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Coffee with a Journalist: Alex Kantrowitz, BuzzFeed News

Season two of Coffee with a Journalist continues with special guest Alex Kantrowitz, Senior Tech Reporter at Buzzfeed News. Alex is based out of San Francisco and reports on the latest news in social and communications, from industry updates to the moves of tech’s biggest players such as Google and Facebook. Alex recently applied his expertise to his new book Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever out now!

Host Beck Bamberger sits down with Alex to talk about his new book and how it came about as well as his takes on tech reporting, journalism, and his journey to Buzzfeed News.

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 stories you love to read. We discuss their beat and news coverage, what their inbox looks like and a whole lot more.

Jered: I’m Jered Martin, the co-founder and Chief Operations Officer at OnePitch. Our host for the show is BeckBamberger: the co-founder of OnePitch, CEO of BAM Communications, and a current journalist.

Jered: Today on the show we have Alex Kantrowitz, Senior Tech Reporter at BuzzFeed, joins the show today to talk more about his new book launch, his rare start in journalism, the new generation of journalists and newsrooms and lots more.

Jered: Let’s hear more today from Alex and Beck!

Beck: Hey everyone, special guest today. Not only a journalist but also an author of the new book Always Day One. Recently out, available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, all your favorite bookstores. Alex Kantrowitz is a San Francisco based senior tech reporter at Buzzfeed. He covers all the big tech world companies that we know so well. Google, Twitter, Facebook and the like, and he’s here today. Hi Alex.

Alex: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Beck: We’re excited you’re here. First off, tell us about the book. How was that to write?

Alex: Oh, it was great. It felt a lot like what we’re doing now. I sat alone in my apartment for about a year and of course went out and did some interviews, but this is a very familiar feeling. So just to give a quick introduction to it, it’s called Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever. And it’s a book that looks into the inner workings of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. And the idea was basically, I was a reporter here in Silicon Valley, I had seen that the tech giants were operating in a way that was very different from every traditional company I had seen. Their culture, their leadership, their process, and even their internal technology was just unique. And I thought that it was one of the most underexplored areas when it came to coverage of the tech giants was to talk about how these inner workings are actually related to how successful they are.

Alex: Typically you have a big company and they just sort of get clunky and bureaucratic and then slowly but surely they fall apart, and these companies are massive and they keep getting stronger. And so I wondered if there was something, a connection between how they operate on the inside and their ability to be so strong and continue to build and that’s what the book goes into.

Beck: And I’m sure you found there is some compelling thread through about how they do stay so aggressive and keep ballooning in the size that they are.

Alex: Yeah, that’s right.

Beck: But you’ve got to read the book-

Alex: Yeah, or you can read the book. We can talk about it throughout this conversation. It’s out now, so I got nothing to hide anymore, finally. After a long time I’m able to discuss it.

Beck: Let’s drop some little tidbits then as we chat so people can get a little two for one on not only how you like pitches, but also then how this book unfolds. First off, talking about just how you make a story, and this could apply to your book, but also just the articles that you write. How do you go about starting from square one creating a good story that’s going to be an article that’s up on Buzzfeed or a book that’s going to be a bestseller?

Alex: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the key is to be speaking with people all the time. Anyone who’s in this business and is shy is going to ultimately close themselves off for opportunities for good stories. Anyone who’s in this business and isn’t curious is going to close themselves off to opportunities for good stories. So since I’ve been doing this and I started out actually working in sales and marketing before moving into journalism.

Beck: Wow.

Alex: But since I’ve been doing this, I’ve just made a point to fill my days with interviews and conversations with people and just to prod a little bit, but also most importantly to listen and see what they think is interesting in the world. And then I think that what you can do is when you’re in a position, it’s actually a really cool job, because when you’re in a position to be doing that all day every day, sometimes people will say things or act a certain way that will cue you into the fact that there’s something different going on that your readers might be interested in. And that’s sort of where a story begins.

