Careers: Interviews
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 work.

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 family.

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 department.

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 about technobabble.

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 pages.

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 Columbia.

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 writing about.

Q: In what ways do you see your newspaper evolving in the next 5 years and how will it incorporate computing technology?

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 world.

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 manner.

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 information.

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.
  1. 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?)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 possible.

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 eventually did.

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 them?

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 know about.

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 questioning.

Q: Do you ever get tired of writing?

A: Yes, but it never lasts longer than a day or two.

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.


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