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Coffee with a Journalist: Alex Heath, The Information

On this week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist Season 2, host Beck Bamberger is joined by Alex Heath, Los Angeles-based reporter for The Information. Alex covers all things Facebook, from its competitors to the latest game-changing moves of the tech giant. During their chat, Beck and Alex dive into his advice for PR professionals, the unique storytelling approach at The Information, his views on pursuing a journalistic career, and predictions on the future of journalism.

Click above to listen to the episode or read below for a full transcription.

Jered: Welcome to Coffee with a Journalist, a podcast featuring the tech industry’s most well-known tech journalists. We uncover the real person behind the real stories you love to read. We discuss their beat in news coverage, what their inbox looks like, and a whole lot more. I’m Jered Martin, the co-founder and chief operations officer at OnePitch. Our host for the show is Beck Bamberger, the cofounder of OnePitch CEO of BAM Communications and a current journalist.

Jered: On today’s show we’re joined by Alex Heath, reporter at The Information. Alex gives us an inside look into the unique stories written at The Information, his advice for PR pros, his advice for those pursuing a journalism career and more. Let’s listen to today’s episode with Alex and Beck now.

Beck: Hi everyone. Today, we have on Coffee with a Journalist Alex Heath, who is a reporter over at The Information, a fabulous newer media outlet, by the way, if you’re not following it. Previously, he was at Business Insider and also Cheddar Inc, also based previously out of New York city, but now Alex, you’re in Los Angeles. Thank you for being here.

Alex: Thanks for having me. This is fun.

Beck: This is fun. Now that we’ve figured out our technical problems, we’re all good. We’re all good.

Alex: Yeah. We’re good.

Beck: It’s Friday afternoon by the way just to let people know. Are you drinking coffee? Are you drinking anything? What’s happening?

Alex: Oh, I’m committing a sin. No, I’m not. I’m drinking a Spindrift Sparkling Water. Orange flavored.

Beck: Okay.

Alex: Yeah, I had coffee earlier in the day. When you’re in quarantine, as we are in right now, it’s easy to just lose track of how much coffee you’ve had. So I’m trying to limit myself.

Beck: Smart. Smart. Do you normally start with just in the morning or do you drink it all day if you could?

Alex: It depends on how much sleep I get, but I definitely do a couple like cold brews or regular coffee in the morning and then one in the afternoon usually.

Beck: One in the afternoon. Oh, I have a strict nothing after like 1:00 PM or I will be up.

Alex: That’s probably smart.

Beck: Yeah. Okay. As you know, we have you on just as we say, Coffee with a Journalist, but usually it’s been frankly any other drink besides coffee. But that’s okay.

Beck: I want to dive into, to get rolling here, just what it takes for you to craft a good story. You write specifically often about Facebook and all of the shenanigans going over there. So there’s a lot of probably deep reporting that happens there, but what does it take for you to craft a piece? You can maybe reference a recent piece if you want and how that story came to be, but we’d like to know what does it take to make an actual story, get it printed and up online.

Alex: Yeah. I mean for those who aren’t familiar with The Information, we have actually a pretty unique approach. I mean, I don’t know how unique it is, but we have a very high bar for exclusive content and stories for our full stories. We have another product called briefing that’s more of a daily kind of our take on the news of the day. So obviously, we don’t break all of that ourselves.

Alex: But for our stories, there’s a relatively high, either original info or original take or an exclusive interview or something kind of bar to meet. So that’s the starting point is what I have, either a scoop or an original smart take on something that no one has done, something that will make people, readers think differently about whatever the topic is. That’s really the starting point.

Alex: And then from there, it’s all the normal stuff that every journalist will tell you. Just is there tension? Is there an interesting character? For us usually, is there an interesting business angle or we do lighter stuff as well like, we had a great story today about etiquette in the age of Zoom, virtual hangouts and all the weird things people do and the weird snafus people get in on Zoom calls.

Alex: We are a little flexible, but I tend to do more of the business type stories. So, that’s where I start always.

Beck: Yeah. Zoe Bernard wrote that piece today. I saw that. It was-

Alex: Yeah.

