When Journos Join the Other Side: Caroline McCarthy on Transitioning from Tech Reporting to Tech Comms

When I first met Caroline McCarthy in 2006 or so, she was a savvy tech industry journalist for CNET, while I was an editor at GigaOM. After a stellar reporting career, Caroline eventually left CNET to become an editor and marketing manager at Google, and is now VP of Communications and Content at true[X] media. We recently reconnected at a rooftop party in LA, and chatted about what we’ve learned in our transition from tech journalism to tech communications.

Last June, I shared my own experiences going from GigaOM to heading editorial at theMIX agency, and now Caroline shares her own insights below: How she made the leap, what’s she learned in the process both at true[X] and Google (including an important point on how that company works, which many tech reporters miss), and her advice for other journalists who want to join us.

How did you end up going from journalism to Google and then joining true[X]—and why?

Caroline at the true[X] office in LA

Caroline at the true[X] office in LA

It was 2011. Sometime in the past year I'd reached a point where I realized I wanted to broaden my skill set—I love writing, but at the time doing it full-time, and writing about the same few tech companies, was making me thirsty for change. There was also, at the time, a real glut of coverage of tech and it hadn't gotten anywhere near as interesting as it is today with a lot of the privacy, regulatory, and socio-economic issues that Silicon Valley is dealing with right now. A lot of tech reporters were feeling squeezed and like they were chasing tiny scoops in the name of being able to break news, and a bunch of us left that profession right around the same time.

So that's the "why." "How" was a little tougher. To be honest, I interviewed for a bunch of jobs and was turned down from all of them because my entire skill set was writing, no managerial or project experience. That's something that I don't think you see as much these days because content marketing has become such a buzzy niche, and there are companies (including huge ones) avidly seeking out journalists and former journalists for marketing and strategy roles. I found out about the Google job by chance, through a forwarded email. Google was pretty forward-thinking in that it had launched a content marketing project— Think With Google—that was a lot bigger, both in terms of scope and in investment on behalf of the company, than most people in the industry would expect then. And they were looking for a journalist basically to tag-team with the marketing lead on the project and offer some editorial expertise, and that's what I was hired to do.

What are your main tasks on an everyday basis at true[X], and how does your journalism background help with them?

On our marketing team we have a strategy of "divide and conquer" where we all have a say in our projects and we all pitch in where our skill sets are relevant. This is great because it helps communication across our whole team as well as the teams we work with. That being said, for me personally, I'm directing the editorial strategy for our blog, Media Future, I'm taking the lead on our presence at a lot of events as well as organizing some of our own, and working on our press strategy when there's an announcement in the works. I also regularly meet with our sales and campaign strategy teams to keep up the dialogue on how we can support them.

What have been the biggest surprises in the transition from journalism to the development/marketing side?

The big one is something I learned at Google—when I was a journalist, covering Google specifically often led to a lot of headlines like, "What's Wrong With Google?" after the company would make the decision to close down a bunch of products. The tech media is great at stirring up a frisson of scandal or schadenfreude, and sometimes that really isn't what's going on. Meanwhile, Google would respond to reporter inquiries in that kind of situation with something like, "Periodically we reassess our product offering and shift our priorities," and reporters would be like, "Yeah, thanks for the PR-speak." The funny thing is that Google in that case actually isn't spinning things; I was shocked to learn upon getting hired that this actually is a very legit Google product strategy. Everything's measured, and if a relatively young product isn't doing what it was supposed to be doing, it's closed down and the team is quickly moved to other priorities. Google handles this sort of thing in an organized, methodical, and panic-free manner.

So my point is, there are a lot of areas where reporters jump to conclusions about how companies work and how they make decisions, and it's really not clear what's actually going on until you've been internal there. And that what a big company's PR department tells a reporter isn't always baked in layers of spin. That definitely surprised me.

Are there important things you learned working on the investing/development side that tech journalists often don't understand?

How to use PowerPoint and Excel. I wish I were joking. But seriously, project management is something that you have to do on the business side of things even if "project manager" isn't your title—there's a lot of strategy in writing, but I was completely overwhelmed at first by the organizational and tactical side of even the most creative parts of marketing. I think sometimes tech journalists don't always understand just how many moving parts there are.

What advice would you give other tech journalists contemplating a move to the "dark" side of corporate comms/marketing?

My advice would be to seek out a kind of middle ground if you're uncertain as to whether you’ll like marketing -- or if you’re finding it tough to get interviews for marketing jobs because your background is too heavily editorial. A lot of brands are hiring "editors" right now, and that could be a really interesting intermediate step for someone looking to move fully into comms or marketing. When I first made the jump into marketing, I was completely swamped and had to play a ton of catch-up to understand the industry parlance, how to structure and lead meetings, and how to put together PowerPoint presentations (I'm still terrible at that). It's also easier to jump back into journalism from a "brand editor" role rather than more traditional marketing if you end up missing, you know, the non-dark side. Because both are great industries to be in.