Beck: And speaking of your background, you were a marketing manager in New York City’s Economic Development Corp, and you also have a degree from Cornell in industrial and labor relations?

Alex: That’s right. Yeah. I took a really circuitous path into this world. I applied to Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations only because I knew that it focused on negotiation and conflict resolution and there was no science or math requirement. And I thought that was kind of cool because those were my weeks subjects. So I said, “Okay, let’s do this.” So, I applied early decision. I didn’t really know what I was getting into until in my first week there, in one of my first days they packed me and a bunch of other freshmen into a yellow school bus. We were up in upstate New York, and they drove us to a glass bottle factory. And basically it was this big dark warehouse obviously with all the machinery there. And we just saw molten hot rods of liquid glass flying above our heads and then getting hit with a puff of water and then turning into bottles. And they brought us into this break room and they talked to us about bathroom breaks and they had one of those 63 days without an injury signs.

Alex: And I said, “What the hell have I done here? I made a terrible mistake.” But actually over time I think that if you start to focus on culture and how companies operate, how they’re managed, how people are incentivized, you can start to really learn a little bit about, a lot more about how they work. I kind of think of it a little bit like there’s a machine and then there’s the outputs. You know? And so if you understand the machine, you’re going to do much better job understanding why it’s spitting out what it’s spitting out.

Beck: And I love how this goes back to the book you just wrote, funny enough. Did you ever think about that tie through? I’m like, “Wow, there you are standing in the factory learning about labor relations in your undergrad.” And I’m sure that is what’s covered in your book is what’s that magic sauce? What is the actual people of these companies doing that’s so special that keeps propelling them to success?

Alex: Oh totally. It’s interesting, when I’m in these companies in Silicon Valley, I had a good idea of how traditional companies work. And then having these conversations with them about how they operate and they really don’t do very much that sort of is what we were taught about. And so yeah, it definitely piqued my curiosity enough to the point where I felt the book was necessary. And actually in the last chapter I go back to Cornell and speak to the professors there and say, “Hey, you taught us these different theories of workplace management and what I’m seeing in Silicon Valley doesn’t neatly fit in any of the boxes you presented. So how is the workplace changing and where do you think we’re heading from here?” So yeah, definitely. I think there’s this great Steve Jobs talk about that he gives at Stanford and he talks about connecting the dots. He took this calligraphy class and then ended up being able to bring these beautiful fonts into the Mac. And I think this is a true connect the dots situation where like-

Beck: Yes. I love that.

Alex: Yeah, it didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but now looking back, I’m like, “Oh, okay, well actually there was some value in following this thing that I was passionate about, learning a little bit more about it.” And then it’s carried with me throughout the rest of my life.

Beck: Love how that works out. That’s nice. What is in your inbox now that you’re done writing this book or maybe previously while you were writing this book, when you were off to do this, so you weren’t necessarily in the pitch machine trying to get all your work done at Buzzfeed because you had time out or time off. What does your inbox typically look like with just pitches?

Alex: Oh yeah, it’s a complete mess. It’s really just a total mess. It’s chaos. So it’s a struggle to keep on top of all the emails. But I guess you know for this audience’s purposes-

Beck: Oh yes, no, we want to know intimately. So do you save every pitch? Do you just delete everyone? Do you ever reference one back? What’s your protocol? How do you do this?

Alex: I have most PR agency emails filter into a PR stuff folder. They skip my inbox and they filter into that folder. And so instead of having that sort of take my attention throughout the day, all day long, I’ll go a couple times a day and just kind of take a look through-

Beck: Do you ever peak?

Alex: What’s in there. Yeah.

Beck: Oh, so then that way it stays contained.

Alex: Exactly. Yeah. So, it’s contained and I always feel like it’s amazing how many PR agencies there are out there. Because I feel like, okay, I’ve done a good job, I got them all. And then there’s another seven that show up one morning and I’m like, “Where did these come from?” So, I do my best.

Beck: Oh wow. They just keep multiplying.

