/ 13 October 2003

Geek speak

David Shapshak owes his wife a pair of shoes. For a couple of reasons. First, he was in Rome last year for a conference and he made her a promise. Unhappily, being a South African male without much of a clue about Italian female footwear, he didn’t deliver although the attempt was remarkably gallant.

The conference was on mobile technology, and Shapshak was worried about shoe stuff like size and style, so he borrowed a hand-held computer and stood outside stores pointing the built-in digital camera at the glass. He then synched the images with his laptop, and e-mailed the results off to his wife back home. Apparently, the SMS reply indicating her choice came too late for him to make the purchase.

The second reason he owes that pair of shoes has to do with an article he wrote on the self-same experiment for GQ magazine. Entitled ‘Mobile tech to the rescue’, it was one of the pieces that won Shapshak the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year award.

So, while the header is clearly a misnomer mobile technology didn’t rescue him that time there’s a deeper allegory at play. Next to science, technology is perhaps the most complex form of journalism. To excel one needs a passion for gadgets, an understanding of trends and market forces, a grasp of countless three-letter acronyms, and, above all, writing ability that can bring any story down to a meaningful level. With the bit about tech (almost) helping him find shoes for his wife, Shapshak is conveying the human element in an otherwise remote subject.

“My brief to myself is to write about tech in a way that is digestible and comprehensible,” he says. “I translate geek-speak into real English.”

As Shapshak intimates, this aptitude for ‘telling a story’ was developed during years in mainstream journalism. He’s worked for Caxtons, SAPA and the Mail & Guardian and naturally there’s an anecdote on each.

After graduating from Rhodes he wasn’t sure where to apply for work, so he approached lecturer Kerry Swift for advice. Swift didn’t hesitate, suggesting Caxtons would offer the best experience. “Kerry was right,” says Shapshak. “At Caxtons you have to search for stories, they don’t come to you. It becomes a habit. Look at how many good journos have started at the freesheetsGus Silber, Arthur Goldstuck, Philip van Niekerk.”

In 1996 Shapshak left Catxons and joined the M&G, where he reported to news editor Peta Thornycroft. It seems Thornycroft had a high opinion of his abilities. “I was working on something one day and she said ‘drop everything and go find who killed Samora Machel.'”

Maybe Shapshak found the guy, ‘cos by the end of 1997 SAPA had him dictating 700 word stories every two hours from the Truth Commission. “One day started off with Buthelezi saying the IFP wouldn’t participate in the amnesty process,” he remembers. “It was also the day when Joe Seremane was asking about his brother, who was killed at Quatro. It was very difficult to pull off.”

The SAPA stint ended when Philip van Niekerk offered Shapshak the technology editor position at the M&G in 1999. During his second period at the weekly he also served as sports editor and website editor, eventually stepping down from the former to concentrate on running what had arguably become the best online news source on the continent.

In late 2000 he left the M&G again to start Broadcast Interactive, Kagiso’s online news initiative. When that was closed down a couple of months later a casualty of global dotbomb nervousness Shapshak co-founded Traffik, an off-the-wall (and pretty successful) online content provision company. In 2001 he founded Maven Media, the ‘content solutions’ company that ran the official host country website for the World Summit, and consulted to Incredible Connection, Standard Bank and Edgars.

Shapshak doesn’t know if he’ll ever get back into news reporting. “I’m a failed journalist in many ways,” he says. “I don’t smoke, I drink rarely, I’ve never slept with any of my sources, and most of my friends aren’t journos.”