Confessions of an ex-tech journalist
20 months, 1,740+ articles, and countless pitches later, I’ve got some truths to tell
I know how a gazelle feels. There you are, working hard out on the savanna and then BAM! The predators descend, chasing you across the plains, licking their lips, watching your every move, ready to pounce at the first sign of vulnerability and squeeze every morsel they can out of you.
I spent nearly two years as a writer at VentureBeat. Replace lions, cheetahs, leopards, jackals, and hyenas with people from the startup scene and you get the idea. I often felt like a chewed up carcass at the end of a day.
Now that I am no longer a VB reporter, I am taking this moment to express some of my frustrations with the business of covering the tech industry, as well as provide a little insight about what not to do.
The hungry, hungry news machine
News coverage in the Internet age is a 24-hour, always-on, rapidly moving machine that requires constant feeding. I wrote an average of 5 posts a day, churning out nearly 1,740 articles over the course of 20 months. That is, by all objective standards, insane.
Busy days were a blur of furious typing, rushed calls, and ignoring everything that wasn’t news (like food and water). There would be days with 20 funding announcements, on top of everything else we covered. VB writers could have a post up in 15 minutes if the situation demanded. Online publishing is a horse race and speed is critical.
When a story breaks, you could take a couple hours to do research, call to sources, and write a contextualized, edited piece — but by that time, 5 of your competitors will have posted on the story. You will look slow and readers will have moved onto the next thing. The reality is that original reporting and careful editing fall by the wayside in the desire to be fast.
Volume is also key. Most of the tech news sites post something at least once an hour and throughout the night, even when there isn’t news. Fresh content keeps people coming back to the site again and again, regardless of its quality.
The need for speed and volume is primary driven by one thing — pageviews. Pageviews are what sell advertisements, and advertisements are what keep most online publications running — particularly the small independent ones. Are they a good barometer for quality? No, but the reality of online journalism is that you need pageviews to survive.
In a perfect world, important stories would attract the most pageviews, but that is not the world we live in. Miley Cyrus and cat videos get more pageviews than stories about homelessness or healthcare. To write the stories you want, you have to feed the machine. And the machine likes junk food.
You don’t own me
Perhaps now you understand why reporters can sometimes seem standoffish, skittish, bitter, unresponsive, or downright grumpy. These feelings are only made worse by hounding.
Whoever you are, keep in mind that your pitch is one amidst hordes. Our inboxes are overwhelming, and only made more so when you follow up 2 hours later. If we haven’t published an embargoed story at the embargo time (which, by the way, we hate), it’s not because we forgot or are lazy. We are not out enjoying martini lunches and laughing at all the companies left in the lurch. We have to prioritize. It’s nothing personal.
I’ve been pitched in bathroom lines, while on a date with my boyfriend, and called incessantly on days off. There is a certain protocol for pitching (and it requires being at least 10 feet from a toilet). Randomly showing up at my office and expecting a meeting is not an effective technique. Mailing me unsolicited product samples or sending cupcakes will also not get you coverage. Nor will calling my editor to tattle on me for not answering my phone.
If you don’t hear back after a few tries, redirect your efforts to someone else.
We the tech media do not owe you (or your clients) coverage. My job is to cover the news, not to promote your company. If press is your only user acquisition strategy, you have a bigger problem. So please stop acting so entitled and cease the manipulation and attention-getting tactics. Treat us with respect, and you may just get respect back.
If your pitch sucks, you are less likely to get coverage. This would seem intuitive, but swarms of bad pitches indicate otherwise. Perhaps the problem here is a lack of awareness about what journalists are looking for.
To start, articles need to be newsworthy — they need to have a hook that makes them worth writing about. Newsworthiness is defined by timeliness, relevance, significance, prominence, and human interest. The fact that you want articles about your company (or your clients) does not constitute newsworthiness, and disseminating pitches that meet none of those criteria is likely a waste of time.
Also be mindful of who you send your pitch to. Do your research. I was besieged by hundreds of pitches that had nothing to do with my area of expertise. If I have never, ever written an article about 3-D printing, I am probably not the best person to pitch about your 3-D printing startup. The fact that I wrote one article, one time, about a demand side platform for real time mobile ad buying does not mean I want to write another one.
And please don’t have a 6 foot tall black football locker containing information about a new men’s deodorant product delivered to my office (this really happened). I can imagine no scenario where men’s deodorant would factor into my writing.
