The continued rise of native advertising highlights the importance for publishers to keep advertising and news/editorial – aka. church and state – separate. For this installment of our One-On-One With Tech Journalist Series, we spoke with someone who’s worked on both sides of the fence for the well-known online publication, Business Insider. Alyson Shontell joined Business Insider in July 2008 as the 6th employee. Formerly Sales Planner, Alyson is now a Senior Reporter and primarily covers technology with a focus on startups. We got Alyson’s take on the state of tech media, startup reporting and found out what she would do with her days if she didn’t have to work.
1. Your background lies both on the marketing/advertising side and the journalism side. After you started your career, was there something in particular that led you more down the journalism path?
I always enjoyed writing and my junior year summer, I interned at Conde Nast. I tried to keep journalism open as a career track but decided to pursue my advertising major when I graduated. The starting salary was slightly higher and I figured I could always write on the side. While I was on the advertising side, I started submitting stories to our editors for fun. They got published and performed well. I realized I needed a creative outlet like journalism and that it’s better to pursue a passion in the long run. During my annual review that year, I asked to switch from the sales side to an open editor position at BI. They put me on a three-month trial where I was essentially doing two jobs at once, my sales planner position and the editor position. At the end of those three months, they were kind enough to let me jump from sales to editorial. I’ve been writing professionally for the past four years.
2. What are one or two major things you’ve seen change in tech journalism and the media landscape over the past five years or so? And have they been for the better or worse?
Now it’s much more saturated. It’s finally cool to start a media company!
When I first started writing, TechCrunch was run by Mike Arrington and they were the ones to beat. PR people would only give them scoops, and if you scooped their TC story everyone (the company and PR people) got really angry with you. Now it’s a much more level playing field and other brands have been able to rival or even surpass TC. The landscape has gotten a lot more saturated. There’s Pando, BetaBeat, Valleywag, Business Insider, Re/Code, The Verge, The Information, Techmeme, plus the Apple & gadget blogs and newspapers/magazines buffing up their tech reporting staffs.
3. As a tech journalist, where do you get most of your news, tips and story ideas from today? PR folks? Social media? Direct outreach from companies/start-up founders?
I get most of my stories from in-person meetings and conversations. Engaging conversations with smart people always lead to story ideas. Very few stories are from PR folks, unless they’re exceptional bits of news I have to write, like Uber’s $1.2 billion round. But if I’m doing my job really well, I should know that’s coming before a PR person tells me about it.
4. It’s well known that journalists are flooded with hundreds of emails every day. How do you quickly determine what news and story ideas warrant a further look and what instantly goes into the trash?
If I’m interested in something, and I think our readers will be interested in it as well, I’ll pursue it. Business Insider has a much broader readership than other tech-only sites, so I like to think about stories I can cross-post to our main page. Generally, those are tech stories that even non tech-savvy readers will care about. Truly innovative ideas, great people/founder stories, etc. Things everyone can appreciate and enjoy learning about.
Subject line and the sender matters a lot in my inbox. If I don’t know the sender, there’s a high likelihood the email will be trashed. If it’s a subject line like, “Story Idea,” that’s an instant trash as well. Most reporters have plenty of their own story ideas. Also, I don’t like when someone writes “I loved your article!” then goes on to say, “So you’ll love this company and should write about it!” It makes the compliment feel insincere and me feel used.
The best way to get a reporter to pay attention to your emails is to have a real relationship with them. Reaching out to before you need anything is a nice change.
5. What tips do you have for communications professionals in building relationships with tech journalists (or are good old-fashioned relationships archaic in the fast-paced world of tech reporting?)
As I said before, reaching out before you need anything is nice. That doesn’t mean I want an inbox full of no-reason emails, but just someone thinking of me as a human being, not a means to an end, gets noticed.
Also, honesty gets noticed. I know PR is a lot of spin, but the reporting game is all about having relationships you can trust. So figuring out how to tell the truth to me, even if it’s in an off the record capacity, goes a long way for relationship building.
Additionally, tech reporters like scoops! And PR people likely know scoops about other companies outside of the ones they rep. So tips that won’t get you in trouble with your clients are appreciated.
6. Where do you see tech journalism in five years? Will as some have contended, all journalism be tech journalism?
I think there will be consolidation. There are arguably too many publications right now because media startups are kind of the hot thing to launch right now. I don’t think all of them will survive, and there will be roll-ups.
7. You cover both start-ups and the ‘big guys’ e.g., Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Is there something you enjoy reporting on the most?
I love startups. I really love the people stories behind startups. What’s the founder’s deal? People love learning about people. I also like seeing startups explode and and getting an early idea of what products/tech the world will be using next.
8. Some of the most heavily funded start-ups ever have gone under and simply disappeared. Is start-up funding as ‘news’ in and of itself losing its sexiness in your opinion?
Business Insider generally doesn’t report on funding rounds, unless it’s something truly eye-popping or we’re given the exclusive. There are plenty of other blogs that will print your funding news. We don’t think going into debt is the most interesting story about a startup that can be told.
9. As far as media consumption, what are the ‘must-read’ news sites or ‘must-watch’ news shows for you every morning?
Re/code is doing great work.
10. (Just for fun) If you didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?
I’d travel. A lot! I’d love to join Outward Bound.