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 the region’s major venture firms. I also hang out at tech incubators and attend their demo day presentations, which gives me a chance to meet lots of new companies quickly.

Going to conferences and events—5 percent. There are some worthwhile events out there—O’Reilly Media does a nice job, as do Google and the Churchill Club. But generally, a conference crawling with other journalists is the last place I’d expect to find an original story. I’m particularly averse to the big company-centric conferences that cycle through San Francisco’s Moscone Center, like MacWorld or Dreamforce. The news that the companies and related vendors want to share at these events is usually prepackaged crap, designed to turn journalists into marketing communications vessels, to be indelicate about it.

Followup stories about companies I’ve covered in the past—10 percent. Once I know a company’s founders and their basic story, it’s much easier and faster for me to put together a followup story a few months down the road, perhaps something giving the context around a business model shift or an important product release. The 10 percent figure will inevitably go up over time, as we add more Bay Area stories to our archives.

Random stuff I stumble across—20 percent. As a gamer, traveler, photographer, gadget geek, and digital media consumer, I’m always coming across cool tech products and services. Sometimes I’ll look up the creators and profile them; sometimes I’ll just immerse myself in the technology for a while and then report back to readers. My Friday column, which you’re reading now, is one regular venue for such subjects. It’s the one chance I have each week to set aside Xconomy’s usual hyperlocal focus and write about whatever gadgets, apps, or digital media trends catch my fancy.

How I Decide Which Stories to Write, and Which Not to Write

I don’t have a simple flowchart that dictates whether I will pursue a given story idea. But the first four questions I ask do have fairly binary, yes/no answers.

Does this story pertain to a company in the Bay Area? I get a surprising number of pitches from people who don’t understand that Xconomy is hyperlocal. Perhaps we haven’t done a very good job of explaining it, but we believe that innovation is best understood through a local lens, which means we focus exclusively on companies and organizations based in six major U.S. innovation hubs: Boston, Detroit, New York, San Diego, San Francisco (meaning the whole Bay Area), and Seattle. I’m responsible for our Bay Area infotech and energy coverage. If a company isn’t headquartered in the Bay Area, I won’t write about it. If it’s life sciences related, then I’ll send it to our national biotech editor, Luke Timmerman. If the company is headquartered in one of our other home cities, I can put you in touch with the appropriate editor there.

Is this story being offered under embargo? I don’t like to work under embargo, for reasons I explained at length in a recent column. So I always turn these pitches away, and ask the person to get back in touch on or after the embargo date. (Note: this is my personal policy, not an Xconomy-wide policy. And exclusives provided under advance embargo are another matter entirely—I love those, of course.)

Is this idea about a startup that’s already been covered to death in TechCrunch, GigaOm, Mashable, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, TheNextWeb, Business Insider, etc.? If so, chances are I won’t write about it. I can make my best, most original contributions when I find companies whose stories haven’t been told—where nobody has taken the time to sit down with the founders and really find out where they got their ideas, what makes them so passionate, and how they plan to take the world by storm. You’d be surprised how many of these companies there are.

Does this story boil down to a product announcement? I rarely cover things like new apps or software releases, unless they’re part of a big strategic shift or represent the culmination of some larger story I’ve been following.

Then I move on to some harder questions.

Has this company won the backing of reputable investors? I love writing about early stage startups, but if they’re so early that they haven’t even got investors on board, I’ll probably shy away. I’m not qualified, and don’t have the time, to decide whether your mousetrap is better than the next guy’s. For better or worse, I rely on the investment community to help with this kind of screening. Note: I count the top-tier venture incubators such as Y Combinator as investors, so if your company has gotten into one of those programs, you’ve automatically cleared at least one bar with me.

How truly differentiated is this company’s technology? I’m a tech geek at heart, or I wouldn’t be writing about the startup world. I love to dig into a company’s core technology and then try to explain it to readers in a way that helps them understand its importance. It’s only worth my time, and my readers’, if the technology is truly novel, or is being applied in a novel way. Certain technology areas are looking very bubbly to me these days, so I find myself having to apply this filter more and more often. A few of the areas I’m getting jaded about: online advertising optimization, digital payments, cloud application management, and the whole social/mobile/location/media-sharing nexus.

Is this company offering a product or service that our audience would care about? Xconomy has a diverse audience that includes readers from the infotech, life science, and energy industries, as well as quite a few investors and service providers. With such a broad readership, we can’t spend a lot of time dwelling on technologies with small addressable markets, or on giant software systems that only a few Fortune 500 companies can afford, or on technical minutiae better left to the trade publications. I don’t have a blanket policy against covering B2B or enterprise software companies, the way many tech blogs do, but when I do write about these technologies, it’s usually because I’ve come across an especially disruptive idea or an especially entrepreneurial person or team inside a given company.

Does this company have a team of articulate, charismatic founders or executives? Biztech journalism isn’t quite as personality-driven as other areas of the media, which is part of why I like it. Still, if I find an entrepreneur who has an interesting personal history and can tell his or her company’s story in clear, compelling terms, it gives me a lot more material to work with.

Does this company have a convincing business model? Building a startup is largely a process of testing, discarding, and reinventing your business model until you find one that works. So I’m happy to write about companies where that search is still underway. But at the very least, a company has to be able to explain its current business model, and tell me what they’re doing to test it. I’m increasingly irritated by what I call the Twitter Answer: “We’re focused for now on building a service that 200 million people will use, and later we’ll figure out some way to monetize it.”

Is this company built to flip? Or simply to get the founders “acqhired” at Google, Facebook, or Twitter? I’m rapidly losing interest in companies building products or services that only make sense as a feature or modification of some other company’s service. (Take, for example, the dozens of companies trying to address the perceived inefficiencies in Google’s AdWords platform—how many of them can possibly survive independently? What if Google simply improves AdWords?) The best stories of entrepreneurship and innovation come out of companies that believe so strongly in their mission that they turn away acquisition offers.

Whew—that turned out to be a pretty long list of criteria. The more positive answers you can give to the questions above, the more likely I’ll want to write about your company. If you pitch me and I say no, please don’t be offended. It’s a pretty high bar that I’m trying to set.

It’s no coincidence, by the way, that a lot of my questions are the same ones an angel or venture investor would ask. In a way, I’m making an investment with every story I write. My resource is time rather than money, but it’s still precious to me and my readers. I don’t want to waste time writing about companies that might turn out to be inconsequential, or whose stories don’t contain interesting lessons about entrepreneurship and innovation. My hit rate will never be 100 percent, of course. But with your help and understanding during the filtering process, I can get closer.

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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