Dan Primack wrote a refreshingly self-aware and constructive post about what ails Boston’s tech scene in his newsletter this morning. It had none of the “SHUT UP!!! WE’RE STILL NUMBER ONE!!! HOW DARE YOU SAY OTHERWISE???” false bravado, even though the local scene is about to record a rare consumer Web win with Care.com‘s upcoming IPO. And it expressed a new reason that Boston’s mojo has suffered: There are few national tech reporters there. Dan included Pando as one of the offenders here, along with Re/Code and TechCrunch.
Part of this is priorities. Being a CEO isn’t about what you say yes to, it’s about what you say no to. We have limited resources, and it’s not about putting those where things used to be hot, it’s about putting them where we think things are growing. Picking LA over Boston two years ago when we launched may not have made sense to everyone. Fast forward to today, and LA is home to the tumultuous subscription commerce wave, Elon Musk’s disrupt-the-future empire, Snapchat, and increasingly Valley investors are making it their home. We were able to cover that rise in a way most tech publications couldn’t because we had staff on the ground. Care.com IPO or no, I’d argue our decision served readers best. That has to be our priority — not giving an aspirational startup community a hand.
While the excuse above is what most editors-in-chief would likely answer, that’s not the real reason none of these publications have Boston-based reporters. It’s much more simple: It’s an issue of talent.
VCs will tell you the answer to a given city getting more of their attention is to start yielding awesome companies. Do something great, and they’ll get on a damn plane and come see you. They are economically self-interested. Likewise, editors are slaves to where they can find great reporting talent. For all the handwringing over the lack of journalism jobs out there, I struggle to find great business reporters looking for a job.
Primack is a perfect example. I’ve tried to get him to work at every company I’ve been at, never once because he lives in Boston. Anyone in her right mind would hire Primack, because he’s Primack.
Recently, we had one of our top reporters based in Baltimore. I assure you that wasn’t something I decided ahead of time. But it was that, or Hamish McKenzie couldn’t work for us. Easy decision, if frustrating for me. Likewise David Holmes was living in the boonies of Southern California, when we hired him and insists on living in New York City. But David Holmes is one of the most complete modern journalists I’ve ever met. I’m not going to let location dictate whether or not he works for us. My single greatest struggle in building Pando has been finding San Francisco-based reporters. Until recent departures, we were East Coast-heavy. We are finally making more local Bay area hires, but it’s been a long two-year process.
This isn’t just a Pando thing. When I was senior editor at TechCrunch our San Francisco staff had dwindled to a ghost town, and this was at TechCrunch’s peak influence in the Valley. Jason Kincaid and Erick Shoenfeld were in New York; Sarah Perez lived in Tampa; Leena Rao resided in Chicago; Paul Carr craved Vegas; and even the founder Michael Arrington lived in Seattle. I got my big break at BusinessWeek as an absolute nobody working at a small business weekly in part because of the same thing. There just wasn’t a great bench of talent in San Francisco.
When Adam Penenberg (ahem, based in New York) joined Pando, he simply didn’t believe that finding San Francisco talent was so hard. Within six months Penenberg, who’s a journalism professor at NYU, started giving his students free advice: If you want to maximize your chances of finding a job in journalism move to San Francisco, because if you’re talented you’ll be able to run the table. [Editor's note: True, that.]
Primack’s point that New York being the epicenter of media has played a role in New York’s ascendency as a tech scene is almost right. I think it’s less that the outlets are there and more that it’s the easiest place to find talent. For whatever reason the talent doesn’t want to relocate.
I’m not talking about warm bodies who can rewrite a press release. I’m talking about topnotch reporters. There simply aren’t many who aren’t already locked into lucrative sweetheart jobs or running their own media companies. The last 10 years of media disruption has made this worse, not better. Sure, there are fewer jobs in old media, but most star reporters don’t need them. They go out on their own and do just fine.
I have no doubt there’s talent in Boston, but for whatever reason editors like me don’t know about them. The problem isn’t that publications like mine don’t prioritize putting a reporter in Boston; it’s that there aren’t enough tech reporters there producing work that demands they be hired.