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

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 »

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

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