Alex: Yeah. They keep multiplying. So I do my best to be diligent and put them into that PR stuff folder. And it’s not that I ignore the folder, I definitely check it. But yeah, it’s less frequent.

Beck: But what happens when you get one that files into it but is actually not? Do any of them slip through to your regular inbox by chance?

Alex: Yeah-

Beck: I’m just wondering about? Because people have weird domains.

Alex: Yeah. So then when I get a new one in the regular inbox, I just… Usually if I see three or four I’ll just go make a filter, put the top level domain, and then just filter them into that folder. I mean, just to be completely honest, when it comes to pitches from the… Like people who are in-house, those will go directly into the inbox. So if it’s at like @facebook or or those will be messages that will come straight in.

Beck: Got you. Okay. And then what happens to the rest in that folder? Do you just keep it the PR folder? You keep it indefinitely? Does it just get bigger and bigger? You ever delete them? You go back to them two months later? What happens?

Alex: Yes. It grows. It grows and grows and grows.

Beck: It just grows.

Alex: This is the cool thing about Gmail though. Right? It’s like you can go into Gmail and search anything. So for me, there’s really no utility in deleting these pitches. And trust me, there’ve been times where I’ve gone back to an email that I got three years ago and I’m like, “Oh, okay, well now you know…”

Beck: Three years ago?

Alex: I mean three is… Yeah, maybe five years ago. I don’t know. That’s the cool thing about Gmail is. I think just having that contact in the inbox sometimes… Oftentimes I’ll be proactively reaching out after I’ve heard something. So, for me to delete those emails would be silly. And of course the fact… Gmail search is amazing. Google’s done a pretty good job with search. It’s almost as if they knew something about it. So yeah.

Beck: Yeah, right.

Alex: I think that that’s super helpful.

Beck: Wow. I can’t believe someone getting a pitch or response from a journalist five years later. But hey, everyone who’s listening, that might be Alex writing back to you.

Alex: Well, just to be realistic about it, I’m probably not going to say, “Hey, I’m now interested in your product news from 2015.” It’s more like, “I’ve heard this thing about your company. Can you please confirm or deny.”

Beck:yeah, yeah.

Alex: it’s not getting a call. So.

Beck: It’s true.

Alex: Yeah.

Beck: Oh my gosh. Good to know. I like that system. It seems quite efficient. So I get how that works. Good. Okay, so why don’t we play a little word association game, which is one of my favorite things to do here. So, I’m just going to give you a word.

Alex: Yeah. This is the part I’m most scared of.

Beck: Okay. Okay. Don’t get scared. We can edit anything that you like. Okay, let’s go. Let’s do it.

Alex: Yeah.

Beck: Okay, so here we go. Food.

Alex: Grocery store.

Beck: Okay. Drink.

Alex: Well-stocked right now.

Beck: Hobby.

Alex: Running. I know this is not really word association, but I’m getting into the Peloton thing too. Like the Peloton app is free right now for 90 days and I got a fairly inexpensive stationary bike from Amazon. I’ve just put the two together and let me tell you guys, it’s awesome.

Beck: Pro tips on this show too. I love it. Okay. Tech.

Alex: Tech… I would just say increasingly… So wait, now let’s talk about the rules for this. So do I give you one word or I can just say whatever I want about it?

Beck: Well, it’s supposed to be like one word but I’ll accept two or three words. How about that?

Alex: Okay. Okay, so hit me with the tech again.

Beck: Okay. Tech.

Alex: Increasingly important.

Beck: Okay. Oh good. Facebook.

Alex: Redeeming, but responsible. Facebook is redeeming itself, but that doesn’t excuse it’s past failures.

Beck: All right. Twitter.

Alex: Fun shit show.

Beck: Google.

Alex: Another-

Beck: Another shit show.

Alex: Google. It can be a shit show for sure. I mean valuable but not without its problems. Let’s go with trying hard.

Beck: Trying hard. Privacy.

Alex: Privacy… Man. Important.

Beck: Security.

Alex: Security… Overlooked.

