Technology Writer: Peter Wilson
|This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.,
has an exclusive interview with Peter Wilson, “Net
Works” technology editor, at the Vancouver Sun.
Q: First of all, thank you Peter for taking time out
of your busy schedule to do this interview.
A: It’s a pleasure. I always love to chat about my
Q: Your remarkable career represents many successes,
and your accumulated wisdom, and experiences would
be of great value to our readers. Can you detail
your personal history, the decisions you made, the
jobs you have undertaken, and the roles you have
played to get to your present position as technology
editor at the Vancouver Sun?
A: Well, since I’m turning 60 in June, it has been a
very long road. I started writing for newspapers
when I was in high school in my home town of
Winnipeg. I was also editor of my high school
newspaper. Before that, as a child, I would design
and write newspapers that I’d hand out to members of
My first real newspaper job was at the Winnipeg Free
Press where I covered crime, courts and city hall.
I was hired in 1964 by The Vancouver Times (it no
longer exists) to cover City Hall and went from
there to Canadian Press in Edmonton, to the Calgary
Albertan (also out of business) back to Broadcast
News in Vancouver to MacMillan Bloedel (another
company that’s not around anymore, is there a
pattern here?) as a public relations man and then,
in 1970 to the Vancouver Sun.
Originally I was hired as the rock critic and
feature writer. Over time I was the television
critic (five years); movie critic (three years);
book review editor (four years) and did umpteen
other jobs, including column writing and editing.
Almost all of my time was spent in the entertainment
So how did I end up as the technology editor? Well,
along the way I struck up a friendship with Craig
Ferry, the Sun Editorial IT guy, who got me
interested in computers. (We had computers from a
very early stage, when they were just dumb terminals
attached to our mainframe and crashed about every 30
seconds. I remember when they were first installed;
the orders went out that we should not print
anything out because we were now a paperless office.
The next day a notice went up saying we should print
out absolutely everything. Too many crashes, too
many lost stories.)
Anyway, I ended up, following Craig’s advice; I
bought a Morrow CPM computer with two disk drives
and almost no memory and cheerfully learned
WordStar, so I could write at home as well as at
work. Over time I became fascinated with every
aspect of the new technology. And, while I’m no
techie myself, I couldn’t stop reading about the
subject or trying every new piece of hardware and
software I could. I was on bulletin boards and the
Internet long before there was anything remotely
resembling a graphical interface.
I soon became a computer bore, so much so that
whenever Craig and I would start talking, people
would rush off in the other direction complaining
So, when the entertainment department and the
business department got together and designed a
section that was supposed to cover both the
entertainment and social aspects of the Internet
along with technology itself I was (I like to think)
a natural choice as editor.
Q: How are you shaping the paper to meet the needs
of business and your other target markets?
A: We began with a section called Net Works (a pun,
as you can see) and that evolved from a small inside
section to become an eight-page standalone section.
As well, we were doing 16-page and 32-page special
technology sections when the dot-com bubble burst
and technology companies generally hit hard times.
The section began to shrink. As of May 1, Net Works,
as a separate section, no longer exists. It has been
integrated into the new Business BC section, which
is a much-expanded version of our old business
We will keep many of the elements of the old
sections – including columns by the likes of John
Dvorak and David Chalk (and by me), and I will
expand my writing to doing profiles of people in
technology as well as continuing to write about
technology businesses and the latest developments,
especially as related to companies in British
Maintaining a balance between what is interesting to
the IT community and what fascinates business people
and the average reader is tricky. My goal always
been to take a tough topic and make it easily
understandable to the general reader without
simplifying it so radically that it becomes
insulting to those who know intimately what I’m
Q: In what ways do you see your newspaper evolving
in the next 5 years and how will it incorporate
A: That’s a tough question. I work for a newspaper
that is in turn part of a larger chain that, in its
own turn, is part of a corporation that has
interests in everything from television stations to
Internet sites. And this kind of consolidation of
information providers is happening everywhere in the
I don’t pretend to be able to speak for The Sun on
this topic, but personally I see more and more
crossover as reporters from all media familiarize
themselves with other media. Information is
information and will naturally flow from one medium
to another; it will just be presented in a different
Twenty years ago I might have said that newspapers
would eventually disappear, but I no longer believe
that. Radio is still around and it was supposed to
have died in the early 1950s. Magazines are still
with us. Books will not be replaced by e-books. All
that will happen is that people will have more
choices in the way they receive their news and
Of necessity, newspapers will have to, more and
more, become the providers of background information
and in-depth reporting as well as investigative
pieces and features about the people who make a
difference in our lives. We’ll have to give our
readers information they can’t get anywhere else.
As for computers and newspapers, well, they’re so
integrated into our working lives now it’s hard to
see how their use could increase. Stories are
written on them, photographs are taken on digital
cameras, the words and photos are merged using
layout programs like Quark and the output is
transmitted via satellite to our printing plant in
Surrey. Every reporter has high speed Internet
access and this has made the digging up of essential
background information far, far easier.
Just this morning I had to talk to the CEO of a tech
company about his firm’s annual report; instead of
hunting up a Toronto telephone directory (as I would
have done 15 years ago) I went on the Net, punched
in a search on Google and within a few seconds had
his phone number. I called and, like many tech
executives, he answered his own phone. In five
minutes I had the answer to my question and in
another five minutes the information was inserted in
the story and sent to another editor.
If I were to have one wish granted by technology
folk it would be to be able to do a lengthy
interview on a digital recorder which would then
transcribe that interview, both questions and
answers, into something resembling English. Since
that doesn’t even happen with the best of voice
programs trained for my own voice, I think this
won’t happen until after I’ve retired.
