What it’s like to run a regional tech news site
Rick Smith, 61, has been a journalist since the age of 14, starting as a stringer for The Indianapolis Star and several newspapers for his high school sports teams in Mooresville, Ind.
While attending Indiana University-Purdue University with a major in elementary education and a minor in history, he chose to enter the news business full time. He went on to work for Gannett newspapers in Michigan and Missouri, The Dallas Times Herald, The Buffalo Express, and The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., where he was news editor and then assistant managing editor.
Smith became an entrepreneur in 1993, joining Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, tasked to build a statewide Internet network. He then went on to launch his own consulting business, co-write a book (“The Internet Strategic Plan,” John Wiley & Sons, 1997) and worked for a startup as its vice president for Internet as well as marketing.
Smith returned to reporting as a contributing editor to Raleigh Metro Magazine and wrote for The Triangle Business Journal as well as other publications. He co-founded Local Tech Wire in December 2001. The website was acquired by Capitol Broadcasting in December 2006.
The site has been honored twice for excellence by the North Carolina Technology Association, receiving a “21 Award.”
Smith also is business editor of WRAL.com, the Emmy-award winning news site of WRAL TV, although his primary focus is WRAL TechWire.
He spoke about TechWire and its operation with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did TechWire come about?
Two entrepreneurs in Charlotte were fascinated with the possibilities for tech news to be sold through subscriptions online. They hired me as the founding editor on the recommendation of co-founder and writer Allan Maurer. I was hired in the fall of 2001. We soft-launched in December then went live in January 2002 via a subscription model. That was dropped several months later due to lagging sales.
What types of stories do you try to cover on the site?
From the start, Local Tech Wire as it was known until acquired by Capitol Broadcasting and renamed WRAL TechWire has had a broad focus: Technology startups, financing of all types for new and emerging ventures, life science and biotech startups, the venture capital industry, and general news such as deals, new products, emerging trends, new technology
Over time the mission expanded to include the eco-system such as emerging firms that had grown and went public or were about to or were M&A targets. Well-established firms such as SAS and GlaxoSmithKline were added along with many others since they were such a vital part of the eco-system either as customers or investors or spinouts either in new companies or from employees who left to start new ventures. We also could not leave out universities since they too are such hubs of innovation.
Today in the Triangle WTW strives to be the publication of record for all things tech in the triangle and across the state as appropriate. We do cover Wilmington, Charlotte and other areas especially if there is big news.
Beside you writing stories, where does your content come from?
A variety of sources. We have access to a limited Associated Press feed. I have formed partnerships with various sources such as the NC Biotechnology Center and fellow-Capitol owned publication ExitEvent. Research firm Technology Business Research is a great partner with analysis of large firms and technology trends. I also have numerous contributors and thought leaders such as Vivek Wadhwa.
Unfortunately, depending on your point of view, virtually all local copy is written by me. For example, I wrote 7 Skinny blogs just today, Thursday, April 30.
Who is the reader that you’re targeting?
Entrepreneurs, tech enthusiasts, investors and business thought leaders. Our demographics are actually very high.
However, by covering stories of broader interest, such as economic development, new jobs and layoffs, we broaden our reach significantly. For example, in 2014 when we reported in great detail amost exclusively about protests in China against IBM’s x86 sale to Lenovo, our readership reached record levels across the board. (We worked with a native Mandarin speaker to translate news from China sites; the readership was absolutely incredible.)
WTW has global reach even with a Triangle focus. Our readership averages well over 6 figures in uniques every month, and page views are about 50 percent higher than that.
You may find this interesting: Our readership actually grew substantially in 2014 even with the “pay wall,” which really cuts into numbers for premium stories.
What are you covering that other business media such as the Triangle Biz Journal and the N&O’s biz desk aren’t?
It’s easiest to compare us to The N&O. They provide good but very selective coverage with emphasis on corporate real estate and corporate earnings reports plus any job/company expansions.
We cover all that and much more, from daily features and interviews with entrepreneurs and executives from the smallest companies to the large. We average 10 local stories per day. The N&O averages far fewer. But let’s be clear, the N&O has slashed its business staff. They do what they can do — and often very well.
The Business Journal has a much larger staff — 10 or so at least when you include their digital producer and others who sometimes contribute. They also draw on the wide network of TBJ publications. So in terms of pure volume — well, numbers and resources count. Plus they offer in-depth reporting in the print edition, which is paywalled.
Interestingly, WTW gets a lot of criticism for having a paywall. Actually, all three of the biz-focused pubs in the Triangle do. People just don’t realize it.
So how do we differ from TBJ? We have a more intense local focus, and we don’t play in the corporate real estate space (unless there is a big development deal) or in non-tech business. If you want tech, life science, venture/finance, startups – WTW is the place to go.