Beck: Oh yeah. Journalism.

Alex: In a hard time right now. Probably harder than it’s been in a long time.

Beck: Pitch.

Alex: I’ll go with… I’ll get to it eventually.

Beck: Okay. And then inbox.

Alex: More than zero.

Beck: What? More than zero? Yes. There you go. All right, that was good. I think I like your Facebook answer the best.

Alex: Thank you. Well, they’re doing a good job with coronavirus obviously. But it’s also like, how responsible are they for the breakdown of trust in the media and in and truth that we’re experiencing? And then how much has that played into the response that we’re seeing? And so there’ve been all these stories about how Facebook is good and I agree. I mean I don’t think Facebook isn’t that negative, but I think we do still need to pay attention to the fact of that they’ve been… I mean them and some news networks have been part of a unfortunate disillusion and trust in the media and increase in sensationalism and we’re paying a price for it.

Beck: Yes we are. And we’re all in it together. Unfortunately.

Alex: It’s true.

Beck: Well, speaking of sensational news and whatever, what do you like to read? What’s your typical reading stuff? Even like books, fiction, you’ve got anything that you love?

Alex: Yeah, I read Buzzfeed news. I have a subscription to the New York Times and I read it pretty vociferously. I’ll dip into the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg throughout the day. Most of my news comes from Twitter for better or for worse. But, there’s no better place to go to find everything that’s happening in one central stream and it’s good in that way. And then just like every night before I go to sleep, I pick up the Kindle and I’m reading either books I’ve taken out from the library or there’s an extension where you can send articles and read them on the Kindle that way. So I use that and I tend to go to the New Yorker and and send, see what looks interesting and maybe send to and then pick it up. And I get about a hundred words in and drift right off to sleep. And it does the trick.

Beck: God bless the libraries. Isn’t it great?

Alex: Yeah. They’re great.

Beck: I think they’re really coming back in a since too. I think millennials are embracing the beautiful place that they have in society more than ever.

Alex: I hope so. It’s a shame that libraries have taken a back seat for a little bit. They’re very important institutions. I’m a big fan of them. Obviously we need books, we need people to be interested in books. I think one thing that we can do much better as a country and the broader global population is read more of these things. And I think they teach critical thought and having written one, I will say, and I don’t think that mine is necessarily an example of this, but I will say that, I read a bunch of them, and the amount of work that gets done before a book comes out is absolutely crazy. And so when you pick one up, you’re just reading somebody who’s an expert in the subject matter that they’re covering. You’re reading their best swing. And how awesome is that? It beats reading the newsfeed on Facebook, if you ask me. I mean, it’s a little more difficult to get into, but there’s a lot to be gained from it. So here’s to books and here’s to libraries.

Beck: Yes. What do you think about the future of journalism?

Alex: It’s a great question. I mean, this is a very tough moment. And as a result of coronavirus, they’re already local newspapers that are laying people off. I think journalism is already in dire straights. Thankfully we have, The Times has become stronger over the past few years as a result of subscriptions. And it’s great. I mean it’s really… There’s no denying that they do really great work, not without their own problems, but the work is amazing. I mean, I think Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Buzzfeed, these are all good news sources.

Alex: And the thing that really concerns me, and this is not really a novel thought, but just to echo it, is that we’ve lost a lot of accountability reporting at the local level. And it’s a shame because you end up with local supervisors and county executives and mayors and sheriffs that know that they don’t need to worry too much about held accountable by the press, which was something that is for a long time they had to be concerned with. So they had to watch how they act. But what do you do if you know that there’s no real worry that some hard-driving rapport will look into your actions and potentially hold you to account for it?

Alex: And the answer too often is that people just, they act as if there are no consequences, and unfortunately in the, in this country too often it really feels like there aren’t any consequences. So, I mean look, is journalism responsible for all accountability everywhere? I wouldn’t say that, but any town that I live in, I’d want a really healthy local press because ultimately I’m paying taxes and I’m being protected by these people and my life is in their hands. Right now, quite literally. And so that hard hitting local reporting is something that we need and I wish we’d find a way to help provide it.