Beck: Yeah. You’re definitely seeing a lot of dogs and babies and animals in this day and age on the Zoom environment. So yeah. Actually, it would probably be helpful because you guys are a newer outlet. Could you give it more of an overview on further what you guys are covering? Obviously, it’s in-depth journalism, exclusive coverage people should know, but maybe for pitching purposes, what further should people know?

Alex: Yeah. I mean for pitching, it’s interesting. I would encourage people to be creative because we don’t do a lot of stories that originated with pitches. We don’t do many embargoes because… unless they’re given to us exclusively. And even then, if it’s interesting to us.

Alex: But yeah, I mean The Information, we’re an outlet that’s been around for several years. I don’t know off the top of my head how many, I think sevenish years. We have a newsroom of between 20 and 30 journalists and we all cover Silicon Valley, the tech industry, the media industry. Basically all the industries that are being disrupted by technology.

Alex: We have a Bureau in Hong Kong. We have teams in New York, San Francisco. I’m in LA. My editor is in Seattle. We’re all kind of spread out and we cover all the big companies and then we cover a lot of venture capital, a lot of startups, a lot of funding type stuff. I cover Facebook as my main company and then everything that is around it. So Twitter, Snap, TikTok increasingly, et cetera. So it’s a fun beat and we all have really fun beats but that’s kind of the gist.

Alex: Then we have products. We’re a subscription only publication and so we have products around that as well. We do calls for subscribers where you can talk to us and talk to experts we bring on to calls. We do things like org charts where we report the inner machinations of a company and its org structure based on company documents and talking to sources and stuff, which recently got funded as its own company as an idea, which I thought was pretty interesting.

Alex: I shouldn’t even say the name because they stole our idea, but it’s one of our most popular products. We have a Slack community and a bunch of other stuff like that. We’re really just about catering to what our subscribers want.

Beck: Yeah. One correction. Just I said like, “Oh, a newer publication.” But yeah, you’ve been around seven years so that’s not too new. But I have to say-

Alex: Well, I don’t know. I mean it’s still new in terms of the journals have been around for how long.

Beck: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. That’s true. What I have to say though that I think is so distinct and why you guys are flourishing, if I may say, versus some other more outlets that can’t pivot is just what you were mentioning, like this org chart, those specific calls, the community that you can get involved with.

Beck: Obviously, there’s events and those are changing stuff, but even courses I’m seeing in the projects. I mean it’s in-depth. So if anyone’s listening right now who’s not familiar, just to look and see, like look at that org chart. There are 40 something companies and all the biggest ones so you can get really quality information that is fantastic on here. So I’m a big fan.

Alex: Thank you. Thank you.

Beck: So what you were saying, Alex, specifically as it just relates to pitching is that really if it’s not an exclusive and it’s not something meaty, forget it because that’s probably not something you guys are ever covering.

Alex: Yeah. But I would also, and I’m sure this is a common refrain on this podcast, is I would also encourage PR people to not think purely transactionally in terms of pitch equals story that I’m trying to pitch.

Beck: Exactly.

Alex: There’s been plenty of times where I’m like, “Look, I’m not going to do a full story on this, but if I’m ever doing a story that touches on this or that your founder would be interesting to talk to for or something, let’s stay in touch.”

Alex: Very rarely are you going to just get a full-blown information story out of your one single pitch. I mean even like Facebook, I don’t write about half the stuff they send me just because it’s not exclusive to us. It’s not like because we’re snotty, it’s just it’s our model. It’s what people pay us for. They pay us for exclusive information. So if we’re writing something that you’re sending elsewhere, it kind of defeats the purpose for us.

Beck: Yeah. Since you have, and this is unique to a couple of folks we’ve had on this particular podcast where they are assigned to a company or a few companies, big giant ones with thousands of employees, all that stuff. Do you then have an established, good, deep relationships with the comms people there? How do you navigate that?

Beck: Do you have some kind of insiders or what do you basically do? Because someone who isn’t in the orb of these big companies that you are covering pretty frequently probably isn’t going to be able to give much value for their little startup that just got a Series A funding or something like that. What would you say just in regard to the relationships at these bigger entities you cover?

Alex: Yeah. I mean relationships with the bigger companies take a lot of time. I’ve been covering Facebook since pre-2015. I think I started around 2014, and when I say cover, I mean my main focus. I’ve watched the PR department at Facebook changeover several times as they’ve watched me change jobs.

