Journalists 101: Know Your Enemy


A few years ago, I was talking to a startup founder at a tech conference. When he found out I was a journalist, he launched into a bitter complaint about how after some initial success he couldn’t seem to get any media coverage. “I got my startup onto TechCrunch,” he fumed. “Why aren’t these other sites giving me the time of day?”

“Well,” I asked, “did you tell them your startup was featured on TechCrunch?”

“Of course!” he said.

“Then you just answered your own question.”

That founder’s fundamental problem—the reason he couldn’t get more coverage for his company—was that he failed to understand what a journalist’s job is, and what journalists actually want. The repercussions of that mistake can be truly profound. In that case, what the founder thought was the strongest aspect of his pitch (that TechCrunch had covered his company) is actually what was preventing him from getting additional coverage.

So let’s talk about journalists like me. Who are we, and what do we really want?

First and most importantly: journalists work for their readers.

That’s where their loyalties lie. They are not obligated to cover your company, and their primary concern when considering covering your company is going to be: Will this story interest my readers? If the answer to that question is no, then the smoothest pitch in the world isn’t likely to win them over.

I get pitches from PR people all the time that focus on how good it would be for their company if I covered their story. Newsflash, folks: I don’t care about your company. I care about my readers (which is really a way of saying that I care about pageviews). And what do my readers want? They want stories.

What makes an interesting story? Think about your favorite novels and movies. In their most basic form, good stories tend to share two characteristics:

  1. Interesting characters
  2. Some kind of conflict

In the context of your company, as an entrepreneur you are most likely the main character, and the conflict is often your struggle to overcome the difficulties of being a small startup. So what makes you interesting? What makes you unique? What struggles is your company going through that might strike a chord with readers? What other elements of conflict or controversy might be in play here? That’s what a journalist is thinking about when they’re hearing your pitch, so you’d better be sure that your pitch speaks to that.

Second: journalists work on deadlines.

Outside of the major print dailies, admittedly, you may find that there’s some wiggle room. But even when there’s no editor breathing down a reporter’s neck, news itself has an inherently limited lifespan. That means that there’s a narrow window you have to provide information for a story before it becomes irrelevant and gets thrown out.

Example: your company is launching a product on Friday. You send me a press release about this on Thursday morning, but I have some follow-up questions. I email you back on Thursday afternoon. You respond with the information I requested the following Wednesday, along with an apology for the delay—things got so hectic with the product launch that you didn’t have time to reply!
That’s when I respond with a polite thanks, along with a note that I’m not running a story about the launch. It happened last week. It’s old news now.

(If you’re a first-time entrepreneur, you may not know this, but journalists from reputable media outlets will always respect an embargo. That means if you’re having some newsworthy event on Friday, you can send them the press release on Monday along with a note that they’re not allowed to actually publish a story about it until Friday. This gives everyone the full week to get their stories ready, sort out details like quotes and photographs, and iron out any misunderstandings. Use embargoes. They make everyone’s life easier.)

Third: journalists love numbers.

If you can’t give me a story with an interesting character and some conflict, the next best thing is a story with compelling numbers. This is often easier for business people, and as a startup you probably have access to some crazy growth numbers. For example, if you had 4 customers last month, and 40 this month, your business is growing 1,000% month-over-month! That makes for a snappy headline, and a pretty easy-to-write article.

Some industries are more numbers-obsessed than others, of course. And numbers-based pitches will work best on reporters whose outlets typically cover business news. But if you can’t think of an interesting story, interesting numbers are your next best bet. Remember that reporters need an eye-catching headline to attract readers to their articles. Impressive or surprising statistics are one great way to do that.

Fourth: journalists are lazy.

Like anyone in any profession, journalists appreciate it when other people make their jobs easier. Many of us do enjoy the investigative muckraking part of the job, it’s true, but we also appreciate being handed stories that can basically write themselves every now and then.

So how do you make a journalist’s job easy? Send them a good press release. Don’t forget to:

Include all of the relevant information in your press release. Be sure it covers who, what, why, where, when, and how.

Include photos or images of humans that fit well with the story. I say images of humans because nobody wants to print your logo along with a news story. That just makes the story look like an ad. A good photo of your team standing in front of your company’s logo is much more likely to get used.

Include some quotes from the key players. Not all journalists will use them (I personally never use quotes from press releases because they tend to sound like advertising soundbytes), but it’s best to have them anyway so that they’re there for the reporters who want them.

Include the contact info of somebody who will actually respond if contacted by reporters with a question.

Give me all of that with an embargo a few days before the news is scheduled to break, and I’m much more likely to cover your startup because writing the article won’t take me much time or effort.

Fifth: journalists care about exclusivity.

This is where our startup founder friend from the introduction went wrong. No journalist wants to hear they’re being handed a story their competitors have already written. When that guy told reporters his startup story had been covered by TechCrunch, he thought he was giving them proof that he had a worthwhile story for them. What he was really doing was offering them the news equivalent of a day old, half-eaten apple—a story that somebody else got to first.

That doesn’t mean you can only get your story covered by one outlet, of course. What it means is that you’ll make journalists happiest if you can give them something nobody else has. So, say you’re launching a new product. You could give that story to one outlet to break. Then give another outlet an exclusive interview with your CEO about the product. Finally, you could give a third outlet a story with some preliminary data about the new product’s sales. In that way, you get your story mentioned in three different places, but you’re not asking three journalists to write the same story. Everybody wins.

Sixth: journalists can smell BS.

This one should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: don’t lie. Good reporters tend to be very good at picking up on that sort of thing, and if you get caught, the repercussions could be significant. When a founder or PR person lies to me, it makes me wonder: what else might this company be lying about? It makes me want to start digging, and see what skeletons I can haul out of closets. And since everybody has a few skeletons in their closet, that’s always a dangerous prospect.

Obviously, not all journalists are exactly the same, so your mileage may vary. The more you can learn about a specific journalist (by reading their previous work, Googling their name, etc.), the better you can understand what they want from you. But the basics outlined above should at least give you the gist, and help ensure that you know who you’re talking to when you go to a journalist looking for coverage.


About Author

Charlie Custer

Charlie is an editor at Tech in Asia, where he covers the Chinese technology industry. He lives in Maine with his wife and dog.