Beck: I know, yeah. I wonder if it would ever be supported. I’ve heard this idea touted about but not from a nonprofit standpoint but as a government funded piece, just like a library frankly. You know, that’s funded by taxpayers and is-

Alex: That’s an idea.

Beck: but now that’s interesting because then you bite the mouth that feeds you in a way. See that’s you-

Alex: Oh, totally.

Beck: It gets interesting to be like how independent could they be?

Alex: Yeah, I think that these… I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and spent time in local newsrooms and I personally think, not as an employee, but I’ve spoken with the people working there, and honestly the government, having the government fund these papers is fraught as you mentioned. What I think would be great is if they… There’s going to be a new generation that’s going to come in to lead that and there are so many different business lines they can go into that are outside of the typical, sell ads.

Beck: I know, right?

Alex: I mean, you’re trusted in the local community, you have their attention. So yeah, I mean, there’s so many… Okay. Let me give you one example. I was deciding whether or not to say this.

Beck: Do it, do it. We’re here.

Alex: So Pittsburgh. Right? Pittsburgh had a large exodus. That city had a large Exodus.

Beck: Yes, it did. I went to school there for my MBA.

Alex: Oh, which school were you in?

Beck: University of Pittsburgh. Katz Business School.

Alex: Yeah. Okay. So, you know the city. And you know why and any city you go in on a Sunday, in normal times, you’ll see people walking around with Steelers jerseys.

Beck: Oh, all the time there. All the time. Like town’s uniform.

Alex: That’s right. And that’s because the Pittsburgh residents have set up shop all across the US. So can’t a newspaper find some way to communicate with these people? I mean, obviously they’re not going to get the Pittsburgh Post Gazette to their street, to their doorstep every day. If you’re in San Diego, let’s say you’re a San Diego resident and you have this connection to Pittsburgh. What if you could sign up and spend $2, $3 to get a postcard once a month with a beautiful picture of the city on the front and some updates about the place that you grew up in on the back? So this is one potential idea and I have to say for these local news organizations, there are opportunities across the board to turn creative ideas into new and improved revenue streams. And so I’m hopeful that we’ll get there. It’s just a matter of finding the leaders who have the interest in doing things that are not like they’ve always been done.

Beck: Well, and probably the innovation for it too because it’s not like the tech industry is like, “Oh, you know what needs disrupting? Journalism.” You know, that’s not the first thing on the list. Although I have to say Buzzfeed has done a great job in reinventing itself and a lot of, to some extent, some of the big entities as well have pivoted I think well into the digital age and all this good stuff. But yeah, it needs a shock or just some more techie innovation with a Silicon Valley approach, if you ask me. Which it sounds like what you’re saying. Basic stuff, it’s not like it needs to be a robot delivers your news or anything. It needs to just be what are the other streams that hold interest for the consumer, the reader? Just like a Steelers fan who’s like, “Oh my God, I would love to get that monthly mailer about my hometown that I love so much and I still wish I was there.” He’s like, “All that stuff.”

Alex: Yeah. And why not? So it’s just, there are these… The postcard idea for instance is just a simple and straight forward thing. I’m personally baffled that we haven’t seen more of it. And by the way, this is, and not to bring everything back to the book, but this is why I called the book Always Day One. Because literally you have to start operate… You have to look at each day, and this is what the tech giants do so well, they look at each day as if it’s their first without regard for their legacy. So, there’s never a approach inside any of these companies, except for maybe Apple, where it’s this is just the way we do business around here. They are always looking at it as if they’re a first day with unburdened from their legacy businesses. What would we do today if we didn’t have to worry about our existing revenue streams? And unfortunately newspapers haven’t really done that. But I do think there’s a chance for them to pick that up and turn it around. And I’m hoping they do.

Beck: Gosh, you had a very optimistic answer here. One of the few I hear honestly. It’s nice.

