Today, on Coffee with a Journalist, we sit down with Erika Wheless of Digiday. At…
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How She Writes Stories
Beck Bamberger: Yes. Well, let’s go into one thing we always talk about, which is the making of a story, how an actual story, from the concept to actual hit the print, publish button, occurs. How do you think of making a story come to life?
Alana Hope Levinson: So, I mean, I would say I definitely very much came up on the Internet as a reporter and, earlier in my career, wrote about digital culture. So a lot of the ideas I do get are from Twitter or from Internet culture. That’s just where most conversations are having. People are having conversations there. That’s where they are.
Beck Bamberger: Now, and are you just scrolling along and looking and seeing what’s happening?
Alana Hope Levinson: Yeah, I think over the years I’ve just amassed such a weird, insane, intense list of people I follow from all different corners of the world. So I’m looking at that, but different trending hashtags and just kind of seeing what people are talking about.
Alana Hope Levinson: A lot of times, the story isn’t that tweet, because we want the story to be more complex than just a tweet, but it will lead to a bigger story. So an example is when the lockdown first started, all the stores were closed and restaurants. It was announced that liquor stores were going to stay open, and I was just seeing a lot of tweets of people being outraged, like, “Why is a liquor store an essential business?” I was like, “That is a really good question.”
Alana Hope Levinson: That was a really interesting story, because it just came from one random tweet, and he ended up speaking to people all over at rehabs about sort of the fear of liquor stores closing and what that would mean for the addiction community and just what would happen to ERs during the time period.
Alana Hope Levinson: Yes. But it’s also from … I’ve always thought that … I’ve never really bought the impartial journalist sort of myth. I think a lot of my best stories come from things I’m thinking about, things that have happened to me, things I’m noticing, and I always encourage the reporters I work to and tell them that, a lot of times, their best stories are happening in their own communities or in their families, in their own life history. So a lot of stories are also just from things I’m hearing and noticing in my own life.
Beck Bamberger: Then what about for your team? You were saying you encourage them to do the same, but is that how you’d say your staff is generating story ideas? Are they scrolling through Reddit, for example? Are they looking at maybe all the Hearst publications, seeing what they’re doing?
Alana Hope Levinson: I think we definitely … They’re never pitching me something that’s based on something someone else has done.
Alana Hope Levinson: They know that that won’t get through. So it has to be original in the sense that, sure, it’s from the Internet, but it hasn’t been covered a bunch. If it has been covered by a Conde Nast publication, I’ll probably say, “Well, it’s already been done, so we can’t do it.” But I think MEL is a very editor-forward publication in that the editors do a lot of pitching and also, I think, sort of set the tone for how the pitching works. So I think a lot of them are either looking on the Internet, as I do, Reddit, Twitter, all that stuff, Facebook, or they’re bringing stuff from their own lives, too.
Alana Hope Levinson: I think MEL is a very editor-forward publication in that the editors do a lot of pitching and also, I think, sort of set the tone for how the pitching works. So I think a lot of them are either looking on the Internet, as I do, Reddit, Twitter, all that stuff, Facebook, or they’re bringing stuff from their own lives, too.
Her Thoughts on Pitching
Beck Bamberger: I know every media outlet usually has that info@whatever email, but so there’s a general inbox, and you guys go in there and you just scan it. Then you’ll pluck out something you think is interesting. This is the first time I’m hearing that that’s actually shared among a team, and they actually look at it.
Alana Hope Levinson: I wouldn’t say that a ton of pitches come through that, because, typically, I would say better pitches typically come directly to an editor that there’s some sort of familiarity there.
Beck Bamberger: Yeah.
Alana Hope Levinson: But I also think it’s important to have an open pitch line for people that don’t … You know what I mean? To make it more egalitarian, and we do look at it. Yeah, we look at all of them. I don’t think we get back to everyone, but we’re reviewing it.
Beck Bamberger: So if you don’t know who to go to, you could, I guess, go there.
Alana Hope Levinson: Yes. email@example.com.
Beck Bamberger: There you go. Would you prefer, though, knowing now that we know that, would you prefer them still to come directly to you, or are you like, “Yeah, just put them in that general”, because then that’s more democratic, and maybe someone else will look at it? What are my chances if I don’t know you?
Alana Hope Levinson: Well, I think your chances might be higher because there are a bunch of different editors with different interests that see that. When you’re pitching to me, it’s just kind of my … I’m going to go with the things I’m most interested in.
Her Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: So true. How about your inbox? What does it look like on a day-to-day basis? Do you have hundreds of emails, two emails?
Alana Hope Levinson: I hate to bore you, but I am an inbox zero person.
Beck Bamberger: So how often does it hit zero, weekly, daily?
Alana Hope Levinson: Right now, I have one email in there.
Beck Bamberger: We’re talking on a Friday, by the way. That’s good. Way to end the week.
Alana Hope Levinson: Yeah, yeah. I would say I try to keep it … It’s rarely above ten. That doesn’t mean that I can respond to every pitch, though. Some things are being filtered to others.
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