Don Clark, a longtime, San Francisco-based reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, now writes technology stories as a freelancer with The New York Times. As with many of us living through the COVID-19 pandemic, Don’s daily routine has also taken a detour. When asked how it’s impacting his work:
“I’ve shut down my writing for now in the wake of the virus. I haven’t been asked to do any stories about it and my editors don’t have much appetite right now for anything else. This suits me fine; I prefer to write stories where my tech expertise is relevant. So I’m hanging around my cozy house in the Oakland Hills, playing a lot of music.”
Here’s what else is on his mind – in a world where coronavirus doesn’t have a stranglehold on current headlines. Enjoy.
What are you working on?
I write about “old school” tech—semiconductor and enterprise technology companies such as Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, Oracle. That often gets me into technical trends like 5G, corporate strategy pieces as well as competitive battles and court battles. Right now, for instance, the Google versus Oracle case that will be considered in the coming months by the Supreme Court is something that could have a big impact on the software sector.
What’s it like working for The New York Times, which used to be your nemesis when you were Deputy Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal for 23 years?
After retiring from the WSJ, I was feeling a little untethered. Pui-Wing Tam, who edits all the tech stories in the business section, approached me to write on tech topics that the bureau wasn’t getting to. I’m a newshound at heart and grew up journalistically in a very competitive era. It feels strange to be writing FOR the Times, as they’ve been my enemy for almost my entire adult life. It’s also strange to compete with the WSJ; I still have a lot of vestigial loyalty to that publication and its reporters.
Tell us a little more of your background.
I’ve been in journalism for 40 years. Though I’m from the Los Angeles area, I went to journalism school at the University of Minnesota and had my first real job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1980. Minnesota was a tech hub for computing back then. The biggest supercomputing companies in the world were headquartered there — Cray and Control Data — and Sperry and Honeywell were also big players. In 1986, I was recruited to the SF Chronicle and worked there seven years. I was the only tech reporter for some of my time there. I think I wrote 400 stories one year! The only people who wrote more than me were the sports reporters.
How has PR changed?
Back in the day, it was “smile and dial” for PR pros. But you — PR pro — were inevitably interrupting someone who was trying to work. To me, email is the GREATEST INVENTION ever and it bugs me to think there are companies like Slack that act like email is bad. Another annoying trend of the past dozen years or so (thank you Steve Jobs) is that after spending so much time learning people’s email addresses, we had to go back and learn (or re-learn) their phone numbers to text them.
What’s a PR pro to do to get through to a reporter—text, call, email, Facebook messaging, Twitter DMs? I still believe email should be the first approach on any pitch. The trouble is, many reporters under 35 feel no responsibility to respond. In some cases, they really are overwhelmed and you can’t blame them. But I always try to respond and at least say no thank you. Educating the PR community on what you are and are not interested in is good for everyone.
If you manage to build a relationship with a reporter, and get their number, texting may be a logical way to proceed later. Just make sure they are okay with that. Call only if other approaches have failed and you REALLY think you have something important.
Some sources and reporters like Twitter DMs. To me, they are an exception rather than the rule. But you have to learn the preferences of the writers.
It’s a shame that so many reporters now have transactional attitude toward their sources. The best ones build relationships; after all we are all just people, and friends are important.
Wackiest PR Pitch
I routinely get a lot of things that are just not for me about innovations in areas like vibrators, bowling shoes, real estate, yoga, fashion, rap music – but the individual pitches don’t seem to stick with me. The only pitch I ever single out was a great one that turned into my first front-page ahed story for the WSJ. A PR woman at Silicon Graphics, back when they were a trend-setter in computing, learned that they were involved in a man-versus-machine contest between one of their computers and this little old man who hadn’t been beaten in the game of checkers for as long as anyone could remember. She had the sense to know it was this GUY who was the story, not their technology.
Music and theatre. For the last 21 years, my wife and I have helped run a Shakespeare company called the Curtain Theatre in Mill Valley. I write much of the music in the show and lead a live band. And to borrow a Silicon Valley phrase, I like to think we offer damn good price/performance. The shows are good, they are free, and we are strangely solvent!
I also play Irish music informally every Sunday night at the Starry Plough in Berkeley and typically do an annual show at the Albatross Pub on St. Patty’s Day (with the exception of this year, of course). My Irish band is called Luck Penny. I also have a long-running rock band called Off the Record (two members have journalism histories) and as we are a cover band there is a dual meaning. There’s also a song I wrote called “Off the Record,” which is about a would-be anonymous source trying to manipulate a reporter into writing a salacious story. The chorus goes:
“No comment, no you can’t use my name/Deep background, so there’s no one to blame/Allegations, won’t confirm or deny/I’m staying off the record til the day that I die…”