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how to win friends and influence journalists:
netpreneurs and the press

page two of three   |  previous page

the audience: q&a

Mr. Sherman: We were lucky enough to get a number of email questions in advance, including a lot of questions about process. People want to get an inside view of what goes on inside your publications. How are real decisions made? Going across the panel, we have representatives from a monthly, a weekly, a daily and a hyper-daily. Each has different formats and different processes, so would you please provide some insight into the process, such as what kind of lead time you expect and so on?

Mr. Millner: I go through about 200 press releases a day, almost exclusively via email. I have no fax, so I don't have to deal with that problem. It's really a quick judgment. Our senior correspondent for dbusiness.com is also here, Ray Bolger. He and I both cull through the releases and make quick judgments, because, as Andrew said, we are, in a way, a hyper-daily. I was at Washington Business Journal and Dow Jones News Service before dbusiness.com, so I blend the best of both worlds in that I seek to be time sensitive while providing context and being indigenous to the community. We are not necessarily going to quote Merrill Lynch or Jupiter Communications because there are investment bankers and Internet consultants right here locally, some of which have helped to birth your companies and can speak to the issues and news much better. I do that, and I also go through voicemail. We put out about 7-10 stories a day on each site. Dbusiness.com is in 12 cities and will be in 15 by the end of the year, so there are a lot of avenues.

If you are not based locally, or if you are based in multiple markets, you should offer your idea to each of our sites. We also have a free service called Press Release Tracker which you can sign up for. It's not like Business Wire or PR Newswire. You do have to provide information—we have to know that you are real and not imagined—but then you can post releases directly to the site. All of us cull through releases. For various reasons, some of which you may think are good or bad, we make decisions about what will go out today, or this week, or this month, and what will not go out at all. But at least at dbusiness.com, if your goal is to reach people via our site, you can still type it up yourself and post it to our site. If make a decision not to do the editorial work on your announcement, people can still read the release knowing that it has not been edited and has not necessarily been verified by our news staff.

Ms. Henry: It's different for everything that we write. We are a daily, so if you call us the night before with a very hot story, we will want to get it in the paper the next day. Giving us notice is good, however, especially for the columns. If you call me on a Monday or Tuesday, when I'm really looking for column ideas, and say, "We are going to have this great thing, you can have it on Thursday and we will not tell anyone else," that's good. If you tell me that you are not talking to anyone else, that it's an exclusive, we like that.

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At the Post, we also all work on larger features. You might call and say, "We have noticed this trend in our industry. Are you working on a larger piece about it? If you are, we would love to be part of it." We also have a new service on WashingtonPost.com called the "PM Extra." Everyday at about 1:00 PM Eastern Time, we have the equivalent of an afternoon edition paper with five or six stories. It's the National and Metro sections, as well as Business. When Marc Andreessen stepped down at AOL and when Mindspring and Earthlink merged, we covered them there. Sometimes when we have had technology news early in the day, I have written a story for the Web site.

Ms. Schweers: Washington Business Journal is a weekly, but we have deadlines every day. Different sections of the paper have a different deadline. We focus on breaking news, and it's the most important thing we want to get in our front pages—even though being a weekly presents some built-in obstacles. We figure that we compete with the Post and with dbusiness.com to get the news out there.

Shannon mentioned exclusivity, and that is important. Occasionally, we come across PR people, or even entrepreneurs, who make a round of calls. First, they are on the phone with Shannon, then they call Marlon, then they call me, and they aren't up-front about it. There is no better way to get on our blacklist than by telling us or making us think that it's an exclusive when it's actually not. It doesn't matter which phone call I am, the first or the third, it's not a good idea to pitch a story all over the place, especially if it's a great story that we want to jump on.

Keep in mind that we have deadlines every day, and there are various sections you can get in depending on these deadlines. There are profiles, special reports and a small business strategy section. We have an advisory board that answers questions from small companies. There are all kinds of opportunities, but, as I said before, it's important for you to know the reporter who covers the industry or industries that you are involved in.

We are Washington Business Journal. We only cover Washington. We only cover business. That's important to remember. You would be surprised how many people don't get it.

Mr. Pink: Fast Company is a monthly—or quasi-monthly since it comes out 10 times a year—so my lead times are the antithesis of the accelerated cycles that others work on. As a feature writer, the time I devote to a story can be literally three or four weeks of reporting the story, then filing it two months before it comes out. For those sorts of stories, the most important thing is that you are still around in two months.