Beck: Yeah.

Alex: So now I have a lot of relationships there that are just the product of having covered the company for so long. But I’m very sympathetic to reporters who have to start, and especially now like these companies, these large companies, they’re… I think Facebook has like 300ish PR people and then they also have agencies and everything else. So you just got to know the right folks. Of course, you also talk to executives and former employees and current employees. I try to go all up and down the food chain, and that takes time. It’s like you have to be at a place that-

Beck: 300, Alex? Oh, my God.

Alex: Yeah. I saw some crazy stat, I can’t remember where, so I probably shouldn’t repeat it. But just how there’s so many PR people per journalists nowadays. It’s like six PR people to each working journalists or something.

Beck: Exactly. Yeah. higher than that. I’d say like 15 but, yeah.

Alex: It might be higher. Certainly feels higher. But yeah, I don’t know. You’d have to ask them obviously. I’ve established a rapport with all the Facebook folks where they all know me and the executives know me and all that. I’m fortunate to have worked at places that every step of the way… You know, I’ve been covering Facebook through a few jobs and each time I was given the rope and the freedom to report and to make these relationships and to invest in them and to go visit Facebook’s campus. That’s also my encouragement to people is find outlets that are willing to let you leave your desk and go do that kind of stuff.

Beck: Yeah. Speaking of leaving your desk, as it relates to just your phone and how you’re on the go and maybe not at this current time, but in the midst of the Facebook empire of sorts, what is your just inbox look like if you’re maybe out on the prowl, you’re on campus with folks at Facebook? Are you spending a lot of time in your inbox at all? Are you inundated with pitches?

Alex: I’m not inundated with pitches because, I don’t know, maybe a lot of folks already understand that now about the information that you’re kind of wasting your time most of the time. I do get stuff that it’s like, “Oh, that’s… Maybe I’ll talk to that person one day when I’m working on a story about that.” But I’m always working on something and I’m pretty heads down on it so I don’t really have bandwidth to… I’m not just usually waiting in my inbox for a story to arrive in my inbox. I don’t find that that’s how the best stories happen. That’s like 1% of the time.

Alex: I mean my inbox is a mix of PR people that I have relationships with that understand how I work and what the relationship is like. But it’s mostly emails with colleagues, emails with the companies I cover. And you caught me on a Friday, so I’ve actually cleared out a lot of my inbox. I’m really bad at getting through my inbox during the week because I’m usually on deadline or trying to confirm a tip or something, and I just put blinders on and ignore my inbox.

Alex: So Friday morning is my day to sift through everything. So we’re Friday afternoon, so I’ve actually only got eight emails right now and they’re all from colleagues or just things I need to respond to. But it certainly is a lot different like on a Wednesday and I have about 52 newsletters that I need to skim that I haven’t gotten to read this week because I’ve published three stories this week. But yeah.

Beck: Yeah, yeah. You’ve been busy. So you have an interesting cycle. There’s some folks we talk to, and they just let it ride. There’s like 42,000 emails in there. Some are adamant deleters, like get it to zero, I can even tell you. So you kind of have the cache, like let’s get to Friday, then you’re going to clear it out, get to zero. That seems very reasonable. Do you ever file stuff? How do you manage, oh, maybe that’s someone I want to talk to in four weeks or something?

Alex: Yeah. I have an email app that I just like I tell settings to come back in my inbox and whenever I think it’s relevant.

Beck: There we go.

Alex: I am an inbox zero person, so by the weekend, I try to be as close to zero as I can. Just while we’re on the topic of inboxes, I’m currently in this newsletter overload thing where I have a… I know these great reporters who do all these great newsletters and I subscribe to them all and it’s like, I don’t know which ones to unsubscribe for, but it’s Friday, I’m looking at 42 newsletters in my inbox that fall from this week that I already skimmed.

Alex: I already probably read 26 or so yesterday, and I’m like, “I want to read all these, I love all these people.” I don’t think they’re all interesting and have interesting insights, but I’m like, “I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t read all this.” So I’m in this weird thing where I’m just in a newsletter overload but that’s a whole nother topic.

