Monthly Archives: June 2010

Hungry Hacks & Eager Entrepreneurs: The Art of Knocking on Doors and Other Mild Forms of Harrassment

Being a reporter is life training, if by ‘life’ we mean testing the extremes of clinical Attention Deficit Disorder (versatility!?… horizontal knowledge??), learning the art of the linguistic bluff  (write it with authority, son!), and harassing perfect strangers (that’s called: source building).

While I was born with more than enough of those first two traits, I’ve had to work over the years at acquiring the third. I gaze with envy at my hack colleagues who find real joy in the around-the-clock hounding of those with power and knowledge and potential skeletons-in-closets.

No, I am not the steamroller, take-no-prisoners, just pick-up-the-damn-phone type. Still, I figured out early that the fruit of that perennial chase is the basic currency in which the news business trades. And if I wanted to participate/succeed in any meaningful way, I would have to take up the hunt.

Just how to go about it is more art than science, and depends on the nature of the hunter. I’ve always looked at it as the search for the sweet spot between insistence and politeness, patience and impatience, creative thinking and single-minded stubbornness. Oh, and luck too. When it works, it can net some timely scoops, and exclusives that make up for all the humiliating phone calls and ignored emails;  and yet there are just as many occasions when the best intentions and foresight are useless if the stars line up against you.

Now, 20 years later, trying to get my news startup off the ground, I am benefited by the acquired skills at knocking on all the right doors with all the right techniques. Who is THE person I must talk to? How do I get to him or her? And since plan A often fizzles, how do you maintain the momentum of the pursuit over the course of the day or week…or even months…when no one seems to be taking your calls?

Now, rather than sources or some prized VIP interview, the targets of my attention are colleagues, media executives, all-around smart people, possible funders and potential business partners. Whereas agreeing to talk to a reporter working on a story has a rather obvious up side or down side, often the people I have tried to track down over the past year face both less risk and less payoff  in taking time out of their busy schedule to hear me out.

It’s very clear, in other words, that it’s me who needs them more than they need me. Hopefully the moment will arrive that both investors and partners — and employees — will see how I can help them too!?

But at the start of the startup, after 10 months of knocking on doors (and 20 years as a reporter), here’s a quick list of what I will politely call my hounding techniques…

1. Try to get an introduction, or at least a name you can cite as a reference.

2. Try to find out (or guess, if you have to)  if the best first contact should be by email or phone. These days it’s almost always email. (Note: Facebook/Twitter/Skype Chat/Etc are not good alternatives.)

3. If it’s email, your first follow-up should be email. If it’s phone, your first follow-up should also be email.

4. Edit down. Be brief in all correspondences.

5. If you haven’t heard back in a while, and you are just dying to follow-up, it’s probably worth it to wait two more days. But no more than that.

6. Be friendly with assistants, secretaries, spouses to increase likelihood that your messages are put on top of the pile.

7. Once they do respond, be utterly flexible about when and where to meet or call.

8. Follow up with a brief thank-you email that finishes with the ball continuing to move forward — though not a new favor to ask or appointment to fix.

9. Don’t be afraid to show you have just a touch of humor/irony (if you do. do you…???). Nevermind. Keep it straight.

10. Know when it’s time to quit/Never Quit. If someone is simply not responding after four or five inquiries (even if they initially seemed interested) let it go. For now. And never sign off with nastiness or burn bridges… for they may yet come around.

Remember that any help you get is gravy. Be grateful for everything. And then some day, it’ll be your turn to do the helping. In life…In news…In business…. Karma counts.

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Filed under branding, entrepreneurship, funding, journalism, new media, old media, Uncategorized, world news

My Nieman Lab Post: Why ‘CONTENT’ shouldn’t replace the J word

Here’s the June 3, 2010 piece from Nieman…

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Pardon the Disruption: What My News Startup Does NOT Aim To Disrupt

The go-for-the-jugular ambition of the good folk at Publish2 is inspiring. It is also a bit scary to see a 10-person startup try to take on/take DOWN the Associated Press… for what it says about how broken the news business is, how hard it will be to fix it and…what happens in the meantime. As a former AP correspondent in Rome, who stills follows the Vatican beat, I have watched my wire service colleagues’ outstanding work on the current Catholic priest sex abuse saga, breaking stories (here, here, here) in the past couple of months that bloggers or freelancers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to pull off in the kind of ongoing way as a crucial, far-flung story like this requires.

But none of that means that the AP is not vulnerable to assault. And if it vanishes, no one knows if/how Publish2 or anyone else will be able to substitute the work it does, and cover the ground it covers. For the second time in this space I refer to Clay Shirky’s ominous dictum about the prevalence of failure on both sides of the disruption divide in remaking the world of information/communication in our digital age.

But if the prospect of potential (or even likely) failure were ever to clip our ambitions, there would be no success worth achieving. So upward/onward for us all: hungry beat reporters and upstart news entrepreneurs alike. No one at Publish2 should scale back their goals, or somehow soften their direct, name-your-prey approach. Aiming high, and aiming straight is good for rallying the troops, making some waves, and of course, er…WORLD DOMINATION!

My question is about the fixation with the conception of disruption that often drives the New Media discussion. Though my sights are set pretty damn high as well…what I hope to create does not aim to actually disrupt any fundamental component of the news business. Indeed, it is conceived of as a boost to those currently hanging for dear life on around the world. This doesn’t mean that it’s not new, or innovative, or might even change the way people think about and consume foreign news. Moreover, if it works, some people might lose their jobs, and others might find new ones. It’s also worth confirming that both in my old and new lives, I have run into resistance from established forces of the news business, and so I know that there is indeed much that needs disruption…and in some cases, outright destruction.

But perhaps part of the what the news business needs now are ideas, mechanisms, products that help what has long existed better do its work and spread its product….and repair the bottom line. I am well aware that I say this, because this it what my product would do. But I also believe it is true– even a full year after having sipped the New Media Kool-aid. (DISCLAIMER/APOLOGY: I am still a couple of months from taking the details of my project public, and my decision to hold off on saying just what it is has slowed down this blog a bit, as a result. Despite the urgings of my astronaut soon-to-be brother-in-law “Go live, man. Go live!” I’m still holding off, lining up those ducks.  Soon…I promise!)

As we move toward what is coming, there will be some essential disruptions. There will also be stalling the inevitable, crutches and life support pulled out, sucking up resources. But there is also room for bridges, new networks for old players. This may be a failure of imagination on my part to grasp how much will change, but I am convinced that filters, brands, organizations…and yes, reporters and editors…are as important as ever in helping consumers of news get what they need.

I have a friend who is a successful airline industry consultant whose business booms when his clients are struggling. Indeed he once told me that a true, sustainable business model for air travel may not really exist. But that doesn’t stand in the way of lots of people and companies all along the food chain getting paid. In the meantime, the people get transported in a more or less sufficient manner.

Might we carry that analogy over to the news business? At least for the next 20-50 years!? Be just disruptive enough to make a decent living by continuing to do what we love doing. Spend as little time/energy navigating those burdened by salvaging what ought to be abandoned. And maybe have a small seat at the big table where the world of information is changing forever. This is my ambition.

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