Interview With Paul Sloan

Aug 25th
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Paul Sloan has been a good friend of mine who has worked in journalism far longer than I have been an SEO. In this interview we discussed journalism, marketing, and public relations.

You have been a journalist for a wide array of publications. How would you describe the differences between the various journalistic roles you have played at the various companies you have worked for?

Let’s start with the obvious: Journalism is in major upheaval and how it all shakes out is anyone’s guess. Here’s what I am certain of: The broader economy will rebound and the business of journalism will not. Traditional media -- by that I mean print newspapers and magazines -- were struggling before the general economy fell into this deep recession and no miracle will return them to their pre-Web glory. To which I say, thank goodness.
People working at newspapers are bemoaning the death of journalism. That’s just not the case. The business models are dying, or at least they’re very sick. But journalism is alive and evolving at an incredible pace. Look at the places I have worked -- CNN, Bloomberg, Fortune Magazine, Business 2.0, The Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report . One is dead (Business 2.0), two probably should be dead (Fortune and U.S. News) and one, The Tribune, is bankrupt.

Sure it’s rough, but it’s exciting and opportunities are emerging at a fast pace. I’m still amazed that The New York Times, which held out forever before introducing color photographs to its pages, now has its reporters live blogging senate confirmation hearings and MacWorld keynotes. Makes the whole debate over color seems sort of silly.

The Web and blogosphere do a great job keeping biggies such as The New York Times on its toes--both watching over it for accuracy and keeping its reporters chasing stories. But for now, the Times, the Wall Street Journal and a few others are still super influential. So, naturally, plenty of businesses and startups want the coverage in the established media.

As a journalist, what do you look for most when considering a topic to write about and an angle to write from?

The number one thing I’ve always looked for is surprise. A predictable story is a dull story. And I love story, narrative. So I look for people. Too many reporters, especially tech reporters, just write about the technologies. That’s fine for blog posts, but often behind technologies exist stories of persistence or controversy that humanize a story and make it memorable.

You wrote about a wide range of business and start up ideas in your Playing the Angles. How do you come up with story topic ideas?

Funny you bring that up. I thought doing that column was sort of silly idea when my boss at the time Josh Quittner asked me to do it, but I really got into it and it became quite popular. The way I found topics was old-fashioned reporting: Calling around and talking to all sorts of people doing things that seemed interesting and instructive. Make enough calls and eventually you land on something surprising and compelling. I enjoyed it because it was about real people -- individuals figuring out creative ways to make money, usually on the Web.

That column died with Business 2.0, but to this day I get email from people asking about things I wrote about in those columns. So I recently decided to create a Website about entrepreneurs large and small. I was surprised, but PlayingTheAngles.com was available, so I registered the name and we just launched it!

How often did/does your story and angle change drastically while researching it?

That can happen a lot. Good reporters -- and, more importantly, good editors -- know that stories change as you gather facts. Everyone goes into a story with an angle in mind; it’s impossible not to. And bad reporters doggedly cling to that angle even when all evidence points them in another direction.

Does a person need to "know people" to get media coverage? What sets apart the coverage-worthy from those who are not?

If you want coverage about your business or idea or just you, sure, it helps to know people in the business. But if you’re doing something interesting, reporters are always looking for things to write about. Shooting off a well-crafted email is by no means a waste of time.

What should they put in the email? What is the right amount of information? When is it too much information?

The main mistake people make is to oversell an idea, or a client. It's always better to be honest. You might be better off saying to a reporter something like, This idea might make a good little item, or maybe it could be part of a round up about others doing similar things. Too often people call to persuade you that their story is a really big story. In my experience, that's never the case. Tell me how big it is and my eyes are rolling.

Write a brief email brief and keep it in check with reality. Know something about the reporter so you can appeal to his or her interests or areas of coverage. (Yes, I’ve received many emails addressed to other people or to me but the wrong news organization). And ask to setup a quick call or meeting as a way of getting-to-know each other. If someone calls and says, I'd like you to meet so and so because you write a lot about digital music and my client has been involved in three music ventures, then I'm sold. Those meetings don't always lead to stories, but they're time well spent for both sides because the next time I'm writing about digital music, the chances are good that I will call that person. And then when you want to pitch a specific idea for a story, you will have a relationship with that reporter.

When you are looking into the background or credibility of a source what are key signs that make you comfortable trusting someone? What makes you feel a person is underqualified and/or not trustworthy?

That all depends on the type of story. I’ve had the experience of believing someone completely and finding out years later that that person was looking me in the eyes and lying. Unfortunately, lying is part of drill, especially among business and in business journalism. All you can do is trust your gut, double and triple check everything, talk to as many people as possible, and, when it makes sense, verify claims with numbers and data. In the get-it-out-now pace of today, I constantly see numbers tossed out by companies and taken as fact.

Did you ever end up writing a story that you later regretted writing? If so, did it create new filters for your future writing?

