On episode 11 Coffee with a Journalist, host Beck Bamberger is joined by Adam Popescu, NYT contributor and freelance journalist. Adam has covered a wide range of topics from business and tech to personal profiles and has been featured in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Businessweek, and many more. As a freelance journalist, Adam’s experience has taught him many things. In addition, he has authored his debut novel Nima, a story of a young Sherpa woman’s journey living in the foothills of the Himalayas. Listen in as Beck and Adam talk about his takes on journalists and journalism, imposter syndrome as a freelance journalist, and more! Click below to listen to the full conversation:
How He Writes Stories
Beck: I read a couple things, but frankly I have not read all your things, because it’s a lot. It’s a lot. But why don’t we start with just telling us, telling our listeners here, how do you write a great story? Where does it start from?
Adam: First off, thanks for having me, and thank you for doing what you’re doing and talking to journalists, because I think we are a group who are a bunch of know-it-alls who can’t get enough attention, and if I’m going to take a page out of the honesty book, that’s how a lot of us feel.
Beck: Yeah. That’s okay.
Adam: But here we are, and in an all truthfulness, the kind of stories that I think that I cover, I am really into story. And by that I mean I want to hear something that I haven’t seen before. And if I’m going to cover a topic, there’s that old adage that everything has been covered and everything has been written about or filmed. There’s no real original ideas. And to a degree, it’s true. To a degree, it’s true. There’s only so many stories. There’s stories about loss, stories about growing up, stories about love, stories about death, when you really break down the archetypes of what there is and the narratives.
Adam: But given that, my approach, when I tackle a subject or a source, I want to show an audience either an element of that person that they may not have seen, or to share a moment in that person’s life that was transformational, that brought them to where they are, or just really be immersive and be visual with the writing so that a reader feels like they’re there, because we have to compete against every other media platform, of whether it be film, podcasts, everything. We’re competing against this, and this is a more archaic medium. We’re writing. We’re in some room clinking away on a keyboard when people don’t have an attention span. Do people read in print? A lot of people don’t. They’re on their phone. So given all these limitations, and the industry, which I’m sure we’ll be talking about, you have to approach it in a very pragmatic and practical way.
Beck: So then, therefore, how do you get to something like doing a profile on Steven Spielberg?
Adam: I think the one thing that you really have to do is, you can’t put a no on something. And by that I mean, if you are ambitious and want to cover a topic or a person, you really have to exhaust all possibilities of reaching that person. I think that so many of us think, “Oh, well they’re too difficult,” or, “They’re too famous,” or, “They’re too busy,” or whatever. And the great thing about the age we live in is that it can be easier in certain respects to reach people. There’s publicists. There are email addresses that are out there. There are phone numbers. There are so many ways to circumvent what would be once more traditional approaches, and maybe at one point you’d write a letter, you’d physically write a letter, and then that gets to that person if you’re lucky.
Beck: Had that been successful for you? An actual handwritten letter?
Adam: No. I think if we were in a time machine, maybe, but I think what I try to do is, I try to be respectful and I try to be persistent, and I think that’s a combination that a lot of journalists use, and I think that works for them.
His Thoughts on Pitching
Beck: Which has to be on the line of not being obsessive and annoying to the journalist, so I imagine when you’re after getting that tip, getting that profile, et cetera, you need to use the same art as well. So do you have some suggestions for that? What are the rules in your book of persistence that doesn’t cross the line?
Adam: I think you have to be able to read between the lines. So many of us don’t respond to emails in a timely manner. Does that mean that we don’t care? Does that mean that it’s a no? Or does that mean that we’re just so busy that we haven’t seen it or given it time? So everyone has their own rules of how many days they give, if they follow up again. I think I like to talk on the phone. I think that if you’re comfortable picking up the phone to talk to a source, that is one approach. I know a lot of journalists do not like to be called by publicists, especially cold. I don’t really like it either, because it can be a bit unexpected unless you have a relationship with that person.
Adam: Right. I mean, it all goes back to relationships. If you feel comfortable with somebody, there’s a level of maybe intimacy, and of course not in a romantic way, but an intimacy in terms of, “I can reach out via text message, maybe. Certainly email.” But you have to really know who you’re dealing with. It’s almost easy to be transparent that you are just fishing for placing a product or placing your client, and that can be telegraphed. If you are a little more personal, real, a little more steeped in the subject, if you know what that person really covers.
Adam: Also, you can’t pitch somebody right after they run something on the thing that you’re covering, or the thing that you’re … And a lot of publicists do that, and I don’t think they get good mileage from that. Before the moment we’re in, also, a lot of face time. Being at events, meeting people, going the extra mile, and maybe even sometimes you read something from somebody, has nothing to do with anything, and even in your field, but you can send them a note and tell them that it meant something to you or that you connected with something, and I guarantee that that goes a long way, because people appreciate that.
His Work Inbox
Beck: Oh, okay. So that leads me to this next part, which is, how does your inbox look? Is it filled with pitches? Do you read every pitch? What happens in there?
Adam: I have to have my inbox really clean or else I don’t think I could be functional, is the real truth. I do have folders. You have to be, at least from my experience as a reporter, you have to be really, really disciplined and really know where everything is, because it’s just things pile up super quick. So I don’t really follow … I don’t get on email chains or newsletters. I try to respond as quickly in realtime as I can. One reason being, I want people to treat me that way, so I try to be respectful and return as fast as I can. And I do read, I would say, 90 something percent of emails and pitches.
Beck: Wow. 90%? That’s the highest percentage I’ve ever heard on this show.
Adam: I think most people do. Even if they just scroll through, even if they don’t respond and they’re scrolling, they’re making some kind of determinant, saying, “It’s not important,” or, “That’s not worth my time.” But if someone actually, if it’s a form email and they just dropped your name in, or they just say, “Hi!!” With three exclamation points, and they just obviously don’t know who the hell you are, then delete. But if they seem to be genuine and seem to put some time in, I’ll respond, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to obviously be able to accommodate and actually write about lots of things, but I’ll tell them that. I’ll tell them, “Thank you,” and, “I’m not able to take on new material,” or some of these people end up becoming resources in the future. It’s about building these connections.
Adam: And I think the good ones, they don’t take it personally. Sometimes very junior people will get flustered easily or not really know the way that the game is played, and they take it personally, and that’s something that happens quite a bit, and you have to keep your cool, but I think from my perspective, the job of a good publicist, it’s not to be the gatekeeper. It’s to be the facilitator. You are trying to get the message of your client and you’re trying to connect them with the reporter, and then you stand back. You can’t be expected to control the story, to shape it. You do your best. You do your best to put two fingers together, and you have to be a professional to know, in effect, your job is then done. And then if they need more of either side, you serve them. You don’t get all inserting yourself into it, and depending on the level of access or what have you, that can be more challenging.
Beck: Do you get to zero every single day?
Adam: Oh yeah. I’m at zero all day. Every day.
We loved Adam’s advice on “doing your best” to make connections and get your story out!
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