Five things entrepreneurs must know about journalists, but are often clueless about
April 2, 2012 by Terence LEE
When entrepreneurs zig, journalists zag.
That’s how wide the gulf between the two worlds are.
Journalists are essentially publicity whores that live in a fast-paced work environment, rushing to and fro to cover scandal after scandal.
Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, often live for years in obscurity before getting their big break — the makers of Draw Something are a good example. A lot of them, unfortunately, will remain forever mired in the bog of insignificance.
And when journalists and entrepreneurs work together, it’s often an uneasy, contentious symbiosis. Entrepreneurs complain of being misquoted and misrepresented by journalists, while journalists gripe about being arm-twisted to write an article a certain way.
But it doesn’t always have to be this way. Having some tension is natural, and a healthy working relationship is attainable.
Entrepreneurs and journalists do need one another, so understanding both sides is an essential first step to making the partnership work.
Having lived and breathed in a newsroom environment in both the print and online world, I thought it’s time I share five things entrepreneurs must know about journalists, but unfortunately, are often clueless about.
1) We are not your public relations slaves
Nothing irritates a journalist more than being asked to show a newsmaker the entire article before it gets published. It impinges upon our fierce sense of independence and the need to write an article as we see fit (until, at least, our fire-breathing editors dismember our articles).
As an entrepreneur, understand that journalists are not doing public relations for your company. Our readers come first. It’s not our duty to sugar coat a story until it suffers death by diabetes.
Journalists that propagandize their articles have no credibility. And with no credibility, publications die, unless being a tabloid is their ambition.
Nonetheless, as an entrepreneur, you have the right to demand that journalists check their facts or quotes with you before the story gets published. Changes can still be made, although some bits may be deemed non-negotiable by the journalist. For instance, a particular quote may be so central to the story that it cannot be retracted.
Journalists, however, do get irritated when entrepreneurs are fickle about what they want to reveal to the media. It is generally understood during an interview that everything you tell a journalist could be used as a quote.
Requesting to change a quote after a story is published should be avoided as much as possible. Correcting wrong facts, on the other hand, is fair game.
So, always preface stuff you want to remain confidential with the magic words: “Off the record”. Think through what you want to say before you start the interview.
Private or social conversations, however, are more of a grey area. But ethical journalists will always ask first if they want to quote something you said in private.
2) Journalists need their stories NOW
Here’s another reason why journalists hate sending their stories to newsmakers for ‘vetting’: We just don’t have the time. You’ll be amazed how much work goes into a short article hidden in an obscure section of a newspaper that no one reads.
Unlike entrepreneurs, who often take a long view regarding their companies, making financial projections a few years ahead, journalists live day to day.
Traditional journalists have cut-off times to adhere to before a publication goes to print, and it’s especially brutal for dailies. Magazines have slightly more breathing space. For online journalists, it’s a race to beat everyone in the world to the story, even if it means publishing it at 3am.
So don’t be surprised if journalists hound you incessantly for statistics or quotes — sometimes, we don’t have a choice. This urgency can be bewildering for entrepreneurs who are used to roadmaps that last for months. But try to oblige us as much as you can, we’ll be grateful.
3) Journalists mastered the art of trolling before the word was invented
True story: An American journalist once wrote a fake story in 1835 about how an astronomer saw creatures on the moon through his telescope. People believed him, and the writer lived in infamy as the first troll ever.
There is one thing about commercial journalism that hasn’t changed through the years: Controversy brings eyeballs, and eyeballs bring ad dollars. It works exactly the same way as certain mobile apps that also rely on ad revenue.
Of course, publications have different ideas about how to balance credibility with controversy. Perez Hilton certainly belongs to one end, while The Economist occupies the other extreme.
But all publications indulge in some rambunctious intellectual revelry from time to time. They exist to drum up attention. A rule of thumb I use is to get at least 20 percent negative comments and 80 percent positive ones. A writer with no hate mail isn’t making an impact.
Because of this, media coverage can be a double-edged sword. It could work for you, or against you. Journalists, under the right circumstances, are willing to make you look bad just so people read their stuff. I know I do.
There’s nothing wrong with it per se, controversy is the bread and butter of an independent and commercial media.
Use this to your advantage. Throw yourself into the center of controversy, while managing the role you play in the drama. You may come out slightly grazed, but you’ll still get more exposure for your startup (Flocations comes to mind as a startup that’s good at this).
4) Journalists are not as smart as you think we are, but we’re not dumb either
If you’re an enterprise startup or a company in the green energy sector, getting press coverage is a challenge. While you may be extremely familiar with the intricacies of a fuel cell and how the green industry works, journalists often only have days to understand your work, especially if they are not in a specialized beat.
As such, you will often find yourself needing to “dumb down” or “sex up” your business ideas and technology to a level we can understand.
This applies more to the mass media than specialized publications, but even the most astute tech journalists have trouble keeping up with all the latest trends.
But see this as practice: If your aim is to eventually reach out to the mass market, you will need to pitch your business in a way that causes a million light bulbs to switch on.
Nonetheless, do not underestimate a journalist’s smarts.
None of us will ever make a gazillion bucks like Mark Zuckerberg (or even come close), but seasoned reporters would have seen miles of bullshit to know when one is coming. We know it when you string together jargon to make hot air sound coherent, because we’ve done it ourselves.
We may not say it out loud, but they can tell apart entrepreneurs that know their stuff from those that don’t. And just because you think your business is the best in the world, experienced reporters would have seen and read enough to let off a cynical smirk at your wonderful “billion-dollar opportunity”.
5) Journalists are extremely fickle
Be mentally prepared: Your two-hour, tell-all, tear-jerker interview may never see the light of day.
This problem is especially pervasive in the print and broadcast world where journalists fight for limited column inches or airtime. Autocratic editors often have the final say over what goes into print, and if they deem a story to be unworthy, it goes straight to the trash heap.
Online publications have it a little easier. While we’re not bound by column inches, we suffer from a different problem: Lack of resources. Smaller, indie websites tend to be understaffed — an interview conducted last week may be relegated down the queue to give priority to more newsworthy stories.
Journalists of all sorts tend also to be obsessively eyeballing the news ticker — a major disaster, a scandal, or an earth-shaking announcement — all of which could throw an interview with a puny startup into the land of no return.
To increase your chances of getting coverage, make it easier for us to write about you. Help us along by providing complete and digestible information about your company and yourselves. Pictures matter too, so having beautiful press photos that is made available online is a bonus.
At the end of the day, journalists are not heartless creatures who want to spotlight every controversy. As cynical and world-weary as we are, we still love a feel-good story, and we want to revel in your triumphs.
Just be careful to time your media publicity well. Receiving press coverage at the wrong time can do more harm than good.
It happened with Color. Don’t let it happen to you.
Photo: Ernst Moeksis
On the flipside, what should journalists know about entrepreneurs? Do share with us in the comments section.
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE