TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
In March 2011, two business journalists who left the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2008 to start the TechFlash site for the Puget Sound Business Journal struck out on their own with the help of investors.
Todd Bishop and John Cook started GeekWire, a Seattle-based news site that covers the tech industry.
As veteran technology journalists, with two decades of combined experience covering the tech beat, Bishop and Cook say they have embraced the digital revolution and new online tools while attempting to stay true to the ethics and values of traditional reporting — digging through documents, talking with sources, getting out into the community and seeking to put the news of the day into larger context and perspective.
A native of Wooster, Ohio, Cook got his start in journalism in high school, with a part-time job compiling obituary and election information for the Akron Beacon Journal, where his mom was a reporter. He graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in history, earning Phi Beta Kappa recognition and Academic All-American honors in soccer.
Bishop grew up in Orland, Calif., and got his start in journalism covering sports for his high-school paper. He graduated from California State University, Chico, with a double-major in journalism and business administration.
Their business partners are investor Jonathan Sposato and chief business officer Rebecca Lovell. The four of them are pictured to the right at GeekWire’s launch party. From left to right: Todd Bishop, John Cook, Jonathan Sposato and Rebecca Lovell. (Photo by Karen Ducey.)
Talking Biz News talked by e-mail this week with Cook about the business. What follows is an edited transcript.
After working for a daily newspaper and a weekly newspaper, why did you and Todd decide to strike out on your own?
It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a long time, especially as we saw what was happening to the traditional newspaper business with the onslaught of digital media. As technology journalists, we were already on the front lines covering many of these changes. The writing was on the wall per se, and we knew it was only a matter of time before mobile and Web technologies took their toll on traditional media.
We wanted to be part of that change, controlling our destiny rather than attached to a legacy media business that was burdened by the models of the past. More importantly, we’ve covered the stories of entrepreneurs for years, and the passion, energy and determination that goes along with building a start-up is something that’s truly inspiring and has rubbed off on us, for better or worse.
What can you do with GeekWire that you were unable to do working for someone else?
Now, if something is broken, we can fix it. In our past roles at larger media companies, if we identified what we believed was a solution to a problem or just had a good idea, we had to go through layers of bureaucracy and a hierarchical structure. Even if we made it down the path, the possibility that someone would actually listen — let alone implement the idea — was challenging. It was exhausting, and disheartening. We have a lot of offbeat and crazy ideas, and we needed to have a venue where we actually could let our creative juices flow.
That became increasingly difficult at the larger media companies, which were mainly trying to think of ways to survive and hold onto their legacy businesses. To me, that wasn’t a very fun environment to work in, just holding on. I love how the media business is morphing and changing. There’s so much opportunity and room to experiment, and I am of the belief that this is a great time to be in the media business.
I just think of some of things that we’ve implemented in the past year — from our podcast/radio show to events like the GeekWire Summit to a truly unique editorial voice and much of that would have been challenging at existing media companies. Start-ups are notoriously hard, but frankly I’ve found life much easier and rewarding on our own.
What did you and Todd learn from working at traditional media companies that you’re now applying with GeekWire?
We are both rooted in traditional journalism. My mom was a longtime correspondent for the Akron Beacon Journal, and to this day remains my mentor and coach. Todd was the editor of his high school and college newspapers. Journalism is very much a part of who we are. That’s a strength in our view.
We try to do actual journalism, covering events, conducting interviews, digging through court filings, etc. We learned from some of the best in the business at the Seattle P-I, and other daily papers we worked at. So, I’d say we learned how to find good stories, report on them quickly and have a little fun along the way.
How did you find investors and partners for GeekWire?
GeekWire is backed by angel investor and Seattle entrepreneur Jonathan Sposato who previously sold Picnik to Google. We are extremely lucky to have him on our team, providing insight and guidance to a couple of first-time entrepreneurs. We’ve also been humbled by the support of GeekWire in the larger tech community. Many in the community believe in our mission, and have been supportive not only through reading our stories and attending our events but also through advertising and sponsorships. There’s a belief in the Seattle tech community that GeekWire plays an important role in the overall ecosystem, telling stories and connecting people in new ways. I obviously believe very deeply in that mission.
There are a lot of tech news sites out there. How do you differentiate yourselves?
We like to say that we are a national technology news site rooted in Seattle. That sets us apart immediately, in part because most of our competitors are located in Silicon Valley, Boston or New York. Being based in Seattle means we just look at the world a bit differently, and we come at stories with a unique perspective. Being in Seattle also means we are on the front lines of some of the most interesting things happening in technology, covering a lot of them in person.
