A chat with Biz Carson, Reporter at Protocol
Yes, we do talk about the tech vs media tension
|Sarthak Haribhakti||Oct 16, 2020||5|
Sar : You have been a longtime tech journalist. You have written for Gigaom and Business Insider and were at Forbes before joining the tech focused upstart publication called Protocol founded a year ago. How has the pandemic changed how you do reporting individually and also as a part of a newsroom?
Biz : One of my favorite parts of reporting has always been the people, whether it’s grabbing a coffee with someone or shadowing an exec in a meeting or traveling to events or conferences, so it’s definitely been a transition. I even miss the VC dinners and happy hours! It was easier in the beginning of the pandemic because there was novelty to jumping on Zoom and having a virtual coffee with someone, but I’ve found that it takes more work to strike up new source relationships as the pandemic wears on.
I also miss the serendipity of reporting in person and being able to connect face-to-face with someone. I feel like Zoom calls strip a lot of that, and it ends up feeling much more transactional, which isn’t my style. There are some upsides for reporting though: Sources are home and not in their offices, so it’s easier to find time to talk to employees or investors, particularly for more sensitive stories. And the obliteration of any sort of work life balance means people are somewhat more reachable than before.
Newsroom-wise, I joined Protocol in January, we launched in February and went home in March. So we didn’t really have a rhythm established yet as a newsroom because of the frenzy of the launch before we went virtual, and so our baseline now is remote first. I know I’m not the only one in our newsroom though who has had Zoom fatigue set in and misses meeting with companies and sources face to face.
Sar : What made you want to switch over from a general news publication like Forbes (which has been beefing up its tech coverage aggressively in the recent years) to a startup? There’s often this cultural tension between journalists and startup people they cover in that the former are perceived to be risk-averse observers and latter are the risk-takers assessing upside in a way that doesn’t come naturally to most people. I'm curious to learn how a journalist like yourself thinks about leaving an established company and taking a leap of faith.
Biz : It’s a great question. Maybe reporting on startups for six plus years has helped!
For me, I loved learning at Forbes and there is a lot to be said about the knowledge you can absorb working for a 100-year-old publication. But when Protocol approached me, there was something enticing about being on the ground floor of something new and getting to shape what a Protocol story is from day one, not going off what it has been for decades. Plus there were the other things that draw most people to startups: a lot of it was the people I knew I would be working with and I deeply believe in Protocol’s vision that tech is such an emerging powerhouse that we should be covering the ins and outs of the industry. At Forbes, I knew my audience was general businesspeople, but at Protocol, I’m writing for investors and startup founders and employees and I’ve found there’s more flexibility in the kinds of reporting I do.
Does working at a news startup change my approach to covering startups? It probably has. But I think a more formative experience was when I worked at Gigaom and then that shut down suddenly on a Monday afternoon. I think that gave me deep empathy for the risk startup employees take and how you can invest your all in something and believe it will work, only to suddenly lose your job in an all-hands meeting through no fault of your own. Even going through that experience, I was still excited to join Protocol because I felt like it was a great fit for the kind of journalism I want to do.
Sar : I'm sure a lot of early stage employees can relate with you right there! Having a company fail or losing a job like that is really painful in the moment but helps build up the risk appetite which later comes in very handy when the right opportunity comes along.
Biz : It certainly helps, because even though Gigaom didn’t make it, I ended up at Business Insider and learned a lot. It was a great next step for me, so everything works out in the end.
Sar : How do you decide on what not to write about? Feels like there’s a million things someone covering startups and venture capital can write about weekly. How do you filter?
Biz : News judgement is always a tough call, and I wish I had strict rules around it. In general, I don’t write a ton of embargoed funding news or product announcements. I don’t typically cover milestones, like a startup reaching $10 million ARR or profitability, which seem like “news” to a lot of companies but are really just PR.
What stands out to me are companies and people doing things differently. That’s why I’ve enjoyed writing about things like the SPAC boom, the rolling fund launches, new fundraising techniques like using Notion or viral chain letters. I love covering companies that have velocity. My favorite project I worked on at Forbes was the Next Billion-Dollar Startups list because we would try to find companies in that sweet spot of breaking out. And I love stories around competition, like the wave of Zoom challengers that are competing with but also building on Zoom.
A lot of my best story ideas come from asking investors and founders and startup employees what they’re talking about that week and what’s top of mind. The people I write about are also my audience, so I always want to know what’s being talked about at partner meetings. Because if it’s interesting to people in that room, then it’s probably interesting to my readers too.
Sar : Katherine Boyle of General Catalyst often draws parallels between being a venture capitalist and a journalist. What you described is a lot of what she says. This investigative mindset is a critical skill for both jobs in our rapidly evolving world of startups where spotting something or someone at the right time is half the game.