Beck: Yeah. There seem to be a lot of fricking emails, newsletters from all our favorite people, et cetera. But yeah, how do you go through all of them?

Alex: Yeah. But anyway, that’s a whole nother thing.

Beck: You are the first person to mention just the overload of the newsletters and you know these people. These are your colleagues in their respective industry you’re in. So you want to acknowledge them and read them and all that stuff, but yeah, there’s a lot of them now. My goodness.

Alex: Yeah, there is. It’s like podcasts. It’s just this Cambrian explosion of content. We’ve had a newsletter, a daily newsletter since we started, since The Information started and that’s like the crux of… It’s like our daily briefing that subscribers love. It’s just been interesting to watch how individual journalists have gone out and made their own newsletters on top of their full day jobs. And I’m trying to think of how I would make time to do a newsletter like some of these I read. I admire the heck out of it. It’s amazing.

Beck: Yeah. The bandwidth for folks to come up. I don’t know. I don’t know if they have an inbox zero that I’ll tell you that. So maybe they’re on the other side. Well, let’s play a very short word association game. Just the first thing that pops into your mind, Alex, just hand it to us and let’s see what we get. Are you ready?

Alex: Sure.

Beck: Okay. First, a couple easy ones like food. What would you say for food?

Alex: I would say sushi because that’s what I had last night.

Beck: Drink.

Alex: I would say margarita because that’s what I want to have tonight.

Beck: I like it. Hobby.

Alex: Catan. I’m a huge Settlers of Catan fan.

Beck: You have the interesting first three words of this game before. Okay. It’s going to get more complicated. Okay. Facebook.

Alex: Oh, gosh. Nuanced.

Beck: Libra the Facebook one.

Alex: Yeah. Embattled. That’s a cop out, but yeah.

Beck: How about Google?

Alex: Esoteric.

Beck: Oh, ouch. Oh, this is good. This is good. New York City.

Alex: Crowded.

Beck: Los Angeles.

Alex: Sunny.

Beck: It is. Isn’t that great? Twitter.

Alex: Right now, trouble.

Beck: Social media.

Alex: I would say nuanced again.

Beck: Journalism.

Alex: Exciting.

Beck: Pitch.

Alex: I would say, unfortunately, distraction.

Beck: And then inbox.

Alex: Stress.

Beck: Stress. But you got it to zero.

Alex: Yeah, but God it’s… I know. I know I shouldn’t. I’m looking at my newsletter tab though. That’s the stress.

Beck: Oh, the newsletter. That’s the… Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know what to do with tabs. That’s true. Okay. Besides the newsletters, Alex, what do you read?

Alex: What do I read? I read all our competitors so that would be like The Journal does incredible, business, tech coverage obviously, Bloomberg, BBFT. I’ve been checking out Protocol lately. They recently launched. They’re an interesting outlet. Honestly, the stuff that I get a lot of value out of is some of these newsletters. Like my friend Casey Newton at The Verge, he does a great newsletter about social media that is great. It helps me keep up with things that I’ve missed throughout the day. Same with a friend, Dylan Byers from NBC. He has a great media and tech newsletter called Byer’s Market.

Alex: I read some of the Axios newsletters. Sarah Fischer at Axios is a wonderful human being. I would say that’s the general… Yeah, those. So like the Bloomberg FT journals and then those newsletters.

Beck: Do you ever just read long form like books, fiction, nonfiction or anything?

Alex: You know, I really wish I read more books. I feel like I read a book a day in terms of article intake. I do love to stumble across a great… Like there’s a Kanye West profile in WSJ Magazine that I’m going to read this weekend.

Beck: I know what you’re talking about. Was that haven’t read it yet. Oh, it’s…

Alex: I haven’t read it yet. Yeah. Obviously, whenever I get a juicy New Yorker long read that’s interesting to me, I’ll jump into that. The Atlantic has been doing great COVID-19 coverage, and I’m in Avid Pocket, this save-it-later service reader. So I just have probably hundreds of things in my pocket that I’ll never get to but I would love to read.

