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Coffee With A Journalist - Aaron Pressman, Fortune

Coffee with a Journalist: Aaron Pressman, Fortune

On episode 30 of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, host, Beck Bamberger, is joined by Aaron Pressman, Fortune Senior Writer and co-author of the Data Sheet newsletter. At Fortune, Aaron covers all things tech and has over 30 years of journalism experience. During their discussion, Aaron and Beck dive into his inbox management tactics, what makes a pitch catch his attention, and his hopes and worries about journalism’s future.

Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

His Work Inbox

Beck:

I like it. Keeps it simple. Nice. Well, Aaron, we always like to start with your inbox. What’s in it? Is it crazy? Are there lots of pitches? Describe.

Aaron:

Yeah, my inbox is crazy. There are lots and lots and lots of pitches. I think one thing that’s really gotten better over the years, from my point of view as a reporter is, pitches are getting a little more sophisticated around other news events. Sometimes people have an expert who can comment. Today, there was big news about the electronic vehicle maker in China, NEO, hooking up with GM. I got some interesting pitches that were sort of like, “Here’s our expert’s take on this thing.” So that’s a thing that comes in my inbox that I kind of like, even when I don’t always … I won’t necessarily, I’m not always going to quote those, but they’re very informative for me, and it’s giving me good vibes about from the sender and from the expert.

Beck:

Because they’re up to speed.

Aaron:

Yeah, and they’re offering something that helps me, that’s useful, that’s engaging me, as opposed to just the straight in-your-face pitch, which I get plenty of those, too, as well. I write a fair bit about 5G, the new next generation of wireless. Obviously there are a lot of people out there pitching 5G, whether it’s just the phone companies themselves, or companies with products or services that are somehow a play on 5G or experts or statistics or research reports.

Beck:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aaron:

Oh man, do I have a lot of 5G stuff. Some things I delete, but I don’t know how all reporters deal with their inbox. One thing I do is, I do on any topic that I’m covering regularly like that, I do stash a lot of those emails into a side folder on the subject. Then later when I’m working on a longer story, I may sift through there, do some words, some keyword searches through there. Because sometimes those pitches had something that didn’t help me right now, but will help me on a future story.

Beck:

Oh, so you’re one of the savers.

Aaron:

Oh, yeah.

Beck:

You do the same thing.

Aaron:

Storage is free, right? No, one’s charging me.

Beck:

Absolutely. But no, some people are mass to leaders. They don’t read anything unless they know you. Some people just let it ride. I’ve listened to people who were like, “Yeah, there’s 97,000 emails.” They’re just like, “It’s good.” And they just let it go. Some people do the folder thing. It sounds like you have a folder system. In other words, you might not get a response from a pitch, but you might eventually, given if it’s a topic that then comes into your spotlight of what you’re covering?

Aaron:

Definitely. And there are those topics, you can look at what I write about, I write about 5G a lot, I’m writing a little about electronic vehicles now, chips and semiconductors and stuff like that, those pitches, even when they’re small companies or people I’ve never heard of, in general, 5G, I’m saving those. Because I know I’ll be writing more stories and feature stories later.

His Thoughts on Pitches

Beck:

Gotcha. Are there any pitches you’re getting that are just total trash that have nothing to do … Are people like pitching you for Yahoo, where you used to write?

Aaron:

I can’t even break it down so coherently. I get so many pitches that, some of them are fantastic, some of them are terrible and some of them are somewhere in between.

Beck:

What’s a fantastic pitch?

Aaron:

Well, there’s two ways a pitch can be fantastic. One is by luck, which is, “Oh, I just got assigned or decided to write about something,” and in comes a pitch. “We just did a research report estimating how big that market will get.” And you just think, “Oh, that’s perfect.”

Beck:

Yeah.

Aaron:

But I think to me, a perfect pitch is less in my face and more … I’m a curious person. You can read Data Sheet, you can see I’m interested in off-the-beaten-path stuff, things that appeal to my nature as a lifelong learner or a curious tech person, those get my attention.

Beck:

Makes sense. And then, is the subject line critical for you? Does that grab you to open an actual email?

