Clean Tech Q&A: CNET’s Martin LaMonica
Most of us in technology communications have at some point crossed paths with Martin LaMonica at CNET. He has covered everything from application development to big Internet industry trends and news. For the past few years, he has cranked up his clean tech coverage to point where it is now part of his daily beat at one of the most popular sources for news on the Web. He comes at this emerging space from many perspectives and is one of the people that is making a real difference in keeping the public informed as the pieces connect in clean tech. Add him to your list of reporters to watch if he’s not already on it.
Swain: What was your first exposure to clean tech and sustainability issues?
LaMonica: I first wrote about “clean tech” back in 2004 when–guess what!–a PR person pitched me on a solar data center story which I eventually did because I had been interested in alternative energy media for a couple of years. Later in 2004, I did an interview with Nick Parker at the Cleantech Venture Network which gave me a broader perspective on clean tech. It was an important moment because I saw that the clean tech label was large enough to include all sorts of environmental-related technologies–not just solar and wind. I’ve cared about environmental protection for years means so I’ve been aware of sustainability issues.
I subscribe to a lot of green newsletters and feeds and more seem to be popping up every day. Is there currently enough news to support all of the people writing about it? Has the number of green-related pitches increased over the past few months or has it started to level off?
The number of green/clean tech pitches is definitely up in the past few months. It’s a bit early to say if things have leveled off yet. The rising pitch count is clearly a result of companies getting funding and marketing themselves. But even once the VC money slows down, the whole “green” movement won’t go away. It’s clearly becoming a mainstream/front page issue.
Obviously, there’s a lot of experimentation in green media–and I suspect not everyone will stick with it. I think the challenge for tech journalists–and PR folks too–is to get beyond the “clean tech company gets funding” stories that are so common now.
Between you and Michael Kannelos, you’ve been able to stay ahead of things in clean tech – did you start to focus on this topic because of a personal interest or did CNET see that you needed a solid channel covering news relating to business, sustainability and the environment?
I got into it purely out of personal interest but now it’s just part of what CNET covers. Michael’s got a good read on Silicon Valley VCs so he saw that energy/clean tech was a hot area and jumped on it.
Now, clean/green tech is an official part of my beat, rather than something I write about once in a while. Other CNET reporters cover green tech, too. We’ve also hired some high-profile people in the industry for the green tech channel on our Blog Network, so we’re committed to it.
The news is coming from the tech, VC and energy industries, and when you add in verticals like building, auto and consumer products, things can get complicated. Are there specific sectors or areas you’re paying closer attention to than others?
Yes, you could argue that the clean tech label is too broad. We don’t have very specific beats–yet, anyway. But I write about power generation technologies (solar, wind, biomass), fuels, financial stories, green buildings, and a bit of policy. Generally, I want a tech/innovation angle to a story, which is natural to me as I’ve covered IT for years.
Unlike the technology industry, the success of many clean tech companies and products has a lot to do with public policy and changes in old industries that are notoriously slow and resistant to change. On one side we have Web 2.0 and changing delivery models for software that allow startups to get moving and see success in a year or two with little up front capital. On the other, we have clean tech where things can move slowly and could take years if not decades to see real results. Do you think the reporting process for clean tech will change in the coming years when the industry starts to mature?
A lot of clean tech coverage these days is about start-ups trying cool things. These are great stories but at a certain point, if that’s all a media outlet is doing, it’s going to look shallow. We’re starting to see some stories about companies merging, failing to develop the technology they promised, or replacing CEOs. So I think the better media outlets will do these follow-up business stories.
Another thing that the better outlets will do is follow the larger issues and trends around clean tech. A lot of these new energy technologies have lots of tradeoffs–think biofuels and the whole food versus fuel debate, for example–that media outlets should try to cover.
Do you have trouble finding the products, people and companies that have the potential to make a real difference?
Clean tech is tricky in this regard. Many old ideas are being dusted off and tried again. And some of them–like solar thermal at utility scale–are totally viable. But then again, you run across claims from academics or entrepreneurs claiming to make “free energy” or enable the “hydrogen economy” tomorrow. So you have to be discerning. That said, I’m always looking for more great stories and interesting people who have the potential to make a difference.
Are you most interested in hearing from big technology companies, clean tech startups, or companies who are making investments in new technologies like solar or green data centers that can make their businesses more sustainable?
Startups tend to be the most fun because entrepreneurs are generally passionate about what they’re doing. But large corporations have a huge amount of weight and the money to invest in R & D, so I’d like to hear more from them. I haven’t done a lot of coverage of “sustainable business” practices but I think it’s got potential.
What should the clean tech community know about CNET?
We cover clean/green tech in various forms in different places. You’ll see more consumer oriented items in places like Crave or CNET.com while more of the business coverage at News.com and in the Blog Network.
Suggestions on how to work with you and what you look for in a story?
I’m always looking for news so timeliness is important. And in general, I’m looking for a tech-related story, although that’s not all I’ll do. It seems that certain areas got lots of attention, like solar these days, but I think I’m not afraid of less glamorous topics if it looks like it could have wide appeal. (I did a story on a combined heat and power home furnace and readers loved it.) Email’s generally the best way to pitch me.