Alex: In terms of books, unfortunately, I really only have time to read books for work right now. I’m hoping that changes, but I was doing a lot of coverage a couple of months ago on Facebook’s hardware efforts and I read a book called The History of the Future by Blake J. Harris that is all about virtual reality and that whole… the Oculus, Facebook’s VR company, that acquisition and the crazy history of the founders there and how they got kicked out and all that.

Alex: I read that a couple of months ago. I’m excited to read Sarah Frier from Bloomberg. She has a book called No Filter that’s about Instagram that I have here on my desk that I’m excited to read.

Beck: Oh, no. I haven’t read that yet.

Alex: Also, I’m excited to read Steven Levy’s book about Facebook that came out recently. The last non-Facebook business book that just rocked me was obviously Bad Blood by John Carreyrou about Theranos. I read that last summer.

Beck: Oh, I could not put it down, could not put it down. That leads to this next prompt we always ask because it’s just about the future of journalism. And one thing that’s been coming up on some of these conversations is reporters following the beat and the immense industry knowledge that they have or specific company knowledge that they have or coming out with really just fantastic, even bestseller books, and books that are voraciously read and even expanding into more of the beyond tech as tech just consumes our everyday life and such.

Beck: So what do you think the future of journalism is and do you think perhaps that there’s a space for journalists to become kind of a rising cultural icon, if you will, in just longer form literature?

Alex: Yeah, I mean definitely a longer form. I think there’s an incredible appetite for interesting business books that also have a cultural element to them. These tech companies are pop culture so there’s a lot there to explore and mine. I guess with future of journalism, it’s not so much the future in that it’s already happening but I think it will just continue to be more so it’s just the rise of the paywall. I understand that I have a bias working at a subscription outlet but you’re seeing that all original reporting is being thrown behind a paywall.

Alex: You know, my first New York media job was at Business Insider and I was there when we first started trying… You know, they tried paywall and now it’s working really well for them and pretty much all their original reporting is now behind a paywall. That happened a couple of years ago and I think every single outlet that invests in investigative or just like not pure aggregation is going to just have a paywall if they don’t already, and really pretty much all of them do.

Alex: I don’t know what that means because I guess in the short term it means you have to pay for quality information and we may have a quality information deficit there for a while for people who either don’t want to pay, don’t see the value in it or can’t afford it. I don’t know how that will shake out, but it’s certainly the future of the ad model I think especially now. I’ve been doing some reporting on just what the current economic downturn from the pandemic is doing to the ad market and I think you’re going to see a real just demolishment of a lot of outlets.

Alex: There were several big layoffs today at a bunch of ad-supported media companies. Just the ad model is not working for a lot of folks unfortunately. So it’s going to be, you know. And then journalists themselves going out and doing their own individual things that are subscription like a friend of mine, Polina, who used to write the the Term Sheet newsletter. I think she’s been on the show before. Right?

Beck: Oh, she has been. She’s great. I’m a big fan.

Alex: Yeah, yeah. She just left Fortune to do her own newsletter full time. I think you’re going to be seeing more and more of that. You’re going to see rising or already established prominent journalists in their respective fields just going, “I can do this on my own” and going to do it.

Alex: I’m not saying I’m going to do that. I’m in a different position. I think there’s a tremendous value to have with a really just a great team and the resources that the company can give you to do your reporting. But there’s a lot of room for people like the Ben Thompson’s of the world and the John Gruber of the worlds and all those people.

Alex: There’s going to be more of those folks as people kind of realize subscription is a very direct business model. It’s direct with your audience and it really lowers the bar for people to be able to go out there and do stuff on their own. So I’m excited to see that.

Beck: Yeah, me too. I’m excited also to see just more… I don’t want to say celebrity, that’s kind of the wrong thing, but the rise of the notoriety let’s say of journos, especially in this… You know, now we’re in this Trump era, but also this crazy era of the virus and whatever else and just the need for it and what people are finding. So I’m excited. You also have a positive outlook.

Alex: I do.

Beck: A couple people I’ve had before are kind of like, “Oh, God.” But there’s a rising surge and correlation of people I chat with now who are like, “No, this is good.”

