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Back story: Chronicling Qualcomm's deep reach in San Diego County

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11/19/2017 | 04:05 pm

Nov. 19--In today's back story, business reporter Lori Weisberg, whose Sunday business cover story looks at the economic impact of Qualcomm, talks about the San Diego chipmaker and what the company means to the county.

This story really isn't on your beat. How did you approach it?

Because Qualcomm and the whole technology sector are pretty far removed from what I cover -- tourism and hospitality -- I initially felt a little bit overwhelmed and out of my depth. On the other hand, I think that may have been to the story's benefit because I had no preconceived notions and I could approach the reporting from the perspective of the average reader: What does Qualcomm mean to me and the community I live in?

I already knew it meant a lot for the operation of my smartphone, but what else?

So my first task was to educate myself about Qualcomm the company and its affiliate ventures. As I note in the story, I don't think I am all that much different from many others in San Diego who know little more about Qualcomm than the technology it pioneered to power our phones. So it was especially helpful for me to first pick the brains of my colleagues, technology reporter Mike Freeman, who has long covered Qualcomm, and science writer Gary Robbins, an expert on UC San Diego, which has a very close relationship with the company.

Why do the story now?

There has been a laser focus lately on Qualcomm, not just because of its costly legal battle with Apple over the San Diego company's smartphone patents, but more significantly, because of the unsolicited offer from chipmaker rival Broadcom to buy Qualcomm. That has raised concerns from academics, business and civic leaders, and economists about the prospects of a buyout that could potentially diminish the groundbreaking research, entrepreneurial support and philanthropic endeavors that have long defined Qualcomm. And there's also the obvious concern about a downsized workforce that contributes mightily to the local economy.

What was the most challenging part of reporting the story?

I fancy myself somewhat technologically savvy but I have to confess that some descriptions of the research UCSD is conducting with the financial support of Qualcomm sometimes went over my head. "Neuromorphic space," "cognitive design" of robots, "nanotechnology" aren't part of my normal lexicon so there was on occasion a learning curve to absorb all that. I also wanted to make sure I included in the piece a variety of voices, beyond the more obvious civic leaders and economists.

What surprised you the most?

Put simply, the broad reach of Qualcomm. Its influence seems to be everywhere and sometimes in unexpected places. Until I began reporting the story, I had no idea there was a laboratory -- Thinkabit -- within the Qualcomm campus devoted strictly to inspiring and educating middle schoolers to pursue careers in engineering and science. I also didn't realize the breadth of Qualcomm's venture capital pursuits, providing the wherewithal to nurture dozens of new entrepreneurial pursuits across multiple platforms (robotic floor cleaners was one). And while I was aware of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs' long history of philanthropic efforts, I wasn't as knowledgeable about the company's commitment to charity and its generous matching program for its employees, who also devote hours to volunteering in the community.

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