However, the mere ability to type stories into a
computer has immensely improved my life.
Q: Your excellent reputation for being plugged into
the technology world provides valuable insights.
What are the five hot topics in IT today and where
do you see these stories/areas developing in the
next two years?
A: This is again tough, because I tend to look at a
lot of stories not from a purely technological
aspect, but from a social one. So I’m afraid most of
my answers will be in this area.
- Privacy. For me this is absolutely the most
important issue. We have created an incredibly
quick, remarkably thorough way of gathering,
preserving and centralizing information on
individuals. But how do we protect it from those
who shouldn’t have it? What sort of safeguards
do we put in place? This is both a technological
question (practicality of preserving privacy)
and a moral one (what information should be
gathered and by whom?)
- Security. Not quite the same issue as
privacy, but close. The one security expert I
really respect, Bruce Schneier of Counterpane
Internet Security Inc. whose book on cryptology
is the standard reference work in the field,
says (and I’m paraphrasing here) there is really
no such thing as complete security, just varying
levels of insecurity. I’ll be interested to
watch how this field develops.
- Whole language computing. I not only want to
talk to my computer and give it orders, I want
to be able to search databases using whole
language. I think the more computers begin to
communicate with their users in whole language
the better. Big breakthroughs in this are coming
in the next two years.
- Easy access to all your information so that
everything can be retrieved quickly and your
life, thereby, made easier. I have a feeling
that this is what Microsoft is trying to do with
.Net. And that means that it includes my first
two areas, Privacy and Security. If .Net is
going to be the big thing, a heck of a lot of
time is going to have to be spent making it both
private and secure.
- Something no one but the people who are
thinking about it in some lab somewhere knows
about. That’s the one that’s really going to
rock people back on their techno-heels.
Q: We have many student members who are choosing
their career options. Can you share your five career
tips for success?
A: There are:
- Never, ever stop learning. My formal
education [goes back] almost 40 years ago, but
I’ve never spent a day without picking up
something new to help me in my work.
- Change jobs often. This may sound insane
from a person who has spent all of his life as a
journalist, but I’ve been able to change within
that. Every few years I’ve switched beats. I’ve
written about everything from how to run a movie
theatre, to how television covers hockey, to how
city councils pass bylaw, to the ways in which
natural language vocabularies are built for
computers. Don’t get stuck doing the same thing
over and over again.
- Have friends with other interests. The worst
thing in the world for me would be to have no
one else to talk to but other reporters or
editors. I have a friend who is a visual artist,
another who is a financial planner and another
who is in IT, another who is an actor and
another who has a PHD in business administration
and teaches business at university (of course I
have to admit she used to be a rock critic, like
me.). They keep me sane, and learning.
- Don’t argue; just find a way to do whatever
it is you’ve been given so it makes sense to
you. I spent a lot of time over the years
arguing that an assignment I’d been given was
badly conceived, poorly thought out and wouldn’t
work. This does not make your boss happy. And
most of the time you can make it work out, if
you change it to suit you. And sometimes your
boss is just plain right.
- Laugh a lot. You have to.
Q: Look into your crystal ball. What areas should
businesses target in their use of technology?
A: I think much of this is contained in my answer to
the question about what’s going to happen over the
next few years. However I’d like to add this:
Basically, I’d like to see businesses fall out of
love with technology for a while so that they can
fall back in love with it in a more useful way.
Please stop trying to shove consumer goods at me
through a Web site. I’ll buy some things that way,
but others I never will.
Instead, think of technology as a way of getting
information to your customers. Help them learn about
your products and services. Hold their hands. Make
them your techno-pals, if you like, and make their
experience with you as easy and as comfortable as
Q: For those relatively new in the computing field
and for seasoned veterans, which areas should they
target for future study, what are the high-growth
areas, and can you provide specific advice?
A: To be honest, I wouldn’t presume to do this.
I remember in the early days of cable television
talking with executives of those companies about
what they would be doing. They came up with all
sorts of things including all-boating channels,
all-food channels, and all-golf channels. It took
almost two decades for those to come about, but they
And they talked about on-demand movies, which also
came about, although not to the extent that these
executives thought they would.
But one thing they never mentioned and which arose
within two years after my discussions were video
rental stores. The cable executives just never
thought about this happening and that people would
rent movies and play them on VCRs. It wasn’t on
their radar screens. And that, perhaps, was one of
their biggest rivals for years.
My point, I guess, is that I’ve made enough
predictions for one interview and, look, I once
owned a Betamax, so what do I know about the future?
Q: Peter, you have a most remarkable career--if you
had to do it over again ….?
A: I’d have gone into television.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what two
questions would you ask and how would you answer
A: Well, I’d ask myself:
Q: What makes you want to do a story?
A: When I can’t wait to tell someone else about
it. By this I mean that I’ll read something
somewhere and I’ll think, just wait until I tell
Val (my wife) that. She’ll really be interested.
Or I can’t wait to tell Andy (my artist friend,
who is also a computer nut) that. Or here’s
something Craig (my IT friend) would love to
Sometimes that realization that I’m on to
something interesting doesn’t happen until I’m
halfway into an interview and the interview
subject says something completely unexpected,
which sends us off on to a whole new line of
Q: Do you ever get tired of writing?
A: Yes, but it never lasts longer than a day or
Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you
like to give.
A: The great thing about doing an interview like
this is that it makes you realize how little you
really know for sure. You think you’ve thought
things through, until you actually have to
articulate your ideas.
Peter, again thank you for doing this interview.
Your remarkable history working with technology and
within the news media has provided us with unique
and helpful insights.