Alex: I do. I mean I think working in places that actually understand the business of media, and that’s like my main thing is I feel like I’ve dodged a lot of bullets in my career so far just not going to places that either did complete pivots, laid teams off, got hit by a private equity takeover, whatever. Just having some understanding of the actual financials and the business acumen of wherever you’re going and like what is the goal here is super valuable because then you end up not having to deal with… You know, I know a lot of people that just have had to be laid off or whatever, and it just sucks. There’s just a lot of media companies that have been struggling to adapt.

Alex: So finding the ones that are doing it well and are kind of thinking ahead, which is what drew me to The Information because Jessica Lessin, our founder, was so early to doing a paywall and she got laughed out about it when we first launched and now everyone’s doing it. So yeah, finding those kind of people in media who think ahead and can see where the winds are going I think is super important and just aligning ourselves with them.

Beck: So now, Alex, just to round out our convo here, we’re going to do a little Mad Lib. Are you familiar?

Alex: Okay. I am.

Beck: Okay. Okay. It had been like fricking years since I had played it before we started doing this in the end of the podcast. So here we go. So I’ll give you the little phrase and then I’ll read back the paragraph after we’re done. So the first thing is just, what’s a catchphrase?

Alex: You know, my wife always gets on me for using catchphrases that she doesn’t understand. So I should just be able to pull one out of my hat.

Beck: I know.

Alex: They got so obscure while you’re not just like using that. God, I’m really drawing a blank. I’m sorry.

Beck: That’s okay. That’s okay. Well let’s come back. Let’s come back to that. We could just put it as blank. How about that? I don’t know. We’ll see what that-

Alex: Let’s try blank.

Beck: Okay. Let’s try blank. Okay. How about a journalist’s scare phrase? Like what’s a scary word you hear?

Alex: Correction.

Beck: Oh, yeah. What about empowering journalism oriented word or a buzz word?

Alex: An empowering word. I would say like… Gosh, I’m so bad at this. I’m sorry.

Beck: It’s also late on a Friday, so I’m going to give you that.

Alex: It’s not that way. I don’t know.

Beck: How about, I don’t know, freedom of the press or something. I don’t know.

Alex: Yeah. Freedom of the press. There you go.

Beck: Okay. We’ll do that. Freedom of the press. Okay. All right. What about an adjective?

Alex: Tremendous.

Beck: Ooh. Okay. And then what about a part of a pitch.

Alex: User up 110%.

Beck: All right, another adjective.

Alex: Angry.

Beck: Ooh, angry. And then how about another part of a pitch?

Alex: Speak to the founder.

Beck: And then how about an amount of time?

Alex: Nine months.

Beck: Nine months. And then another adjective.

Alex: Stupid.

Beck: Stupid. Yep. Yep. And then a noun. Just a singular noun.

Alex: Let’s do book.

Beck: Okay. Book. Yeah. What about a topic?

Alex: Advertising.

Beck: Okay. Almost done here. What about a verb that ends in ING?

Alex: Reading.

Beck: Reading. And then a verb.

Alex: Talk.

Beck: Talk. Okay. Are you ready? I’m going to read it now.

Alex: Oh, gosh.

Beck: Okay. To me, tech journalism is blank. It consists of corrections and freedom of the press on the daily. If a pitch has a tremendous user stats such as user base is up 110%, I will absolutely respond to it. However, if a pitch has an angry, why don’t you speak to the founder, you can expect no reply from me.

Beck: If nine months goes by and you don’t see an email back from me, you can just assume I am not down with it or… You had stupid in there, so we’ll just say not stupid about it. The best stories always have a book and are usually about advertising, and the best way to reach me is by reading to me, but you can also just talk to me. Isn’t that great?

Alex: Yeah. Wow. That’s-

Beck: These are highly accurate. I don’t know about yours.

Alex: Unofficial advice, but we’ll take it.

Beck: Alex, thank you for being on with us today. This is really fun. A great way to end our podcast.

Alex: Yeah, thank you.

Beck: Thank you so much.

Alex: Take care.

Jered: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Coffee with a Journalist featuring Alex from The Information. The goal of our show is to give you an in-depth look into the tech industry’s most well known and coveted journalists and we hope you found today’s episode insightful.

Jered: If you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Spotify, and everywhere else you enjoy listening to podcasts. We’ll see you next week with an all new guest and even more insights. Until then, let’s quit bitching about pitching and start great stories.

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