Back in 2006, I had a conversation with Washington Post Magazine columnist Gene Weingarten, one of my favorite humorists. If you’ve ever happened upon his column, you know that he’s not exactly an admirer of public relations professionals or publicists. So I made him an offer: let’s switch jobs for a day. I’ll write your column for one week while you handle all my PR clients. Gene thought about it for a bit, and then said yes…with a catch. He’d only do it if I would admit, on the record in his column, how pathetic and meaningless my existence as a PR professional was. Intriguing offer, but ultimately I passed. Then I went home, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels, shut the closet door, and cried.
Ok, so I’m kidding the last part. I don’t actually own a closet. I’m not sure why the exchange with Gene recently popped into my head, but perhaps it results from what seems to be a Groundhog Day cycle of working with traditional DC tech press, which goes something like this: Establish relationship with DC tech reporter, work with reporter on multiple client stories, watch reporter leave publication after relatively short period of time (typically right at the moment when I have 2-3 stories on precipice of publication), bang head into wall, dream about being a farmer, realize I wouldn’t survive six hours on a real farm with live animals, start process all over again with replacement, and hope springs eternal.
Washington Business Journal tech reporter Kasra Kangarloo is the most recent area tech reporter to leave the position, a beat he held for less than 8 months. Actually, I spoke to soon; Washington Post reporter Amrita Jayakumar (who covered tech as part of a broader beat) departed a few weeks after Kasra. Preceding these tech scribes were Bill Flook at WBJ and Steven Overly at the Post. All four were good writers and good individuals who invested time to get to know the tech community – which is all you can ask for.
Editorial churn is not unique to this market, and there is no need to run through the upheaval occurring with traditional publishing. But one has to assume that the revolving door partially derives from the fact that these writers did not feel the position was stimulating or rewarding (financially or professionally). Traditional publishers in this market have been de-prioritizing local tech coverage due to a range of factors. This begs the question of whether it matters – not just for individual tech companies seeking to generate awareness for their brand, products and services – but for the DC tech community as a whole.
While most of these reporters transitioned quietly to their next professional stop, Kangarloo hopped out with somewhat of a bang. It wasn’t an exit on par with George Costanza scraping up New York Yankees championship trophies as he spun his car around the parking lot, but it did capture the attention of the DC tech community. Kangarloo led off his exit post stating, “Fare thee well, D.C. tech. It’s been real.” In fact, Kangarloo didn’t think it had been real at all:
“Obviously, it’s in every startup’s interest to drum up positive press, and there is a genuine financial incentive for any one of them to, shall we say, bend the truth a bit. And since I’m leaving the beat for good, I’ll just go ahead and say what I really mean by that — the startup realm seems to rival even political coverage for the sheer amount of spin that’s employed each day. But why so many reporters give in so easily is a mystery. And that’s not to exclude myself, by the way. I’ve fallen into that trap plenty of times, and had I stayed longer I’m certain I would again.”
If a startup announces a major new customer and no one is around to write about it, did it happen? If the next set of tech reporters at WBJ and the Post cast an equally cynical eye towards the DC tech community, does that impact the ability for startups and others to get important stories out? I can understand, as a reporter, that it is far more fulfilling to dig into more controversial, investigative pieces than it is to regurgitate funding announcements or hearing a founder wax on about some grandiose vision to change the world…or supply chain efficiency as the case may be. And investigative stories should be told. But so should stories of startup and tech success.
The good news for DC is that the next generational of editorial players, including DC Inno, Tech Cocktail (yes, have been around for a while), Technical.ly DC, Tech Bisnow and even the DC Tech Facebook page, have stepped in to fill the gap. They’ve also served notice, for the most part, that they aren’t satisfied to just repost press releases.
For DC starts and other tech firms, all of this change means a couple of things – none of it revolutionary. First, proximity matters, and startups and tech innovators may have to leave their comfort zone, metaphorically and geographically speaking, to find the outlets that matter most to them. It may be TechCrunch, it may be The Wall Street Journal, but it could just as likely be Builder Magazine or Hotel Business. Because as many layoffs or job switches that might be occurring across the industry, you will find greater stability at influential outlets outside of the market (TechCrunch, Re/Code, The Next Web, QZ, etc.), where some writers have been there for years, not months. This stability is important, because reporters get to know a company and don’t need to be re-educated on a continuous basis.
Second, think about how traditional and emerging DC tech writers want to cover the space. Don’t just email a press release about what a new product does, connect them with a customer who can provide tangible ROI evidence your product makes a difference. If your funding announcement is not a big number – relatively speaking – connect the funding to a broader local or national trend that expands the story beyond your own. The press release isn’t a news generator; it’s simply an SEO information capsule representing one small part of your announcement strategy.