How I Decide What to Write About-And Why I Might Not Cover Your Company

7/29/11Follow @wroush

Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot and the author of the blog OnStartups, shared a post last week that really hit home. It was called “Dear Friend: Sorry: My Heart Says Yes, But My Schedule Says No.” Dharmesh explained that his e-mail inbox is perpetually overloaded with requests from people who want to meet with him to ask for an investment or to get his thoughts about their business ideas. The blog post consisted of a form letter gently explaining why, despite his best intentions, he can’t follow through on most of these requests. “One of my biggest weaknesses in life is that I too often say yes,” Dharmesh wrote. “I’ve learned the lesson that every time that I say yes to something new, I am effectively saying no to something else. And I’ve already said yes to too many things, and so have to say no to you.”

Boy, have I been there. I’m probably even worse than Dharmesh at saying no. That’s one of the main reasons why there are about three dozen full-length interviews with the CEOs of various companies sitting on my laptop, waiting to be turned into three dozen Xconomy feature stories—because I wasn’t able to say no when these companies invited me to meet with them.

The other main reason, of course, is that Bay Area entrepreneurs are just too darn innovative. They’re creating noteworthy products and companies far faster than I can write about them. That’s not my fault, but still, it’s embarrassing to have such a large story backlog.

This week I want take Dharmesh’s cue, and do something to get the backlog under control. I’m not going to compose a “Dear Friend” form letter, but I am going to explain some of the factors that go into my editorial choices, in the hope of helping entrepreneurs and PR professionals who are looking for coverage in Xconomy to understand 1) what my priorities are, 2) why it might take me a while to reply to your e-mail pitch, and 3) why I might have to say no.

I should preface all this by saying that I don’t want to come off as a complainer. For a technology writer, an oversupply of intriguing story leads is a good problem to have. I’m incredibly grateful for the way entrepreneurs and investors have welcomed Xconomy into the San Francisco/Silicon Valley innovation community since we set up shop here in June 2010. My interpretation of the “problem” is that readers are hungry for Xconomy’s style of biztech journalism—with its tendency toward longer, more magazine-style company profiles and news analyses. Our challenge now as a publication is to scale up, so that we can provide even more of this kind of coverage. Meanwhile, though, I need to do a better job of explaining what my sources and my readers should expect from me. That’s what today’s column is about.

One more caveat: I’m only writing about myself here. My colleagues in Xconomy’s other bureaus in Boston, Detroit, New York, San Diego, and Seattle are just as besieged with story ideas, and just as constrained by the fact that there are only 168 hours in a week. But they all have their own ways of sorting through story leads and managing deadlines. Nothing I say here is meant to deter you from contacting them with your story ideas if they are appropriate for other cities and our other writers’ specialties.

Where I Get Story Ideas

I’ll try to break this down into categories, with rough percentages. I’m talking about feature stories here, not the 1-paragraph news briefs we write about venture funding rounds and the like.

Breaking news—5 percent. This is a much lower figure than most other tech blogs aim for. But most of the time, I’m not trying to be the first to tell my readers something. I’m trying to help them see why it’s important.

Pitches from PR firms—30 percent. This is certainly the category that fills up my e-mail inbox the fastest, and takes the most time to manage. Sometimes, the pitches pertain to companies I’ve been wanting to write about anyway, so they lead to interviews, which lead to stories. Sometimes I’ve never heard of the company before, so I have to go off and do some research before I respond. I evaluate pitches based on a bunch of factors, as described in the next section.

Hanging out with entrepreneurs and investors—30 percent. I spend a lot of time talking with startup founders and executives of larger companies, whether in formal interviews or informal coffee, lunch, or cocktail meetings. I travel up and down Sand Hill Road a lot, meeting with … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade, How delightful to have you open up the hinge-top on your brain and tell us about your coverage decision process. I don’t know how you sleep with all those unwritten interviews in your back pocket…I would worry that I would forget the texture or key insights I had in the moment of the conversation. Do you have a trick for keeping important details and synthesizing thoughts those “live?”

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Hi Jules. I don’t sleep very well. ;-)

    One thing that helps, though, is that I am blessed with super-fast typing skills, so I get verbatim notes of most interviews. My notes don’t always capture the texture or the in-the-moment insights in my own head, but they do help me reconstruct what I was thinking at the time. Do you know how sometimes you’re listening to a song, and you can suddenly remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it? I’m not sure if that happens to other people, or if it’s just me—but anyway, my notes are like that.

    Also, when I come back to a story that’s been languishing in my notebooks for a month or two, I make a point of re-immersing myself in the company’s news, and often do a quick phone or e-mail check-in with the source. But as you can imagine this is not terribly efficient. So I’d like to whittle my backlog down to the point where the delay is less than 1 week.

  • ef

    Wade,

    Thanks for taking the time to carefully lay this out. While you rightfully position this as your own personal set of tenets I have found that much of it is quite common in tech journalism. These points are not only a great tool for new PR professionals to learn the ropes, but are also important for executives and entrepreneurs to understand.

    Thanks again and take care.

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  • http://OnStartups.com Dharmesh Shah

    Thanks for reading that article. It seemed to strike a chord with hundreds of people.

    For me, personally, it has been life changing. At first, it was still difficult to say no. But now, I find myself often sending a quick email with a link to the article. (http://MustSayNo.com).

    Hope all is well for you. We’re trying to do our share of innovating out here in Boston too.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Dharmesh: And thanks for reading *my* article! Glad to hear that your piece has helped with your overcommitment dilemma. I have had a similar experience — I now include a link to this article in the signature line of all of my e-mails. And when I have to say no to an idea, I point people to this piece for guidance on the criteria I’m using.

  • http://twitter.com/sunnycmui Sunny Mui

    Great advice, I’ll be sure to cross my fingers when I submit out B2B social ecommerce startup. We think it fits the category of truly disruptive so we hope you think so too!

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  • Binay Curtis

    This is a great article to share with my start-up clients. Thanks for taking the time to write it…

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    That is simply fantastic – thanks for putting your time into conceptualising and producing such a graphic. Outstanding!