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This week we kick off Season 2 sharing coffee with Alex Wilhelm, a Senior Editor at TechCrunch. We talked about him being the “coolest kid in the world,” his career beginning quite early, and his goal, which is for his readers to be better informed after reading one of his pieces. Alex is a seasoned journalist who’s love for finance took hold of him when he was a kid. Now, he covers the middle ground between tech and finance.
How He Writes Stories
Beck: Yeah. Okay. Well, we’re going to get into that for in a moment on just what is in your inbox. But first, but first, we are about understanding how stories actually get made. Actually get reported on because I think that’s a big black box as it comes to just from a consumer understanding all the intricacies, all the details, all the fact-checking and so forth that it really takes. So can you walk us through a recent story about and give us kind of a play by play of, “Okay I had this idea, I went to this, I had to then do that, and now this is how it came about.” We can use one of the first ones if or one in particular, but is there a way you go about telling a story?
Alex: Well, I’m cooking something up right now, so why don’t I tell you about that?
Beck: Perfect. Tell us about that.
Alex: Yeah, by the time you hear this, it’ll be out cause it’s going to go out tomorrow.
Alex: Okay. So one relatively fertile place to look for ideas is in lots and lots of raw data, and I get sent reports from banks and investor groups and activist investors and all sorts of people. I love these because they provide really interesting looks into the world as it is. And these are, these don’t tend to be particularly biased because they’re just big chunks of data that has been sliced and graphed in different ways. And I’m going to try to get this right. KeyBank put together its 10th annual SaaS report, and it’s looking at the 2018 SaaS market through the lens of I think it’s 242 different companies that are broken up by size and how they approach the market and they’ve cut their data and growth and- in a lot of different ways.
Alex: And what the report gave me is really just a limpid look into what is going on in the world of SAS, which is one of the most important parts of tech, one of the most important parts of venture capital and one of the most important parts of the IPO market. So what I did was, as I read it, and then I emailed them with a couple of questions because I wasn’t sure about two of the metrics. I wanted to understand what was behind them, got the answers, and then I reread the report and I’m now currently comparing what I’ve read and written and understood about the market against that and trying to figure out where the most important anecdotes and data points that will help explain the world as it is to people who read what I write.
Alex: And so what comes out of that’s going to be a hybrid of what I already knew and what I learned and then it’s my job to like the thing about stories and how they come together is to craft those into something that’s readable and then people actually want to spend time with because it’s not hard to just write eight facts in a linear fashion, but to put something together that people will want to engage with and are able to actually finish reading. That’s where you get to have a little more fun and be, and not an artist per se, but to be more of a craftsman than just a builder.
Beck: Do you think of that lens always first in terms of what does the, what does my reader want? What is helpful to them?
Alex: No, no, no, no, no. Not always. Sometimes. Sometimes you want to do things that are reader’s service. You want to make sure that when people generally read yourself, they walk away better informed, or at least as better educated about something because you’re conveying information. Like fundamentally journalism is finding out what’s true and telling other people. That’s its most basic substance. But sometimes though you’ve got to write something for yourself and you just, you don’t care if it gets 12 reads because you need to get that out of your head or it’s not going to go out.
His Work Inbox
Beck: No, no. Look it. Okay. Now we want to; I want to talk about just what is actually in your inbox. What does it actually look like? You think about it, you’ve seen it many times today.
Alex: I’ve seen it many times today. Yeah.
Beck: What’s going on in there? Because publicists are trying to get in there and trying to get a response. Is it all publicists? Is it hundreds of emails? Thousands?
Alex: So I’m going to just be honest and then.
Beck: That’s what we want.
Alex: … We’re going to see how people like this. So …
Alex: I have priority inbox turned on, in Gmail, I have a work account that runs on Google apps, everyone does in Silicon Valley and I have my inbox set to only show me emails that Gmail deems important, and I never read anything else. I read about 10% of the ones that are marked as important. I’m very hard to get ahold of.