What’s your growth been in terms of UVs and page views in the past few years?
I believe WTW holds up very well. We continue to grow despite the paywall.
But just like with hurricanes and TV viewership, so with WTW. If we have big job/new company news or IBM or Lenovo or Red Hat or Cisco or GSK news, readership goes up like a rocket.
Is there a certain area of tech coverage you’d like to do more with?
(Laugh!) Of course. I believe everyone in this market is so focused on the tyranny of the moment (get the story up first) and there is so much news (never seen this much in the 20 years I have been writing about tech in the Triangle — that includes the “dot com” boom) that there is very little time or mental bandwidth to focus on the bigger stories. The in-depth reporting takes time and resources I simply lack.
What really happened to GSK’s North American leader? What really led to the implosion and sale of Salix Pharmaceuticals? How are companies abusing contractors and immigration visas? There are so many more.
About the time I dive into a project — boom! Someone gets money or somebody gets fired or some company is making layoffs.
In a sense, the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra of TV also fits to the web. That’s sad, but people want what they want.
Some of your content is behind a paywall. What does that do for the site?
Generally, exclusives or content that’s very tech-, company-specific such as analysis of earnings and trends. They have to be newsworthy. Not opinion. Opinions are like faces. Everyone’s got one, and not all are pretty or handsome. I’m the poster child for that.
I like to run analysis of the big firms because they are built on Wall Street analysis/insider knowledge. No one else in the area does that. So if you are into broadband/fiber detail or what’s happening at EMC, IBM, and companies like that, we are the only local choice.
I get constant feedback from people about these stories. They like that we publish what others don’t. Niche appeal, to be sure, but a very important one as I noted in the readers we want.
How does TechWire fit into WRAL’s overall online strategy?
(Sigh). How do you grow audience and drive advertiser appeal while at the same time driving off thousands with the paywall? Easy answer, right?
The entire industry is struggling with this choice. I think we have found a solution, but getting support for it is an entirely different matter. We’ll see what happens.
The survivors (TechCrunch, the Business Journals for example) are staying alive because they do events and conferences. TBJ in the Triangle seems to have a different awards program every week. They sell big off those.
When we decided to launch the paywall, we chose to stop doing events and focus resources on content only. That was two years ago. This year, we are doing four events. We returned to the event venue last fall with a conference on fiber/gigabit Internet in partnership with SAS. It was a tremendous success, helping us drive ad revenue, subscriptions, and readership.
Is this the correct strategy? I have hope.
Regarding paywalls: The WSJ is an exception for general publications, not niche. They have so much talent, so many resources and so many great stories that subscribing is the only option to getting the best news. WSJ also does events. But no local publication can produce what the WSJ does in terms of volume and quality for the price that WSJ can afford to charge — and make money.
WRAL TechWire’s growth is a testimony to the power of WRAL.com’s front page. WRAL.com often dominates web readership in the Triangle, and if WTW stories are deemed important enough to make the ‘front page,” readership soars. WTW stories also deliver on a consistent basis some of the best readership statistics for the entire site.
WTW could not exist as a one-man operation. I receive very faithful and valuable support from WRAL, be it other web reporters, our editors as well as assistance on tips and stories from the TV newsroom which values tech coverage highly.
So while we have our challenges, we also have many pluses. WRAL and WRAL.com are the best allies a publication like WTW can have.
What’s the growth plan for Tech Wire in the next five years?
(Sigh). You are drawing a lot of emotion out of me.
I have been deeply committed to Local Tech Wire/WTW and technology colverage in the Triangle for 20 years. Before that, I helped The N&O launch “the insider,” one of the first premium content services (politics) in 1992/3.
Thanks to a great team of people and the vision of CBC owner Jim Goodmon, I helped build the first state-wide commercial Internet network across North Carolina in just 16 months in 1994-5 while serving as general manager of Interpath for Capitol Broadcasting. So tech is in my blood.
But it has been so frustrating trying to find the commercial and readership support to make a regional tech publication successful. The Triangle Tech Journal, for example, dropped all news and now as Tech Media focuses only on events. Other tech publications have come and gone. None have ever flourished.
Until readers, businesses and advertisers decide that having regional tech and life science business news is worth supporting financially, none of them really will succeed.
What’s that mean for WTW? I just don’t know. What I do know is that competition is growing increasingly fierce.
CBC, for example, launched another web publication (ExitEvent, which its corporate real estate division acquired) that competes with us. It has no paywall. In fact, ExitEvent won’t publish any WTW content even in excerpted form that is behind the paywall. Then Xconomy came to town. Who is next?
All I can do at WTW is remain positive, committed, fiercely competitive, and crank out the copy.