Here’s How Tech Journalists Choose Which Startups To Cover

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And now for a piece that every PR pro whose firm has ever represented a startup should read this weekend. Yesterday Jenna Wortham, tech reporter for The New York Times, wrote a cool interactive story speculating on which startups might blow up in coming months. Then, in what could only be seen as an act of charity to the tech PR world, she followed up with a post about how, exactly, she and journalists like her choose which startups to cover.

So what’s the secret? Let’s summarize:

  • They also “talk to entrepreneurs” to hear pitches explaining why such and such startup presents users with a new way of doing something—preferably something they already do on a regular basis. You knew this, but it’s good to keep in mind when writing a pitch: offer a spin on something familiar. The more familiar the better, in fact.
  • They look at data, so feel free to brag about how much traffic your client is getting from the female/Millennial/old man/unemployed blog troll demos.

OK, but what about the moment when a journo moves from thinking “this app could be cool” to deciding that he or she must cover it? That’s a tougher one. Wortham writes that conversations with peers in the tech field sometimes lead to a general consensus about which apps will be hot, while “gut instinct” is the ultimate factor determining whether bloggers and journalists will cover unknowns like, say, Instagram over competitors like Color (we’d never heard of it either).

They’re not always right. For example, the NYT team left tumblr off its post-Instagram “next big thing” list. That’s understandable, since the tech world is eccentric and very difficult to predict. So it’s something of a crap shoot, really. You just present your client in the best possible light without being too overbearing and hope the journos bite.

Some have less flattering opinions of the tech journalism game. Commentor “Matt Braynard”, for example, thinks it’s a bait-and-switch publicity racket:

You are incapable of making the correct decisions on these things because you don’t understand the businesses, you just report on them.

If you did understand them well enough to make these kinds of calls, then you would not be writing about them for the NYT.

About the only journalists who can do what you are attempting to do are retired athletes-cum sports journalists who, if their bodies had not worn out, would still be playing the game.

You’re the unknowing marionettes of whichever tech firm’s marketing department figures out how to best pull your strings and manipulate you into writing what they want you to write.

And we all know it.

Wordy and unnecessarily condescending—good job, sir! You sure showed her. But that’s “PR”, not marketing. Get it right.