In the 24 hours after Pogue’s review appeared in the Times, Open DNS saw account creation jump 370 percent.
Mr. Pogue’s success has created some ethical entanglements. He has been attacked for taking paid speaking engagements, such as one for the Consumer Electronics Association’s “CEO Summit” near Los Angeles in June 2009. That fall—one month after then-public editor Clark Hoyt used an entire column (entitled “He Works for the Times, Too”) to admonish Mr. Pogue—he spoke at Disney World, in an event hosted by the defense contractor Raytheon Company.
In his column, Mr. Hoyt had challenged three media ethicists with Mr. Pogue’s case; all three agreed that Mr. Pogue’s interests were conflicted. His employment status remained unchanged. That same year, the Times fired a writer named Mike Albo, for taking a paid trip to write about junket travel culture for a separate publication—his first, and last, infraction. “Comparing this situation with one particular instance is not fair,” said Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy when asked to compare Mr. Pogue’s case with that of Mr. Albo. “There are different sets of circumstances involved. They’re handled on a case-by-case basis. We handle these situations in accordance with our policy. We are confident that our standards editor has made the appropriate judgment in each case.”
Jeff Jarvis, a best-selling author and journalism professor known for his strong, loudly broadcast opinions on media and tech, compared Mr. Pogue’s self-styled status an “entertainer” to that of Michael Arrington, owner of the blog TechCrunch, which was recently purchased by AOL. “When Mike Arrington says he’s not a journalist, he is really dismissing the label, because he began as an investor,” Mr. Jarvis explained. “I think Pogue is more specious, more for convenience. He expects us to trust him, but at the same time, he asks not to be held to the same standards.” Mr. Jarvis concluded: “I don’t buy his shtick about being an entertainer, not a journalist.”
Mr. Pogue’s harshest critics have focused on his undying praise of Apple products in the Times, and the potential conflict with his best-selling books on the company. Mr. Pogue has gone to bat for Apple’s products quite often, in his signature over-the-top style. An April post mocked the outrage over revelations that Apple was storing location data in its phones. “Ooh! Apple is spying! Ooh! The government is tracking! Ooh! Big Brother is watching!” he wrote. It also ominously noted: “The one legitimate concern [of Apple’s location tracking] is that someone else with access to your computer could retrieve the information about your travels and see where you’ve been. Your spouse, for example.”
A week after Mr. Pogue’s domestic dispute, Dan Lyons, a longtime press foe of Mr. Pogue’s, claimed an even more personal conflict. Mr. Lyons wrote for The Daily Beast that Mr. Pogue had been dating Nicki Dugan, a public relations executive who works out of San Francisco. A journalist dating a public relations executive is hardly novel, but Ms. Dugan is a vice president at OutCast, which represents some of Silicon Alley’s most prominent tech companies.
The Times responded by saying that Mr. Pogue had approached technology editor Damon Darlin in December with the news of his relationship, and that Ms. Dugan didn’t pitch Mr. Pogue stories. The Daily Beast produced several instances where Mr. Pogue seemed to write glowingly of OutCast clients and disparagingly of OutCast competitors. When speaking with The Observer, Mr. Darlin questioned that reporting, noting that OutCast doesn’t represent Amazon, but an Amazon business-to-business product. Mr. Lyons also cited a review by Mr. Pogue of a competitor to Netflix, which is an OutCast client. “No intelligent person would construe that as a positive review for Netflix,” Mr. Darlin noted. Finally, refuting Mr. Lyons’s argument that Mr. Pogue’s writing about Groupon and Skype was conflicted by another OutCast client, a venture capital firm with investments in both, Mr. Darlin argued that this is “a pretty thin string.”
“I can understand why there’s skepticism,” Mr. Darlin admitted, “and that’s always healthy under an intelligent readership. Because of these other questions that have been raised in the past, it’s very easy for someone to make that charge. In this case, that charge doesn’t stick.” Yet when asked if Mr. Pogue had been given preferential treatment by Times editors during past transgressions, Mr. Darlin noted that he wasn’t familiar with Mr. Albo’s situation, and that the Times has “addressed all of this. We’ve been satisfied that under the rules we’ve set up for [Mr. Pogue], and that there is no conflict.”
Responding to an emailed request to speak, Times executive editor Bill Keller referred The Observer to a spokesperson, noting simply: “We have rules. David followed them.”
An assistant in the office of the Times’s current public editor, Arthur Brisbane, responded: “We dealt with this issue last week after the Daily Beast story” and included Mr. Brisbane’s response to a reader about the issue. In it, Mr. Brisbane noted that he had “spoken with [David Pogue] and Times editors and satisfied myself that Pogue has made the appropriate disclosures about his relationship with Nicki Dugan of OutCast Agency. Any time there is a conflict, it does create complications but I think in this case Pogue and his editor have taken the appropriate steps to comply with the newspaper’s ethics policy.”