The other thing is that there has to be something beyond, "We announced Tuesday that we are going to launch this initiative..." There has to be a bigger point to the story. That's the nature of monthly journalism and feature writing. As I said before, it's also the nature of the promise we make to the reader when we say, "If you spend 20 minutes reading this 5,000 word piece, your life is going to be better than if you had done something else."

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The other thing for you to know is that the magazine is divided into sections. The front of the magazine, called "Report From The Future," has shorter pieces. Sometimes you can squeeze those in a little bit faster. The back of the magazine has a section called "Network" which is more about of tools and tips. That also has a lead time. The meta-point here, as you can see, is that these are very different beats and you have to approach them in different ways. If you call me up at 10:00 at night saying, "Dan, tomorrow we are announcing ...." I'll say, "Hey, you know what? I can't do it. Call Marlon right now, here's his home number." For someone like Shannon or Marlon, that's a great call to get if they will be first to this great story that breaks at night. That's very, very cool. But for me, I'll go back to sleep.

Mr. Millner: Let me add one other thing quickly. We are all business publications. Although we may not like you pitching us at the same time, we read each other. Dbusiness.com plays off The Post, plays off Washington Business Journal, plays off dbusiness.com, plays off Fast Company.

Another key is the media within your own communities, for example the Montgomery Gazette or the Journal newspapers. Those are also ways to get your story out. We all look at other sources to see what we might have missed. Articles in those papers alert us and make us aware, so remember your community newspapers as places to get your story out as well.

 

Mr. Sherman: The next group of questions all came in independently, but they're on the same theme so I'll read them together. What due diligence do you use to validate a story? What techniques do you use to cut through the hype? How do you distinguish between superficial hype and legitimate buzz? And how do you tell if someone or a story is a true winner?

Ms. Henry: That's a great question. When you get a pitch from somebody, you check out the company. I go to their Web site. I talk to people about the entrepreneur. I talk about their venture capitalist or their angel. I try to get a sense of what this person or this company is about. We don't do one-source stories, meaning we don't get a call and say, "Oh, great, you have a cool idea. We'll write this big story about you and only quote you." That said, if anyone up here knew what company was going to be the next AOL....

We can't look at an idea and say, "Oh, we don't think that's going to happen." I'm not a technologist. I don't know if anybody else up here is. We try to understand how technology works as well as we can in order to explain it to the readers of our publications. The average reader of the Washington Post business section is very sophisticated. That person may not understand routers and switches, but we try to explain it as well as we can. The main goal is never to put anything in the paper that we don't believe—a fact or an assertion. Sometimes you end up writing about companies that are going to fail, but that's part of the startup business. We try not to hype companies; that's not what we are here to do.

Mr. Millner: When I was with the Washington Business Journal I went to a function by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship where a company named Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com) presented. I just liked one of the co-founders, Matthew Pittinsky. He was charismatic; he was laid back. That event was about how to get your VC funding, and the fact that he had gotten funding and was talking about it showed that there was something real going on there. Then I saw him present again last fall at the Mid-Atlantic Venture Fair where I learned something from talking to a lot of the VCs. It's very important for us to be able to explain the nuts and bolts of what you do, and perhaps that means the technical part, but a lot of VCs aren't technologists either. It comes down to, and this is my big question—how do you make money? It's beautiful that you want to put this back office functionality with this Web page and blah, blah, blah, blah, but how does Blackboard make money? Once Matthew was able to communicate that, it became something that made sense. That's what we are trying to write about because the next big thing is something that's also going to make a lot of money.

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When I cut through the hype, I want to understand. People who make certain technologies will make money because we all need a router, we all need a switch, we know that. Even if you don't totally understand what it is, you know that you can't send any data from point A to point B without one. When you get to that point, you understand how something is going to make money or be successful.

I'll ask you questions about your revenues, your contracts, who you have alliances with. It's the due diligence that a potential business partner would do to figure out whether you can deliver the goods and services that he needs at the time that he needs them.

Ms. Schweers: One of the ways we cut through the hype is to talk to the analysts. Much of time, they are the ones who can tell you if this company will make money. Even if it's not a public company, analysts are a step closer to being technologists than we are. They are in between where you are sitting and where we are, and they can give us some background, an idea of whether they have seen something like this before and some perspective. That is something we rely on a great deal to make sure that we are writing about a legitimate potential money maker.

