Two folks, I follow on Twitter got into an exchange about media coverage of startup funding. The conversation caught my attention to the (somewhat rare) extent that I felt compelled to weigh in — mainly to offer some historical perspective from what I learned during my days as a professional blogger and journalist. 

The biggest change blogging brought to the media landscape was that it atomized news. What would previously have been a long news story got broken up into constantly updating components. One of these components was “funding news.” Other than acquisition, a possible public offering, or a new product launch, this was pretty much the only news that came out of startups. And no one covered pure funding news better than the folks at TechCrunch — quick, concise, and usually exclusive. That was what made them the first read for everyone.  

I told my tweeting colleagues that my approach back in the day was to think of funding news not just as a one-off event, but instead as an opportunity to dive deeper. I should admit that this was not necessarily a novel idea — I had learned it on the job. As I previously recounted in a many years-old post, when I was a young reporter, “my then editor would often chastise me for focusing too much of my time on investors. While investors & investment dollars are a good barometer when measuring the story worthiness of a startup, they aren’t the story, because what really matters is the company: its product, its technology, its founders, and the business they are trying to build.”

News flash: investors are never the story. (Not surprisingly, this is not the first time I have ranted about this topic.) 

Think of funding news as a notification on your iPhone: a chance to bring more attention to the startup. As a writer, you could dig into a company, what it does, why it matters, and how it redefines the competitive landscape. Money is just a means to an end. That end goal is what’s important.  Of course, this approach means that a writer has to really understand their coverage area — be it cloud, climate, online video, connected devices, the emergent web, or mobile ecosystems. 

Even today, whenever I see a news story about an event, I hope the story will inform and educate me about the company and its potential. Instead, I often get some meaningless drivel about the investors. The sad truth is that the “funding news” story as we know it has largely become a PR event. It’s just theater. In most cases, it isn’t even news — the funding likely happened many months ago. Furthermore, these days, media attention is more or less reserved for big funding rounds, focusing on how much cash some megafund puts into a company, how much the company is valued, and whether or not it is now a unicorn.  

To some extent, this is understandable. The sheer amount of money pumping into the ecosystem, and the gigantic scale of the startup ecosystem, means that the media folks have to use rough filters to focus their attention. Still, I will stand by my earlier argument: funding should be a trigger to tell a bigger story about the role of the company and the opportunity this event is likely to unlock. Additionally, by stepping back and paying attention to a range of funding news releases, a reporter can see common themes emerge, revealing shifts in the landscape and interesting market trends. This is fertile ground for finding optimism and excitement in the vast expanding technology landscape. 

The world as we know it stands on the precipice of massive change. We are transforming from an industrial society to a digitally enabled planet. How we live, work, consume, and create is changing. This shift has corporate and cultural implications. For instance, the workplace and the very definition of work is changing. Simultaneously, we are facing a planet-wide existential climate crisis. Against this backdrop of this change, we need to have optimism and enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and startups. To do so, we must go beyond the press release and the headline to determine the relevance of a startup to these pressing challenges.

Sometimes, funding news is not just funding news. 

PS: How to write a good blog post

July 12, 2021. San Francisco

Twitter is going the way of subscriptions in 2021 — after buying Revue, the company today snapped up Scroll for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition is a smart move — it allows Twitter to play to its strengths — media and media distribution. 

Scroll is a prix fixe media buffet –for $5 a month, readers can view articles, ad-free, from about 300 odd media outlets. The $5 a month subscription is then shared with the publishers. Good idea, but as Scroll founder Tony Haile points out in his blog post announcing the deal, “we’re not moving fast enough.” 

A lot has to do with the media industry and its bureaucratic disfunction. The fact remains that destination viewing of media is becoming a habit only reserved for a fading generation of readers. Discovery, distribution, and consumption of media have taken on a different meaning. And believe it or not — Twitter is smack in the middle of this Venn diagram. 

Twitter, just by incorporating Scroll, can increase its footprint and impact on the media business.

Last year, I wrote a piece — What Twitter could learn from Spotify. In my piece, I outlined a strategy that would help Twitter reinvent itself but also help provide a vital lifeline for not only establishment media but also independent creators. But in doing so, I reasoned that 

Twitter has to be “willing to rethink its entire core application, jettison the past,” and only then can it “create a more relevant, robust, and financially rewarding future.” (I don’t want to repeat myself, so you are better off reading the earlier piece at your leisure.

With Spaces, Revue, and now Scroll, Twitter has started to think different — though if it will be enough for the company to regain its mojo, remains to be seen. It seems the newest recruit, Scroll CEO Tony Haile, does see the bigger picture.

“When you see Spaces, Revue or Scroll, you see Twitter focused on expanding, not encroaching on the value it helps others to create,” he writes on the Scroll blog. “Twitter is marching to the beat of a different drum and knows success will come from a bigger pie not a larger slice.”

In his post announcing the deal, he points out what makes Twitter unique compared to every other big platform — read Facebook. 

“For every other platform, journalism is dispensable. If journalism were to disappear tomorrow their business would carry on much as before,” Haile writes. “Twitter is the only large platform whose success is deeply intertwined with a sustainable journalism ecosystem.” 

And he is right — it is not just journalism in the classic sense. Journalism, as we have known, is changing. Twitter can’t fall into the trap of the media’s past and almost always lean into the future. Whether it is live conversations, podcasts, video streams, photos, newsletters, everything that is media can benefit from Twitter’s taking a cue from that other content company, Spotify. 


PS: Being very self-referential today, I dug up this little piece from 2012:

Over the past few years we have started to see the transformation of media by new technologies, new methods of distribution and newer ways to consume information I have always believed that we’ve got to stop thinking of media as what it was and focus on more of what it could be. In the world of plenty, the only currency is attention and attention is what defines “media.” Zynga is fighting Hollywood for attention (and winning). Instagram is taking moments away from other media. They have attention. There are old companies that are dying and new ones that are being invented. 

Paul Kedrosky’s Charts Newsletter had this wonderful graphic highlighting the increasing woes of traditional media formats, thanks to millennials and GenZ. However, things don’t look bad for one category: books.

Kids (and older kids) are still reading books at a decent clip, and perhaps will continue to do so, mostly it is a good antidote to the fractionalized and noisy media environment. This is such a huge opportunity for innovation around the “book” format.

With digital book formats and the rise of audiobooks, there is an opportunity to make books more in sync with the new audience. For start, books could be leaner — most books are about 50 percent overweight. They could be published faster — the current cycle takes somewhere between 18-to-24 months before a book is available to the readers. My ideal book — given my millennial like attention span — is one that takes an equivalent of a flight across the country.

The old fashioned paper books have one problem — they take up too much space. I grapple with that issue all the time — I have too many books and need to give some away!

November 13, 2020, San Francisco

Napster’s long-arm & the unbundling of content

Especially as post-pandemic problems pile up, many media companies blame the Internet giants as the cause of all their troubles. Of course, almost nobody blames their own short-sightedness in ignoring the foreseeable opportunities and threats of the network. At the turn of the century, I witnessed the birth of the Napster revolution. It was magical, … Continue reading Napster’s long-arm & the unbundling of content