Biz : There’s definitely a lot of overlap in the skill sets! Both jobs involve talking to a lot of people and, in different ways, we want to identify some of the most interesting companies and founders. But I’m happy as a journalist. I like that I can dig deep on a subject, but then move on to the next story that catches my eye. Venture capitalists are entering into a much longer-term relationship, have really money on the line, and a feedback cycle that is way too long for my taste.
Sar : You mentioned a lot of your stories come from just talking to tech insiders. Can you walk us through what a typical week might look like? I know venture capitalists talk to a lot of people weekly and they often have weekly or bimonthly catch ups with their peers, founders and other interesting people in their networks to stay in the right information flow at all times. How do you think about it? They use these conversations to write checks, you write stories. People are receptive to just catching up with journalists?
Biz : Despite what you may read on Twitter, I’ve found investors and founders are generally open to chatting, whether it’s story specific or just a general catch up. I wish I had a better system of keeping track of who I’m talking to and setting reminders of who I should catch up with, but often it’s a name I’ll see in a headline or in a funding announcement and reach out to see how they’ve been and what’s interesting in their world.
Most of the time though, I spend the first half of my week reporting out longer stories. This involves a lot of emailing and phone calls to people. I also try to take advantage of the phone calls by asking what else is on their mind these days or who was the most interesting person they met recently, and that sometimes leads to story ideas. Then the back half of my week, I try to focus on my newsletter, Pipeline, and figure out what I’m going to say that week. I try to focus my days on reporting and inbox maintenance and background research, and then I do a lot of my writing at night because that’s when I can focus better.
Sar : I want to zoom out a little bit now and talk about Protocol. When I first read the news about Protocol at the end of last year, I saw a lot of commentary about how Protocol is “Politico, but for tech”. This “X, but for Y” framing is a widely used framing for startup pitches. I remember chuckling at the time and thinking “Oh great, yet another outlet in a crowded market wanting to be different but will eventually be undifferentiated and cover the same topics the way everyone else covers.” It didn’t take a while for me to realize how I was wrong. As someone who follows the public markets and was actively following earnings back in April-May to understand the impact of the pandemic, I was impressed to find succinct summaries of earnings in a fresh format on Protocol. It was very unexpected. What can you tell us about how you guys think about breaking through the noise and having differentiated reporting? My sense is you are taking more of a The Information approach in terms of lower daily volume but a lot more intentionality.
Biz : I think it’s fair to be skeptical! It’s a natural reaction, and frankly, there are a lot of tech-focused publications who cover the tech landscape very well. We’re trying to experiment with things like different earnings reports and differentiated newsletters, and that’s the fun part of being at a startup. I think we stand out in a few ways, particularly our great tech policy coverage because we believe that the intersection of tech and government is an increasingly pivotal one. And we want our stories to come across as authoritative, insidery and fair.
We do get comparisons a lot to The Information for our quality and news output, but also Axios because of our newsletter strategy, and I’d agree that we exist somewhere in the middle of the two. We are very intentional in what we cover and the news we break, and we have a similar audience strategy around newsletters instead of a paywall/subscriber model than The Information. It’s a flattering company to be compared to.
Sar : As someone who subscribes to The Information and also reads Axios regularly, I definitely agree with you. A large percentage of my most read journalists work at those three outlets!
The Small Business Recovery series is yet another example of thoughtful deep stories around a specific theme in a fresh format. I have been enjoying it as someone who has spent the last two years working at the intersection of SMBs and technology. Would love to learn more about the content strategy of your team. Are you guys actively experimenting with picking themes and having most reporters do deep dives on them?
Biz : The Manuals have been fun special projects and are some of my favorite brainstorming sessions internally. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the news cycle of what’s happening every day and week, and the Manuals let us zoom out and really think about what’s happening in the big picture: what are the trends, who are the key people, what does the landscape look like today and where is it going. I feel like newsrooms do this a lot at the end of the year and are like “let’s look back and see what changed” and I enjoy having a more regular cadence of thinking about big themes as they’re happening and diving deep on subjects.
Sar : I hope you guys take on more special projects!
Politico is to DC what Techcrunch is to Silicon Valley. Politico’s founder and former managing editor are now the Protocol’s founder and executive editor respectively. You have been a part of multiple newsrooms in your career. Virtually all of your colleagues whose work I follow have had backgrounds in tech reporting. What is it like to work in a newsroom where you infuse the SV DNA with the leadership of people not only not from SV but who were deeply ingrained in the world of politics? What differentiates the culture? I'm always fascinated by organizations that take the risk of combining distinct cultures. Netflix is a great example of this. Quibi is another! Do you often yourself in situations where you do or do not do something that you easily would have in your prior jobs? Are the editorial principles different because of the culture?
Biz : Well we have a lot more people on EST than in other newsrooms I’ve worked for. But I’ll say one of my favorite things is working with people who are coming from the policy and politics side because they operate in a very different world. They think a lot of what venture capitalists say and do is crazy! Whereas I look at the politicians and can’t believe they’re saying the things they are! So that’s been a really fun balance and I have already learned so much from having teammates who are so deeply knowledgeable about that world.
