If you are a regular reader of this column, you have heard me argue that we are entering the Data Economy, a phase of technology-driven economic growth that I expect to far surpass the impact of the Internet. Data is at the heart of my arguments, and I’m thankful to TechWire for providing a platform for me to educate and opine.

As an economic development focused technologist, today I’d like to talk about a different kind of data. Specifically, the importance of local journalism. We don’t often think of journalism as “data collection”, but it is. Great journalists investigate, research, find and disseminate facts that are in the public interest.

In technology terms, journalists are the “sensors” and the facts they uncover are the “data”. Crafting a story that incorporates those facts in an unbiased manner with proper context to explain the deeper meaning behind the facts is what data scientists would call “analytics”.

We are lucky to have dedicated, local journalists that cover the technology and entrepreneurship scene in the Triangle and across North Carolina. Rick Smith, who retired at the end of 2023, founded what is WRAL TechWire more than 20 years ago. He was a visionary because he recognized what few others did at the time –  that technology is at the heart of our economy. He also recognized that most of the people inventing the future, especially locally, were not household names. Rick understood the importance of accurate data collection and analysis as it applies to a healthy society, and that these stories needed to be shared.

To grow and improve any process requires continuous data collection and measurement. In economic development, the typical measurements are jobs created, companies formed and capital raised. Journalists are at the front lines, collecting and reporting that data, measuring against other regions and analyzing what it all means. Economic developers like RIoT, benefit from this data, steering our efforts at entrepreneurial support, policy advocacy and technology education, which cycles the process forward.

In the entrepreneurial sector, resources like TechWire are critical to the local economy. Startup companies benefit dramatically from exposure in the media.  Local journalists help founders to learn from others as they read about success and failure of their peers. They provide a context that leads to networking and collaboration. They tell stories that inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. They raise awareness that attracts investment capital, while driving credibility in parallel.

National organizations are not architected to cover the entrepreneurial landscape.  This style of journalism must be done locally and by dedicated people who have the drive to find the latest breakthroughs and stories that are not yet in the public discourse. Rick’s leadership opened the door to Laura Baverman to found and operate Exit Event for several years and for Joe Colopy and Pete McEntegart to start GrepBeat.

TechWire amplified the work that CED, First Flight Venture Center, NC IDEA, RIoT and others were conducting to catalyze entrepreneurial growth in the region. Rick’s coverage of local events drew people together to meet and collaborate. It became the go-to place to learn about how to engage with others. Networking-driven collaboration led to the forming of early startups like Red Hat, Bandwidth and Channel Advisor that later exited, creating an army of angel investors across the region. Those angels invest in and mentor the next generation of startups who they find through the stories and event coverage that continues to be championed by TechWire.

Journalistic data is at the heart of economic development. The more local journalists we have, and the more local stories that are told, the stronger our economic development engine becomes. Rick provided the real-time data and analysis that allows organizations like RIoT to take response and drive a healthier economy. With enough data and people and organizations acting upon it, we create a cycle leading to economic prosperity across the region.

Thank you Rick for your vision and legacy.  Enjoy retirement.