Aaron:

Well, I might be unusual, but the subject line is almost irrelevant to me. I’m like-

Beck:

Oh, you open every one.

Aaron:

Yeah, I’m using my down arrow key there and just-

Beck:

Yes, yes, yes. Down, down, down, down, down. Yeah.

Aaron:

The subject line is just not good enough for me. I need to see what’s in there. Sometimes even the formatting, I probably shouldn’t say this, even the formatting of an email when there’s like a block quote, a nice juicy block quote, then I’ll stop and say like, “Oh, what does that quote say?”

Beck:

Ah, interesting.

Aaron:

I’m doing it visually, in some ways.

Beck:

Yeah. Oh, okay. I haven’t heard that before. Visual, okay, and curiosity, appeal to your curiosity.

Aaron:

Yeah.

How He Writes Stories

Beck:

I like it. Now, what about actually creating a story? We like to chat with folks about, well, where do you get the idea for a story? Does it get handed down to you and you go, “Oh, okay. Now I got to go write about this,” or are you standing in the shower? You’re on a walk with your dog and you go, “Oh, this sounds interesting.” Or are you scrolling through Twitter and you’re like, “Wait, something’s happening.” Or, do you ever get it from pitches? How does a story come to light?

Aaron:

Look, it is all of the above. It’s 2020, it’s the web. I’m writing some stories that take me an hour to write, and I’m writing some stories that take me six months to write. I have stories that haven’t been written, that aren’t out yet, that I’ve been like sort of noodling and working on and reporting on for months and months and months.

Beck:

Yeah.

Aaron:

I think one way that I am definitely trying to orient myself a little better and that some of my younger colleagues at Fortune are great at, Jeff John Roberts had a great story over the weekend about the Holocaust weirdness on TikTok.

Beck:

What? What’s on TikTok now. God, it’s so crazy, that world. I can’t even keep up. Go ahead, go ahead.

Aaron:

I am trying to keep up more on social media, on Twitter. I have three teenage-ish, two of them aren’t teenagers anymore, but three kids who also help me really kind of … I listen in on what their, what tech topics they’re listening in on. It is a wide spectrum wide, a wide funnel. Is that the right analogy?

Beck:

Yes, it is.

Aaron:

That I’m trying to get story ideas from, so it’s not just the same old pathways that I’ve been using for years and years and years.

Beck:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you got to evolve. You did say, “Oh yeah, it comes from everything.” But are there ever pitches that you go, “Oh, wait, that’s the nugget of a really good story,” or is that so rare, it’s not even funny?

Aaron:

I don’t know that necessarily the nugget, but I definitely get pitches where someone has done some research about something that I was thinking of vaguely for a long time. That can help crystallize. I’m trying to think of a great example recently. It’s not jumping to mind. But for many years, cord-cutting was a thing, but it was hard to get your finger on it. Then I started getting reports that were more focused on the average cable bill price, looking, including everything, all-inclusive. This is a few years ago now, but and how much of it, how it has gotten so high when you included all the extra charges. It was a nugget that sort of crystallized to me like, “Oh right, okay. Everybody’s cord-cutting because it’s a rip-off.”

Beck:

Yeah. Yeah.

Aaron:

And here’s the guy who did the statistic that really proves that and shows, over the last 10 years, here’s how much cable bills have gone up. I think sometimes when people have something really original that they’ve uncovered or analysis they’ve done, it can help focus something that I’ve generally been thinking about.

Beck:

So from all over the place.

_______

Aaron is not the only tenured journalist with mixed feelings about journalism’s future. Hear what three other journalists had to say about it in our blog, 3 Journalists on Funding the Future of Journalism, talking newsletters, paywalls, subscription models, and more. For more great conversations with top-tier journalists, subscribe to our podcast for new episodes every week! Also, follow us on Twitter for the latest updates, episode drops, and blog releases.

Mathew Cruz

Mathew started at OnePitch in January of 2020 as a Marketing Apprentice. He currently serves as the SEO & Content Marketing Specialist handling content creation from social media to the OnePitch blog. Mathew studied Integrated Marketing Communications at San Diego State University. In his free time, he loves creating art, visiting museums, and traveling.

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