Company culture wise, it still feels pretty close to a normal media company and the highs and lows that come with it. The biggest thing that stands out to me is just the emphasis on being fair, which maybe is a both sides of the aisle thing that’s more present in politics. Politico is read by both Republicans and Democrats, and we’ve also wanted Protocol to be seen as incredibly fair and not having a bias for or against companies or people. That doesn’t mean avoiding calling out companies when they screw up, like if Twitter fumbles handling misinformation again, but we can call the play and not be seen as rooting for one team or the other.
Sar : Every weekend, when I’m catching up on reading, I look forward to weekly newsletters from two journalists. One is The Information’s Jessica Lessin. The other is Protocol Pipeline from you. It is very hard to stand out doing weekly roundups of news. Your newsletter stands out because you come at it from “here’s everything interesting going on in the tech world this week” and not “here’s all the news my outlet and others wrote about”. You curate everything from Twitter conversations and Medium posts to news on the trending topics of the week. It really captures the zeitgeist well. You not only report the news but you also cover takes from all sorts of people from all sorts of places. What can you share with us about your vision for Pipeline?
Biz : I really wanted Pipeline to feel different than other VC newsletters, and I had no idea if it was going to work or not. There are a lot of great daily venture capital newsletters and I would never want to compete with Dan Primack or Connie Loizos for covering the daily ins and outs of this industry. I read them every day and I know my target readers do too.
So when thinking about Pipeline, it really started from a place of what are things I found interesting that week and how I can have the focus on people rather than just, here’s what Protocol wrote that might be relevant or regurgitating what Connie and Dan already covered. Some of it of course is talking up my own work, but that’s why I also include the Medium posts I found smart that week or what’s happening with the conversation on Twitter or any small interesting quotes that came out of my conversation that week. And the one thing I wanted to avoid was publishing a list of all the companies that raised venture capital that week. My hope is to keep it a fun, interesting and light-hearted newsletter, and make it interesting enough to have people take the 10 minutes out of their Saturday mornings to give it a read.
Sar : I can’t not ask you about the tech vs media tension online. First of all, I would like to know what your take is as a journalist. Second, I would like to know what your most charitable take is on what the loudest and most hostile voices on the tech side are saying. And, third, I would like to know what you think we can do to bridge the divide.
Biz : Oh man. I knew a question like this was coming, and I’m bracing myself to answer because the reality of this conversation is that it can get twisted, weaponized and escalate to online harassment real fast. And obviously I’m in the journalist camp so it’s hard for me to dismiss those biases.
My general view is that Twitter is not a proxy for the real world, and the collective tweets of a handful of individuals should never reflect what the majority of the industry is thinking or feeling, regardless of the side.
As a journalist, the conversation often moves past your own work and journalism to a broader discussion about “the media” which becomes “fake news” and journalists being “enemies of the people”. And I frankly bristle when people talk in generalities about the media getting things wrong or solely out for “hit pieces” against founders or having misaligned business models because I don’t think you can lump everyone into the same category. On the flip side, VCs and founders equally hate being lumped into one category and being called “Silicon Valley” and then get blamed for things like Theranos, Nikola, Uber’s antics etc so I think journalists should be careful too not to let specific people represent an entire industry.
My general view on the current tension is that tech is concentrating and amassing more power than ever before, and it makes sense that certain areas of coverage are more probing and could be considered more “critical” than 10 or 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago. And I think it matches larger societal trends around #MeToo and racial justice where people are speaking out more than ever and employee activism is on the rise. Reporting on these topics is not some byproduct of a bad business model or a clickbait driven news economy, like people tend to claim. It’s a reflection of the reality that the tech industry is more powerful than ever so yes, it will face increased scrutiny from the press, from the government, and most clearly, from its own employees. I’m all for experimentation of news business models, but I don’t think this is some panacea that will magically transform the media into whatever specific investors' utopian vision of it is. I think it’s frankly rooted in a general misunderstanding of the news business, the editorial process, and how stories come together and are reported — and it’s here that I think journalists should do a better job of being more transparent about how it all works. So maybe that’s a place to start.
Sar : I very much appreciate your fair minded perspective. I agree with most of it. And I really respect the fact that you are holding the extremists of both sides accountable here. More often than not, the loud people on both sides pretend like the snark and generalizations are coming from the other tribe and their own tribe is always right and nuanced. I believe that the vast majority of people on both sides are going about their business rolling their eyes every time this debate props up online. A big part of why we feel this debate is bigger than it actually is has nothing to do with the specifics of this debate in my opinion. If you are at a party or in a meeting and you see two people being aggressively hostile, you can choose to be quiet and still express your reaction using body language or by walking away. There is no internet equivalent of this on social platforms. People who remain quiet and choose not to get involved are pretty much non-existent or perceived to be in agreement in the context of the battle! So we just have loud people yelling at each other!