Beck: Wow. How did we even get you on this podcast?
Alex: Polite persistence was how I would term.
Beck: Wow. Damn, damn, damn Jared. Oh, he’s so great. He is nice. You guys know him. Okay. So to understand that then only the stuff that gets filtered by Google, that is a priority and then even in the priority, only 10% of that.
Alex: I’d probably- maybe it’s at 20%, but I mostly just go through and mark most of them, and then I just mark around them without reading them.
Beck: That must keep a pretty clean inbox.
Alex: It is. It’s pretty efficient. I mean, I mostly had my own ideas. The things that stick out are interesting, funny rounds that I either want my team to cover or that I want to take a look at. Bits of data that I can’t find elsewhere. Invitations from people that I know. But you know there are ten bajillion things to cover each day if you’d want to and you’re going to cover two. So are you going to spend your time doing the endless sifting, or are you going to find the most efficient way to take your understanding of the world and add bits to it and explain those to the readers? So you have to be ruthlessly prioritizing, I guess. Otherwise, you’ll get nothing done. You know, if you read all your emails and respond to them, you’ll get stuck in these endless with very kind people who are doing their job efficiently, and I have no beef with that.
Alex: But if I-
Beck: Are you talking about publicists, particularly?
Alex: Publicists or people like researcher and people who want to contribute guest posts or just all sorts of people that if you have any sort of platform in any sort of area in the world, there are more people who want it than who have it. And so you’re going to have people that respectfully want some of your time or attention or help or work. And that’s perfectly acceptable. If I was on the other side of the coin, I would do the exact same thing. So I have no beef, but also I have a team to run, and I’m on podcasts, and I got stuff to do. So I have to be as efficient a human as I can be. I’m a good capitalist cog.
His Thoughts on Pitching
Beck: People wait, wait, wait, do people text you pitches?
Alex: Not frequently anymore. That seems to have died down in the last couple of years. When I was at TC …
Beck: Thank God.
Alex: … I got more of that. I … but people were just trying to break through the noise. They’re trying to do their job. They’re under a lot of- here’s my impression about this, about the publicist world, world in this area. A lot of more junior PR people aren’t given the best of guidance when they go into PR, they’re given like a pitch and a list of people, and they’re told to go out and make magic happen. And so you end up with a lot of junior PR people out there in the trenches being a little annoying but not through their own fault, but through a lack of leadership, it seems.
Alex: And a lack of proper training. And there’s lots more publicists than there are journalists as we all know. And so again, no beef. Just if I was, I’d just have to defend my time and I lots of my own ideas that I want to write about and I have my own ways of tracking data and like what’s going on in the world and so I don’t need people usually telling me what’s happening. I should already know to some degree.
Beck: What percent of your stories comes from pitches versus your own head and your own ideas, your own raw data that you crunch in, and do something with?
Alex: Well, going back to the story that I just mentioned. So KeyBank just sent me a report like, “Here’s a report, check it out.” And they just went away. Would you say that’s a pitch? Because it’s somewhere in the middle, right?
Beck: It is somewhere in the middle. They didn’t ask like, “Oh, could you review it? Could you check it out? Could you anything?” It was just seriously, “Here’s the report.”
Alex: “Do you want to see it?” And then, “The embargo was tomorrow at 9:00 AM. Off you go.”
Beck: Oh, okay. I would say that’s a pitch then because there was an embargo or there an exclusive, there was something there.
Alex: When it comes to things that I write off of reports that were embargoed. It’s not a 100% because I can’t break into those servers and steal it, but a lot of what I do is based on my own newsgathering, and then I’ll try to weave things in sometimes from pitches, if there’s an interesting round that I care about and that sort of thing, but not a huge percentage. If I could write five times as much, it would be a higher percentage, but you can only put so many words out each day.
Inspired by Alex and Beck’s conversation about using data to lead stories? Our 1000 Pitches report is the perfect jumping-off point to inspire your next great pitch. Subscribe here to download your copy of the report today![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]