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Editor’s note: This interview is the first in Mission North’s new Inside the Newsroom series, which presents highlights of our regular AMA sessions with today’s top tech journalists.
Alex Konrad, senior editor at Forbes, jokes that he got into journalism for the low stress and the high pay, but the true driver was a passion to write rich contextual stories.
Alex first started writing about technology as an intern at Fortune over a decade ago, after graduating from Harvard with a degree in medieval history and archaeology. He puts his studies to good use when digging up and sifting through the history behind tech trends: “It’s like here we go again, what have people learned, are they better off this time, or are we going to see the same thing play out again?”
Joining Forbes in 2012, Alex evolved his beat from adtech to New York startups to his current focus on cloud and enterprise software companies and the venture capital industry. As well as writing articles, Alex edits the Midas List of top VCs and he co-created the Cloud 100 List with Forbes’ partner, Bessemer Ventures Partners. He’s also the co-editor of the 30 Under 30 List in venture capital and co-writes a weekly VC newsletter called Midas Touch.
During our recent AMA with Alex, we talked about his first appearance in a documentary, what excites (and tires) him re current tech trends and his advice for companies and PR agencies. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:
You’re in a recent documentary on Hulu, “WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” which I highly recommend. What was that experience like?
I had never been filmed in a documentary before, and to do it last summer during the pandemic was interesting. I was alone in a green room in a studio for six hours while the director interviewed me remotely via a remote control camera. It felt really surreal to be talking into a camera saying everything I knew about WeWork, but it was really fun.
I think the experience also gave me good empathy for when a company exec is interviewed by the press and then they and their PR agency are not sure what's going to be quoted in an article. Try talking for six hours, and wondering if you’ve said something stupid!
What do you look for in the stories that you write?
For the big projects, we're definitely looking for original reporting at some depth which has a clear lesson or insight for the reader that's often bigger than just the subject itself. Often those long-term stories have news in them, but they also contain a real richness of facts and anecdotes. You can have a good profile without news in it or you can have a good news story without any profile in it. But, I'd say my best stories are usually both.
I do take pitches, but I would say that it's a constant struggle to write less pitch-driven news. The stories that I’m chasing on my own and then reaching out to agencies like Mission North are usually the most fun because I'm controlling the time. I'm done when I'm done.
The stories that have embargoed dates that are looming over me are less fun and not so much the creative side of my job. The reality is when we're operating on other people's timing, it can really be a drag because we're working on five or six different stories, not just the one story.
We're definitely looking for original reporting at some depth which has a clear lesson or insight for the reader that's often bigger than just the subject itself.
What trends are you really excited to write about?
We've definitely become interested in the theme of startups CEOs leading investment rounds in other startups. It's an interesting sign of the times—the disintermediation of the venture capital firms in some ways—and it speaks to a bunch of interesting dynamics. I've been trying to figure out how real this trend is on my own time. That's just like a fun one for me.
We're getting pitched a lot on that built-on-top-of-Zoom or a sort of future-of-meetings space. It's also very noisy, but I am watching that trend closely.
I’m also very interested in the new generation of meal kit companies like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods and some more specialized players. I’m wondering if these pandemic-boosted companies will be more sustainable and have more legs than the Blue Apron vs. Plated battles of 2014 and 2015, etc.
Which stories do you think are overhyped and you're just tired of hearing about them?
In general, we're a little fatigued about all the fintech being pitched. When you look at the valuations, a lot of companies want to hype themselves as the next big thing in fintech, especially when they’re not even a specialist there.
We are also more skeptical about AI these days in terms of what is real automation and what is actual artificial intelligence. At this point, my toothbrush from Oral-B said it’s ‘AI-powered,’ and I was like you have to be kidding me!
What advice would you give companies and agencies in terms of how to pitch you?
We love it when companies punch above their weight. Our readers don't even care about a lot of big companies, and so it's even harder with a small company. But if there's a bigger trend or a surprise factor—something contrarian or something very relevant to a company that our readers would already know—then that's really interesting.
Contextualizing whatever a company is doing in something bigger and more relatable is going to be appreciated by us because our readers are our constituents. While every startup thinks their news is really important, I'm judging them not so much by whether I think it's cool but whether my audience will care about this and care that I told them about it.
Contextualizing whatever a company is doing in something bigger and more relatable is going to be appreciated by us because our readers are our constituents.
What's the story that you're most proud of, the one story that you hang your hat on?
This is not my only answer, but often what comes to mind is the cover story I wrote about Melanie Perkins, the CEO at Canva. It had everything that I like about the process. I got sent to Australia and I had known the company for a while. I met Canva when they were a Cloud 100 Rising Star, and eventually they made the Cloud 100 List.
I was very impressed with Melanie. After the story’s publication, I received notes from people about how Melanie had inspired them as a successful woman of color entrepreneur, who’s now a billionaire, and from young women wanting to connect with her.
What should companies know about applying for inclusion on the Forbes Cloud 100?
I would encourage companies to be transparent about sharing their valuations, and then it's up to the data and then it's up to the judges. The 40-plus judges are potentially any public cloud CEO. So this is where a company needs to be buzzy and exciting. If nobody's heard of the company, maybe they need to be doing a better job being out there in the market, at least in engaging with peers, so that people respect them.
What key pieces of advice do you have for PR folks?
Know what we (the reporting staff) care about as Forbes evolves. So I would recommend skimming our work or at least double checking our author pages for what we've written about recently before pitching us. Probably the most important thing to understand is the cadence at which each reporter is writing. I will sometimes go dark for a week or two because I’m working on something big.
Putting more effort upfront to craft a pitch saves a lot of time later on. If you send me a more thoughtful email, I’m much more likely to give you a reason right off the bat why I’m passing on a pitch, if I am.Then, you’re not under any pressure to send me four follow-up messages. We are happy to help. We’re often just frazzled. Don’t be afraid to ask us for brief pitch feedback.
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