News from National -- Current Articles
Technology Writer: Peter
Interview by S. Ibaraki, I.S.P.
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Peter
Wilson, ďNet WorksĒ 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: Itís 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 Iím 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 Iíd hand out to members of my
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 thatís not around anymore, is there a
pattern here?) as a public relations man and then, in 1970 to the Vancouver
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 Craigís 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 Iím no techie myself, I
couldnít 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
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
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 Ė 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 Iím 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: Thatís 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 donít 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. Weíll have
to give our readers information they canít get anywhere else.
As for computers and newspapers, well, theyíre so integrated into our working
lives now itís 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 firmís
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 doesnít even happen with the best of voice programs
trained for my own voice, I think this wonít happen until after Iíve 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 Iím 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
shouldnít 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 Iím
paraphrasing here) there is really no such thing as complete security,
just varying levels of insecurity. Iíll be interested to watch how this
- 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
- Something no one but
the people who are thinking about it in some lab somewhere knows about.
Thatís the one thatís really going to rock people back on their
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 Iíve
never spent a day without picking up something new to help me in my
- Change jobs often.
This may sound insane from a person who has spent all of his life as a
journalist, but Iíve been able to change within that. Every few years
Iíve switched beats. Iíve 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. Donít 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
- Donít argue; just find
a way to do whatever it is youíve been given so it makes sense to you. I
spent a lot of time over the years arguing that an assignment Iíd been
given was badly conceived, poorly thought out and wouldnít 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
- Laugh a lot. You have
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 whatís
going to happen over the next few years. However Iíd like to add this:
Basically, Iíd 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. Iíll 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 wouldnít 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 wasnít on their radar screens. And that, perhaps, was one of their biggest
rivals for years.
My point, I guess, is that Iíve 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: Iíd 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, Iíd ask myself:
Q: What makes you want to do a
A: When I canít wait to tell someone else about it. By this I mean that Iíll
read something somewhere and Iíll think, just wait until I tell Val (my wife)
that. Sheíll really be interested. Or I canít wait to tell Andy (my artist friend,
who is also a computer nut) that. Or hereís something Craig (my IT friend)
would love to know about.
Sometimes that realization that Iím on to something interesting doesnít
happen until Iím 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 two.
Q: Itís 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 youíve 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.