Mr. Pink: Due diligence is essentially our job, and I don't think it's a far cry from a venture capitalist. You investigate, you report, you talk to people, you call that guy in the same industry who emailed you six months ago. I shoot him a quick email asking, "Have you ever heard of so-and-so.com?" You go with your gut in part, just like a VC. I might do a story saying, "this is the next big thing," and be wrong. That's fine. If I do that 20 times, I might be right one of those times, and that's very much how VCs operate. For me, as long as a reader can learn something from it, that's a cool story. If you are worried that I'm going to do due diligence, then maybe you need to wait a couple of months before you talk to me.

 

Mr. Sherman: Here is a related question that came up, and maybe we can approach it from a "newsworthiness" perspective instead of a due diligence perspective. How important is financial information or the stage of a company's growth for you to decide whether you are interested? The question goes on to say, "I work for a tight-lipped firm that wants press. What information must you have?"

Mr. Pink: It varies. It's like the oxymoron, "legitimate buzz"—"tight-lipped company that wants press." We can add it to the list with "jumbo shrimp" and "healthy tan."

I need to know a little bit, but I'm not investing in your company so I don't need to know everything. We have fact checkers, however, so be prepared to verify what you say. I think most people here would agree that the worst thing you can possibly do is lie. If you lie to me once, it's over. Our relationship is over. That is the worst thing you can do.

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If you don't want to give up your financial information, that's fine. Maybe it's not time to do that story, or maybe there is some other angle on it. Maybe a little profile, or the founder might have a really interesting story, but you can't have it both ways. You have to give a little to get a little.

Ms. Schweers: We will cover, and have covered, companies that are uncooperative in providing financials, but a lot of issues are going to come into that decision having to do with things I talked about earlier, like the uniqueness of the company and the product and the story that goes with it. The better those things are—without lying—the more your tight-lipped company is going to be able to get into the Business Journal. We know that happens and we are not going to cut off everybody who will not talk about it. Our reporters tell their sources that it is a very important part and we are a business journal, so we need to understand the basics of the business.

Mr. Pink: You're generally better off giving information yourself rather than relying on third parties to give it for you. Fast Company is not a financial magazine, so we're talking about maybe a paragraph or two in the stories that I do, but if you don't tell me your financials, then I ask somebody else. I go to an analyst or an investment banker and the paragraph reads something like, "Rutabagas.com wouldn't disclose their financials, but analyst Joe Shmoe at Forrester suspects they are hemorrhaging money, losing upwards of $100 million a quarter." Well, if you are only losing $50 million a quarter, it's better for you tell me that than to have Joe say you are losing $100 million.

Mr. Millner: Dbusiness.com focuses on early stage companies which may not have received a round of funding. You may say, "We have had no sales; I'm still trying to hire a salesperson." There are ways to qualify, whether it's by providing references from people you are trying to partner with, people you've pitched your technology to, people who you just signed a contract with. I have written stories about companies that didn't have revenue, for example, when the person just broke away from another company and at least we were able to provide context so the reader knew that it was a legitimate story, not just public relations.

Ms. Henry: At The Post, if we are interested in your company, we will write about you no matter what, even if you don't want to talk to us. Often that happens when there is something bad going on. We have an interesting front page story today about a bank in West Virginia that has apparently been doing some very bad things. They would not talk to the reporter because they were worried about it, and it's in the story that they would not talk to us. We can do a whole story about a company without talking to anybody at the company. We will try to talk to them. We would not be doing our jobs if we didn't call them 12 times and say, "Listen, we are printing, 'you would not talk to us,'" but we will still talk to them.

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When someone doesn't want to say anything about their numbers, it makes me a little less likely to write about the company. It is a gauge of how the company is doing, even if it's a startup with only a tiny amount of revenues and you are obviously not profitable. We always ask about revenues and profitability in the business section. In a deal, it actually affects the coverage. If AOL buys a company for $100 million, that makes it more interesting than "Company A bought Company B for an undisclosed amount." The same goes for all of your companies. If you merged with another company but are not talking about the numbers, it makes it a lot less interesting.

 

Mr. Sherman: We are seeing a lot more interaction between journalists and their audiences through email, chats, etc. Where do you see this going and what are your publications doing to facilitate relationships between you and your targeted readers?