You will have better luck attracting reporters’ attention if you know which ones have a genuine interest and expertise in your niche. Persistent messages and trinkets won’t help. Neither will a three paragraph long email where you pretend we are friends because I like pandas and you once saw a panda at a zoo.
It is important to be succinct, yet also provide actual information. I received emails so obtuse, vague, and laden with jargon, I couldn’t understand what I was being pitched on. Those generally go straight into the trash. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Furthermore, if you are having a difficult time getting someone, anyone to respond to you, you may want to reconsider what you are pitching.
Sam Altman recently wrote a post about how to pitch to venture capitalists, and there are many similarities with pitching to the media. Basically if your idea is interesting, VCs and press alike will be probably interested. If no-one is interested, you might want to re-think your idea, or at least how you are presenting it.
PR people are in the business of getting their clients coverage. They have a tremendous amount of muscle in the tech industry. Too much in my opinion. They represent the companies we cover, choose who and when to brief on news, stand between the reporter and their client, dictate the rules of embargoed stories, and distribute pages of piffle (otherwise known as press releases.)
No self-respecting reporter prefers to interact with a PR person over the story’s subject or an original source. PR people get in the way of stories more often than they enable them, in my experience. They unnecessarily staff interviews so they can bill more hours and seem to think it unreasonable that a journalist would want to talk to a source without a patrol present.
I understand that for many startup founders, crafting a pitch and media outreach is beyond their skill set and/or they don’t have time, which is why they hire a firm. However, a common misconception is that you need a PR firm to get coverage. Entrepreneurs would trepidatiously inquire all the time whether they were “allowed” to email me directly. Of course you can, and please do.
As a company grows and becomes more newsworthy, the need for a PR person or firm becomes more pronounced. There are some excellent PR people and firms out there who represent their clients well. I do not want to cast aspersions across an entire profession. PR certainly has an important role to play, but in the startup scene, it has too strong a presence too early.
People are jerks
The result of all this wrangling is a published story — which means putting your words at the mercy of readers.
The Internet has a tendency to unleash our darkest tendencies. Many people treat comment sections as a channel for their underlying hatred of humanity, and let their vitriol rain down on whoever seems the most obvious target.
Many of my colleagues avoid reading the comments on their stories because they are mean, unproductive, and demoralizing. You work hard on a story, put yourself out there, and then a stranger thinks it is appropriate to call you a moron, or express glee over a typo.
And then your mother reads the comments and calls you because she is upset.
The example that comes to mind is a story I wrote about an entrepreneur who rescued a homeless teen, gave her a home, helped her graduate from high school, apply to college, and get financial aid. One commenter called my article “banally evil.” Really? Really?
This is a shame, because thoughtful, respectful commenting can yield some amazing insights. The public should be able to contribute to the dialogue — discussion, debate, and scrutiny are part of covering the news.
So, as you sit there typing snarky quips instead of doing whatever you do for work, remember that animosity benefits no-one, meanness cheapens you and the issues, and there are more productive outlets for your frustration. I am not saying don’t be critical, just don’t be cruel.
Journalists are people too
Yes, contrary to popular belief, journalists are people too. We spend our days working hard and doing what we love — no-one becomes a journalist for the money. We are passionate about the same topics you are, otherwise we couldn’t write about it day in and day out.
Unfortunately, the relationship usually feels one-sided. You — a PR person, employee, or entrepreneur — reach out to the press when you need coverage. You are asking for a service, for us to pick your story over the dozens of others we could be writing about.
Rarely is that reciprocated. If you have a tip or an idea for an article that *gasp* doesn’t involve you, share it with a journalist. We are always on the prowl for good stories.
Which brings me to my final point.
The tech community is home to brilliant entrepreneurs, fertile creative minds, and exceptionally talented people. As a journalist, my number one frustration was getting pitched on, and covering, the “stupid bullshit.” So please stop building stupid bullshit. Build companies that solve serious problems and are exciting to cover. Build products that are interesting, innovative, and that matter. If nothing else, you’ll have a much easier time getting coverage.
All in all, I loved my experience at VentureBeat. The team is comprised of incredibly talented, hard-working, passionate journalists, and it was a privilege to meet, interview, and write about many of the founders and startups that I did. I left because after those 20 months, I wanted to do more than cover other people’s stories. I wanted to create my own. (More on that to come).
Also stay tuned for Part 2, a how-to guide for pitching the tech media.