We’re also different in that we’re very much rooted in traditional journalism, the idea of producing original content such as Todd’s recent report on Microsoft’s investigation into its Bing marketing teamand our exclusive profile of Amazon.com’s first employee. Of course, we do some aggregation on the site, but we try to make our first focus original reporting, and we do our best to add value by bringing our own perspective to everything we write and linking liberally to the sources we find online.It’s a bit sad to say that that is a differentiator, but so many “news” sites today really have just become aggregators of OPC — Other People’s Content.
And while we are rooted in traditional journalism, we are also excited and empowered by the way things are being transformed by the Internet and mobile technologies.Plus, at the end of the day, we just have a goofy and fun side to our coverage, like the recent video we did of the “Textspresso” machine or the day Todd spent the morning live streaming a PR stunt by Angry Birds at Seattle’s Space Needle. We like to surprise readers, mixing in hard news with offbeat features. We think that element of surprise keeps readers and viewers coming back.
What sites or media do you see as your biggest competition?
There’s no shortage of competition, from TechCrunch to GigaOm to All Things D to The New York Times to VentureBeat. We also compete with Twitter and Facebook and Hulu, simply from the vantage point of where people want to spend their time. We do pay a lot of attention to the Techmeme leaderboard, which is the ranking of the top tech news sites on the planet. I am proud of the fact that GeekWire routinely ranks in the top 25, and I bet we are the “leanest” of that bunch with just two full-time editorial staffers.
What’s been the biggest issues in the past year to keep the site vibrant and breaking news?
We’ve had our fair share of challenges, but nothing that’s been deadly, knock on wood. I’d say our biggest challenge at the moment is finding the right hires and partners to take advantage of the opportunities we have in front of us on the editorial and business side. As I said, we are lean group — one of the reasons we’ve been profitable each month of 2012. However, we need to get into a stronger position where Todd, Jonathan, Rebecca Lovell and I have the ability to pursue some of the creative ideas that will take the business to the next level. At the end of the day, time is probably the biggest challenge. There’s just not enough hours in the day to pursue all of the great story ideas and capture the business opportunities.
You and Todd seem to spend a lot of time writing and posting still. How do you manage journalism with running the site’s business side?
Actually, this is one of the reasons why it took us so long to make the leap into the world of entrepreneurial journalism. For the longest time, we just could not find that perfect person on the business side, which was so critical for us. Luckily, very early on in the formation of GeekWire, we brought on our fourth partner, Rebecca Lovell. Rebecca, the former executive director of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, serves as chief business officer, overseeing all aspects of GeekWire’s business, from high-level strategy to managing events to selling sponsorships. Rebecca was a critical hire, and we are so lucky to have her.
Having a full-time partner who runs the business frees Todd and me up to set the editorial focus. All of the us play a role in the larger strategy, but Rebecca drives the business day-to-day. It also allows us to live up to our journalistic ideals. Incidentally, we do have a physical wall that actually separates the editorial and business operations at the GeekWire offices. One of my favorite stories related to this topic was the day that Rebecca “scooped” us by selling an advertisement to a company whose story Todd and I had unsuccessfully been chasing. The ad touting their new office in Seattle appeared on the site before we were able to report on the news, and Todd and I had no clue the ad was coming.
If you could go back and change anything about the past year to 15 months, what would you change?
This is a great question, and the amazing thing is not much. We’ve had an awesome run so far. Having covered start-ups for years, I know how rare that is. If I were to choose, I’d say it would be to get in a time machine and go back three or four years to start GeekWire a bit earlier. It’s just so gosh-darned fun and exciting doing your own start-up, making the decisions that drive the business without needing to involve others who may or may not be driven by the best agenda. I guess my only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner. But, hindsight is 20-20 as they say, and we’re spending most of our time thinking about where we are going, not where we’ve been. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos likes to say: “It’s day one.”
What are your expansion plans going forward?
We’d like to bring on another tech journalist — one steeped in social media and the world of geekdom. This will help us build an even bigger and better community news site and resource. We also have a number of fun ideas on the editorial front, including the pilot of a new Web video series called Elevator Pitch that we’re excited to roll out. We’ve also expanded our lineup of events this year to nine total, including several we brought on through our acquisition of a local site called Seattle 2.0, which produced the top start-up awards event in Seattle, a tradition we are now continuing with the GeekWire Seattle 2.0 Startup Awards on May 3rd. This year, we’ve already run a half day conference called the GeekWire Summit with more than 500 attendees, so 2012 is shaping up to be a big year for us.
Are you breaking even financially yet? If not, when do you hope that will happen?
Yes, we are. I am proud to say that we turned a profit in the first quarter of 2012. Things are looking great in the business, and we are all excited about the opportunities ahead.