Alex: Yeah. Well look, I mean optimism is free and honestly we’re resilient. We have this ability to get kicked and then get back up and figure it out. And we’ve seen it happen over and over again. So I’m obviously distressed that what’s going to happen to local news, but I’m also not discouraged.

Beck: Let us stay positive. I bet some innovation’s around the corner here, hopefully. That’s good.

Alex: I hope so.

Beck: Well now let us play, Alex, on a totally different topic, but still kind of related to all things journalism. A little mad lib. Did you ever play a mad lib growing up?

Alex: Yeah, I have. We played it on the bus when I was a kid and I was never very good at it. So, here we go.

Beck: Well, this is your redeeming time. Let’s try it. Let’s try it.

Alex: Okay, let’s do it.

Beck: So I’ll give you the list and then I’ll read back to you the wonderful paragraph that is going to unfold here. Often they’re quite accurate, people say. So, let’s see. Let’s see how yours is going to be.

Alex: Okay, great.

Beck: Just a regular catch phrase. What kind of catch phrase would you say?

Alex: Just do it. Is that a catch phrase? I don’t know.

Beck: Yes, it is.

Alex: Okay. 

Beck: Okay. Journalist scare phrase.

Alex: How about I’m calling your editor.

Beck: Empowering journalism buzzword.

Alex: Reporting.

Beck: Reporting. Okay. Okay. I like it. What about an adjective?

Alex: Just any adjective?

Beck: Yeah. Yeah.

Alex: Small.

Beck: Small. And then what about a part of a pitch?

Alex: Subject line.

Beck: Another adjective.

Alex: Tiny.

Beck: And then what about another part of a pitch?

Alex: Call to action.

Beck: Amount of time.

Alex: Year.

Beck: Another adjective.

Alex: Dark.

Beck: Singular noun.

Alex: Sky.

Beck: And then what about a topic? And then we’re almost done.

Alex: Donald Trump.

Beck: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Good one. Then what about a verb that ends in -ing.

Alex: Swimming.

Beck: Then finally just a verb.

Alex: Dunk.

Beck: Okay. Are you ready?

Alex: I’m excited to hear what this is going to turn out into. Yeah.

Beck: Okay. Here we go. Here we go. To me, tech journalism is just do it. It consists of, “I’m calling your editor,” and reporting on the daily. If a pitch is a small subject line, I will absolutely respond to it. However, if the pitch is a tiny call to action, you can expect no reply from me. If a year goes by and you don’t see an email back from me, you can just assume I am not dark about it. The best stories always have sky and are usually about Donald Trump, and the best way to reach me is by swimming up to me but you can also dunk me.

Alex: Oh, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good.

Beck: Right?

Alex: Where do I sign up?

Beck: I can email it to you.

Alex: That’ll be my new bio.

Beck: Yes, perfect. Put it on your Twitter. Which by the way, everyone follow Alex here. Your Twitter following is what, 27,000 people or something ridiculous? Your destiny.

Alex: Something like that.

Beck: You’re definitely a name, Alex. My god. And now an author. Go buy the book, everybody.

Alex: Yes, please buy the book. It’s an interesting time to release one. So every sale really makes a difference.

Beck: It is, it is. And funny enough how appropriate, Day One. It’s just good reminder.

Alex: I mean again, it’s about reinvention and this is a moment where we’re going to need to reinvent in a lot of ways. So, obviously not planned, but if you’re thinking about what the future’s going to look like, it could help. That’s my pitch.

Beck: Thank you Alex for being on. So appreciate you and congrats on the book.

Alex: Thank you so much.

Jered: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Coffee With a Journalist featuring Alex Kantrowitz from BuzzFeed. 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.

Jered: 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!

Have a great pitch for Alex or tech reports like him? Before you press send, be sure to check out our eBook covering 5 key essentials to pitching! With specified guides based on criteria from subject matter to timeliness, it is sure to make your next pitch top-notch. Download your FREE copy by clicking HERE!

Also, don’t forget to check out Alex’s new book Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever today!