Mr. Pink: It's an interesting question. The world of journalism is very different now from five or ten years ago. When Fast Company mails out, I know it. I can gauge it by my email. The feedback is instantaneous, and it's almost uniformly good for writers and uniformly good for readers. At Fast Company, we print the email addresses of our writers at the end of every story, so, if you think we totally missed the boat or thought it was a great story, you have a way to get in contact with us. We also have something which is a close cousin to these Netpreneur Program gatherings, called "Fast Company Company Of Friends." It's a group of readers here in the Washington area and around the country—various cells in various metropolitan areas—who meet once a month to talk about their businesses, get to know each other, maybe talk about an article in the magazine. I go to those as a way to get stories and as a focus group to see who is actually reading. There are many ways that journalists are getting closer to the sources and to the people they are writing about, and that works totally to your advantage. It makes it much easier to start building that relationship, even if it's built on a string of "not yets."

Ms. Schweers: I mentioned briefly our "Ask The Experts" panel, which has a twofold benefit. One is that it enables you to get a question out to a panel of experts from a variety of backgrounds which you don't have to pay for and might not have access to. Secondly, it is a way to get some press, as long as it's a question you are comfortable putting your face with. We do it every other week with a picture of the principals of the company, their question and our experts' answer. Even if it's something you are not comfortable putting your face with, there is a secondary questioning process for things that might be a little more sensitive and which you are not interested in letting the world know about. We rely largely on email. That's the hot technology for our interaction with readers.

Mr. Millner: At Dow Jones News Service, just before I left in 1997, we used to write stories that were called "Hot Stock" stories. Most of you are a long way from being hot stocks, per se, but the premise was that when a stock was up or down 5% and you couldn't explain that activity—there wasn't a news release or a ready explanation— we'd go and find out. I mention that because, at that time, we started to look into an area that so-called "legitimate press" like Dow Jones had not looked at before—chat rooms. Particularly Yahoo! Finance and the Motley Fool at that time. We even reported a few stories that said, "We cannot explain why the stock is down; however, rumors are circulating on Motley Fool message boards about X."

You hear this word, "democratization," that's going on because of the Internet—the democratization of information, such as analyst reports and analytics related to Wall Street, that you would not have had access to just three years ago. John Doe can go to the public library and have as much information as Legg Mason.

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I'm not a big business card exchanger, but when I was at the Business Journal and I exchanged a card with someone that I liked, I'd write a little note on it. I started to send out an email periodically, and I certainly ruffled a few feathers because that email was usually written in vernacular—slang—and I tried to be myself. When you're at functions like this, you have to put on your best face because you're representing the magazine, but when I sent off that email I was Marlon Millner, first and foremost. At dbusiness.com we have a daily email update that we do for each market. For the two that I do, I try to put that personal spin on it. So, to get to the issue of technology, it has allowed me to reach people. Even though it sometimes seems impersonal, it has allowed me to be more personal because I can't be on the phone saying, "Yo, what's up? You got that funding yet?" I can't do that all day long, but I can send out an email to touch base, particularly if I have met you somewhere and I want to remember who you are.

Ms. Henry: I agree with Marlon that email allows us be much more personal, which is wonderful. I read every email I get and I respond to almost every one. I try. If I haven't responded to one of you, I'm very sorry. A few slip through the cracks every now and then. You are not only the people we are covering; you are also our readers and you are why we are doing this. We are trying to inform and entertain. Our readers are incredibly important and we try to talk to them as much as possible.

I do a Web chat every other week on Thursdays. Leslie Walker does the other Thursday, so every week one of us is on live from 1:00-2:00pm Eastern Time at WashingtonPost.com with local technology executives. We had Mario Morino on two or three weeks ago, which was spectacular. We had just an amazing amount of questions, and we had Marc Andreessen on recently. To me, that is the greatest example of how technology has changed our interaction with readers. It is wonderful that 150 readers can write in questions to Marc Andreessen or Mario Morino in real time. We got through as many as we could, although we didn't get through all of them. The journalistic problem is that the guest we have on doesn't have to answer every question that we ask, so we can say, "What happened to your stock price?" and they can just not answer. It's a changing medium, and it's a wonderful, wonderful way to interact with readers. It's very casual, too. We have a lot of fun with it.

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Statements made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, Netpreneur.org or any of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The transcript is provided "as is" and your use is at your own risk.  

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