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What's really wrong with Boston tech?

January 22, 2014: 3:54 PM ET

Boston's tech startups are fighting an uphill battle against the national tech media.

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FORTUNE -- Care.com is expected to go public tomorrow night, making it the first Boston-area tech company to go public in more than 18 months.

The last one was Exa Corp. (EXA), which priced its IPO on June 28, 2012. Since then, 44 other VC-backed tech companies have gone public. Half from the Bay Area, but also multiple offerings from such markets as Seattle and Washington, D.C., plus singular offerings from such markets as Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, Houston and San Diego. Plus the tech mecca of Norwalk, Connecticut -- home to such renowned engineering schools as... Norwalk Community College?

What is wrong with us?

Yes, "us." I grew up in Massachusetts, with a mother who worked at such breakthrough tech companies as Wang Labs and Thinking Machines. Many of her friends worked at DEC. Upon moving back in 2001, I was stunned by what appeared to be a dormant tech startup scene. Few networking events beyond holiday parties, with most of the relevant venture capitalists spending the other 11 months sequestered in suburban office parks that had their own cafeterias. It is the Boston that Mark Zuckerburg fled.

Things have approved noticeably since then, to the point where entrepreneurially-inclined Harvard or MIT students would have to go out of their way to avoid meeting local tech startup CEOs and their venture investors. But, still, no tech IPOs in 18 months.

To be clear, this isn't about wounded hometown pride. It's about self-sustaining economic development. Big, independent tech companies beget other big, independent tech companies. Look at all the big Silicon Valley companies that have roots in HP. Or in Google. Or in PayPal. Suffice to say, there is no CMGI Mafia.

There are lots of theories about how to create the next big Boston tech company. Rich Miner, the Android co-founder who is now a Cambridge, Mass.-based partner with Google Ventures, argues that the key is convincing large tech companies like Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT) to keep expanding their Bay State engineering offices. Just like people leave Facebook HQ to launch new companies, they'll also leave Facebook's satellite offices to launch new businesses. Others suggest it's more a matter of convincing promising young companies not to sell. And, still others say that this is much ado about nothing -- particularly given how Boston continues to hold biotech pole position.

To me, this is important. Biotech vs. IT is not a zero sum game. We can have both.

And I agree with Miner. But let me add something else to the conversation: We need more local tech reporters.

TechCrunch does not have a single Boston-based reporter. Neither does Re/Code, Pando. The Verge, GigaOm nor VentureBeat. And the same goes for more mainstream business outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg or Reuters. As for Fortune, I'm one of just two local reporters -- and neither of us primarily cover technology.

To be clear, there are some exceptions. ReadWrite has someone here, and there is strong local work being done by local sites Xconomy and BostInno. Plus whatever comes out of the local dailies, and the indefatigable Scott Kirsner (who also organizes local tech conferences).  [Update: GigaOm also has a Boston-based senior writer. Apologies for the earlier oversight]

But when it comes to the big tech sites that most entrepreneurs and investors read, Boston is largely invisible. Just like Boston's tech scene is being starved by the absence of a large cornerstone company, it also is being thwarted by its absence of a vibrant (and wide-reaching) tech media. If a local startup wants coverage, it either must get on the phone or hop a plane. No TechCrunch reporter is going imbibe the enthusiastic culture, or randomly run into employees at the corner bar.

To be sure, there is intrinsic value to distance. Silicon Valley's incestuous tech scene often makes readers wonder if they are reading a piece of journalism or a favor. But that distinction is largely irrelevant to the entrepreneurs in need of visibility -- even if their message is only getting through to those without enough media savvy to recognize the difference. No MIT engineer is going to explicitly pick Palo Alto over Boston because of tech media access, but it does have a subconscious impact. If most of the tech startups you read about are in Silicon Valley or New York, and you want your startup to be read about one day...

In fact, I'd argue that one reason New York-based tech companies are now raising more venture capital than are Boston-based tech companies -- a recent sea change -- is because so many big media organizations are based in New York (and because of that, smaller media outlets are best able to hire in New York). Media didn't hire tech reporters in New York because that's where the next big thing was happening -- the next big thing was perceived to be happening because there were local reporters ready to gush over every innovation. And, eventually, perception became reality.

So when Care.com (CRCM) goes public, it will be a welcome break from the recent drought. And perhaps it will someday become one of Boston's cornerstone tech companies.

But, in the meantime, we need something a bit more fundamental: Tech reporters. If they come, we might just build it.

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About This Author
Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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