Anyone who’s written a story about a companies has regrets. These are not he said, she said, stories. I’m talking about the stories that go out on a limb and say something like, Why So and So is the Smartest CEO on the Planet. And then, low and behold, that CEO looses his job a month later. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me. But there are plenty of examples of this from the past year.

Marc Andreesseen, who’s had his share of press coverage, beginning with the 1996 cover of Time Magazine where he posed barefoot, told me that early on he learned to keep the press coverage in perspective. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like: “You’re never as smart as they say you are, and you’re never as dumb as they say you are.” Marc is certainly right about that. Magazines like Fortune want to run bold covers that say, The Smartest CEO blah blah blah... Those sell, or at least they used to. But everyone knows they’re complete hyperbole.

Some of your stories have spread all over the web while others were less received. What do you feel separates the stories that spread from those that do not spread as far?

For starters, certain stories are naturals for setting the Web ablaze. At CNN Money.com, for example, they go out of their way to write about Apple because Apple has legions of fans who read anything and everything. People click, and CNN Money.Com makes money. It’s that simple. I wrote a couple of big stories about the domain world, and both of those were huge on the Web. It helped that they were surprising stories -- what? people are making money on domain names? Didn’t that end with the dot-com bust?. The second big piece, about Kevin Ham, spent a lot of time on AOL’s home page. These were discovery pieces in a way, and they had that lure to the reader that, hey, if these people can get so rich, you can too.

I started out at a newspaper in Anniston, Alabama, called The Anniston Star. I was always thrilled when readers wrote in about something I had written. Now, that feedback starts in minutes and can go on and on. I love that.

Did you ever like being pitched? If so, what was the best way to pitch you (and other journalists)?

This is a good question. I can count the number of stories I have written that began with a pitch on one hand, and they all have been little pieces that I did for the Web. The rule of thumb is that the good stories just don’t come from PR people. That said, there are no so many outlets for coverage and a limitless amount of space (the Internet vs. a newspaper or magazine), so PR people can be more successful.

Do you recommend hiring PR firms? What is the difference between good PR firms and bad ones, from a journalist's perspective?

I’ve been helping some startups deal with this lately. The mistakes that PR firms make are just unbelievable to me. I’ve taken meetings from PR people who know very little about their clients. If it’s a startup, they don’t know if it’s profitable, if it has venture backing or, if it doesn’t, who the main investors are. So my first piece of advice is make sure your PR firm knows the basics about you.

But here’s the other crime that PR people commit, and there’s just no excuse for it: They no nothing about the reporter they are pitching or what the reporter tends to write about. This often happens because PR agencies buy lists and start making cold calls. If you’re hiring people to do this, you’re wasting your money.

Even if the PR person isn’t working this way, it’s just inexcusable not to know something about the reporter you are calling. There’s this thing called Google. Surely you can use it before you pitch a story about digital music to someone who writes about banking.

These are just a few of the blunders that PR people routinely make.

What are some easy and affordable ways to appeal to media members? What are some of the most creative and best thought out things people did to get your attention (or the attention of your colleagues)?

Are you suggesting bribes? No one’s ever tried that on me, although people often try to buy dinner (I generally don’t let them) or fly me places (I would never allow).

When speaking to a media member should the person being interviewed research the background of the journalist? If so, what all should they look at?

Yes, yes, yes. As much a they can. They should read what that person has done, and get a sense of what interests that reporter.

As a popular blogger in a hot field I get many media enqueries and sometimes I get misquoted. What strategies should entreprenuers use when talking to the media to minimize the risk of misquotes?

Talk slowly and, if you’re really concerned, use a digital recorder. But you will get misquoted, the concern, I assume, is that you’re words and thoughts are getting misrepresented. Well, you’ve got a blog. So you can have your say. My friend Damon Darlin at the New York Times recently wrote a piece that was critical of the way some reporting takes place online. It was a fair column, it seemed to me, but one of the bloggers that Damon quoted, Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington wasn’t happy. TechCrunch has huge reach -- 7 million page views a month. And Mike, whom I also consider a friend, isn’t one to let matters die down. So he spoke up. The days of submitting a correction to the paper and hoping they run it are long over.

Who is the greatest guitarist of all time? Why?

Unanswerable question. The most underrated is Eddie Hazel, who was best known for his lead guitar work with Parliment Funkadelic. Soulful, biting and melodic at the same time. His playing on Red Hot Mama on Funkadelic’s Standing on the Verge of Getting it on is some of the tastiest and vicious guitar playing ever. This is a longer, live version:

How does writing a story compare with writing a guitar riff?

Bad writers often use too many words. Bad guitarists play too much, excluding genres such as metal that are all about notes and more notes.

A great guitar line, like a great piece of writing, has just the right blend of notes/words and rhythm.

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Thanks Paul! Check out his new blog - Playing The Angles.

Published: August 25, 2009

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