I thought I’d share a few random thoughts about the Naked Truth event today in Seattle. First of all it was really cool that this event was pulled together with such a heavy-hitting panel of journalists. A big thank you! to the Redfin and Madrona Venture Group folks for pulling this together and sponsoring it. It was a beautiful evening for an outside event and it was a great excuse to get together with a bunch of entrepreneurial folks to chat. I’d also like to mention that I was impressed to see so much of the local VC community show up. It makes a difference when they are present and part of the discussion at events like this.
I felt a little bit disappointed with the panel discussion but in retrospect its probably more about my expectations than the panel itself. With a title like “Naked Truth” and panelists like Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, Fred Vogelsten of Wired (who was involved in the recent “naked” issue), and John Cook who writes for the Seattle PI business section and (to me) more importantly writes the John Cook Ventureblog, I was expecting to dig a bit more into how the Internet as a communication medium has changed the relationship between the press and the industry. It felt like the panel mostly covered some great PR basics (and reading the announcement again thats all that was promised). All of it was really good stuff and it was great to hear this stuff from real journalists.
Of course the great thing about “the Internet as a communication medium which has changed the relationship between the press and the industry” is that we can continue the conversation beyond the event itself and I can post my thoughts at more length on here.
One question from the audience was something along the lines of “should you try to get your story told in the WSJ or just aim for the local press”. On one level the answer to that is fairly easy. If your story is newsworthy enough to make the WSJ, you would be a fool not to get that coverage. They have huge reach, and the credibility of being mentioned in the WSJ can be critical. That is pretty powerful.
Yet, let me make a counter argument. If you go to the “Naked Truth” page, there is an interesting distinction between the 5 reporters. 4 of the 5 have their names linked to their blogs (ok, Fred’s is a bit stale and Tricia shares a blog with 4 other reporters as far as I can tell). But Rebecca Buckman’s link is to her name on Technorati. Follow it and you find lots of mentions of her (and for right now of this event) but nothing BY her.
Now, the WSJ isn’t completely an old-media dinosaur. They have a huge web-site and can proudly say that they are one of the few in the world that have managed to run a profitable content-subscription business on the web (it is rumored that the NY Times is about to give up on their Times Select subscription). But the subscription site puts all their stuff behind a closed door. How often will anyone ever link to it? It has power on its own since it comes with the strength built up over decades of the WSJ, but it doesn’t exist as part of the web.
Compare that to John Cook’s blog. Frankly, for a long time the business sections in local newspapers (IE- not the NY Times or WSJ) have been in a rough spot. Most business professionals read one (or both) of the two “national” papers, and it seemed like too often local business coverage was trending towards the equivalent of “human interest” pieces. Not that there is anything wrong about those, just they aren’t going to be considered important.
I found out about John Cook, not from his newspaper writing, but from his blog. Blogs of course have that interesting characteristics that they all link to each other, and I started seeing links to John’s blog and pretty soon I subscribed to it. Because of the lightweight mechanism and frequent updates I’m sure he gets to cover a bunch more than he would be able to write in the newspaper. For me, I get this much better picture of the scope of venture activity in the Seattle area. It puts him and the whole PI business section on the map, and that’s the map that covers the whole Internet, not just Seattle.
I don’t mean to overstate the case and suggest that mention by John is more valuable for a company than a mention in the WSJ. Just that its not so clear cut anymore- the same thing that has put the power to publish in the hands of non-journalists also is a powerful tool for the pros. And its worth saying that I think there continues to be an important role for professional journalists- I’m not at all in the camp that seems to be saying that somehow a bunch of random people typing away can do just as well as someone with real training and experience at finding out the real story.
I’d also point out that there is a business dilemma here. Professional journalists deserve to be paid for their work. Especially given blog readers which don’t show your sites ads, its much harder to get paid for writing on a non-subscription blog. I’m a proponent of the right to charge for software that has value and this content should be regarded in a similar way. Yet the right to charge for software isn’t always the same as the practical ability to charge for software. As an entrepreneur you are faced with the unpleasant reality that pretty much any consumer facing web-site is going to have to be mostly free and you need to figure out how to monetize it some other way. The usual technique is to follow the lead of the 1st National Change Bank.
The other topic that was mentioned, but I would love to explore more is ethics. Arrington did mention this a bit, both in poking at the WSJ’s potential massive conflicts if they get bought by Murdoch as expected and also being straight up about his goal of making a buck for himself. It feels like one of those situations where both the traditional journalists and the new-style ones are struggling with what is appropriate in this new medium. Bloggers run with different rules than the traditional journalists have, but I’d have to assume that the professionals feel some pressure to adapt to compete for that hot story. At the same time they feel the pressure of the corporate consolidation of their industry and the pressures that inevitably flow to the editors.
Finally I’d like to mention a foundational question that doesn’t get asked enough. Why does a start-up want to talk to the press? Getting lots of PR seems like a given for most people (”there is no such thing as bad press”) but without thinking about your motivation a bit it is hard to focus to get the right kind of coverage that meets your goals.
Press can give you two things- the first is distribution. In the old days distribution was cutting the deal with Egghead so your boxes showed up in every store and some people might buy them. Today getting mentioned to millions of people is more valuable since for many businesses they can reach you from any web-browser if only they have heard of you and have some reason to type the name of your site.
The second thing they give you is credibility. If someone randomly visits one of my sites, the chances are pretty high that they will head somewhere else without even a single click, and are overall fairly low that they will trust me enough to sign up for an account. On the other hand if Wired just wrote a glowing article about some great new service and someone is going to check it out, they are much more likely to check it out carefully and sign up for that account.
Talking to the industry press is more about developing business contacts and financing than attracting customers to your site. Of course, these two points still apply.