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This week on Season 2 of Coffee with a Journalist were joined by Ann-Marie Alcantara, reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She covering customer experience, UX and more! Before The Wall Street Journal, Ann-Marie served as Adweek’s Retail Reporter covering all things eCommerce, from direct-to-consumer brands to the platforms that make their businesses possible. Additionally, she previously served as Assistant Tech Editor at Popsugar.
How She Writes Stories
Beck: Well, let’s dive into how you come about and create a great story, the actual crafting of it, because we like to ask this as a lot of people don’t understand what it takes to actually put a whole story together. So we like to ask, what does it take to make a great story, the actual components? Are you sitting at your desk going like, oh, what’s that next story going to be? Are you waiting for someone to give you a tip? Are you hunting all the time? How does it work in your world?
Ann-Marie: It’s a mix of everything you just said. A lot of it can be from tips or coffee meetings I’m always having with people in the industry. I’m also, because of my beat, direct-to-consumer brands, I am in this Slack group with a bunch of people who are in the space, like founders, CMOs, et cetera. And so they’re always chatting about the industry and that’s a really good insight for me to see how they’re thinking about it, what positions they want to hire for next. And I think that really helps shape my thinking of, okay, this thing happened, but what does the industry kind of think about it, what do they want to learn about it, that sort of thing.
Beck: So let’s talk about the Slack group. Do people know you’re in there?
Ann-Marie: Yeah, yeah, they do, they do. And I make it clear when I’m first talking to someone there, this is off the record. Please just, I want to have a candid conversation, and then if I want to take it on the record, I obviously ask them to do that. But yeah, I’m in there. They know.
Beck: Other reporters in there too?
Ann-Marie: I think so. I just don’t know how active they are. But he does let other reporters in there.
Beck: Fascinating. You’re the first I’ve heard that’s in an active Slack group where your direct people you report on are actively chatting. Fascinating. That’s probably the best tip I’ve heard all day or throughout all of these. Okay, so then let’s say you get that idea or you hear that tip, what then is happening? How long does it take for you to actually produce then that piece that needs to be a thousand words, let’s say? And maybe sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time, but what does that normally entail?
Ann-Marie: I think first reaching out to the usual analysts that, this is their bread and butter every day, this is what they’re studying, this is what they’re writing case studies on, those people. And then depending what the topic is, getting a little more granular and reading … reaching out to agencies or people at brands that I know who I can just be like, “Hey, what is this thing? What does this mean?” The Slack group is a great resources for that, because I could just ping them, like, “Is this something that’s actually happening or is this … Am I being crazy and just overthinking the situation?” So yeah, it’s a lot of reaching out to people and your own sources that you’ve developed and just seeing kind of their own thoughts on it and proving out your thesis for the story.
Her Work Inbox
Beck: You took it and grew it. I like it. Speaking of your inbox, what is it like in there? Are there hundreds of pitches? Is it clean? Oh, we were talking about this earlier. It’s clean, it’s labeled, it’s organized.
Ann-Marie: Yeah, I’m probably on the other side of journalists where I have folders for everything, and the only thing that stays in my inbox are stories that are happening this week or they’re magazine stories and I want to make sure I send the clip to whoever I was working with on that story. And yeah, I don’t like to have the crazy 27,000 unread emails because I will get too stressed.
Beck: So you said you even will send the company or the publicists, “Oh, here’s the clip. This is the piece I wrote,”?
Ann-Marie: Yeah, yeah, because sometimes, they’re very … They work with me on my own crazy schedule. I can only talk for this hour and this day, and it’s a good relationship.
Beck: Yeah. So it is a nice piece of like, “Hey, thanks for doing this piece, and here it is.” That’s really nice.
Ann-Marie: Thank you.
Ann-Marie: I hope so. I hope they see it that way.
Beck: I would think they would if you had the own reporter say, “Oh yeah, here it is. Thanks so much.” Oh, that’s great. Gold star. Oh my gosh. Okay. So you have things categorized, you put it in folders, you file it away. Do you ever delete anything in these folders or do you dig up pitches that were three months ago sent to you?
Ann-Marie: I dig stuff up. In my head I don’t …. I mean, yeah. I don’t know how my brain works because I will sometimes remember, oh yeah, this person once reached out to me about some random B2B business thing and now they’re relevant to something I want to work on, and, or this person knew someone and I don’t know how the inside works.
Beck: Wait, wait. So you’re just going from your brain, as like, oh there was that one person, that one company, or do you do a search in the inbox? How does that work?
Ann-Marie: I’ll remember either their name or the company they were pitching or something in that e-mail and look it up in Outlook and find it. But yeah, it’s not a scientific process, but it works.
Beck: Wow. You have a steel trap mind. I can’t even remember the name of people, employees. Oh my God. Wow. Okay. Well, that’s good news for people who are listening. So if you send a pitch, it is very well likely added to one of your folders. It could be resurrected and she will remember your name.
Ann-Marie: Yes. Yeah, for sure.
Her Thoughts on Pitching
Beck: Fantastic. So furthermore, in the inbox, is there … How many pitches are you getting a day, and then how do you categorize from there? Do you batch them? You get to the end of the day and you’re like, alright, here’s 200. Let me file them appropriately. Here’s two I respond to. How does kind of that process work?
Ann-Marie: I’m really bad with e-mail in the sense that I just have to look at it immediately. I know people say you should look at it in blocks of time. I just can’t do that, at least not yet. So, yeah, I mean, I probably get over 100 pitches to my inbox every day, and whenever they’re coming in I can in my head prioritize like, oh, this is actually interesting, but I can respond in an hour, or can respond end of the day, or oh, this is ASAP and I need to do this right now.
Beck: So you look at all hundred pitches every day? Is that what you’re telling me?
Ann-Marie: Yeah. I mean, not all of them getting read very thoroughly all the time, but yeah. Yeah.
Beck: That’s fantastic. At least a glance you get and you actually open it, the whole thing?
Ann-Marie: Yeah, I mean, fantastic. Some people would say it’s a waste of time. Really, it depends on how you look at it.
Beck: Oh, I’m just saying fantastic from probably the publicist view. At least you got the open, so hey, maybe she is, maybe she’s not. Ooh, speaking of, what about follow ups? Are you someone who appreciates the follow up, or are you someone who despises? Or is there a number that you’re like, okay, when you send me six, I’m done. You’re dead to me.
Ann-Marie: I did once count someone following up with me 32 times. I literally counted because yeah, it was just … I was like, this has been too much for me. I generally don’t like the follow ups, because as I explained in my process, if I already know I want to respond to you, I’ll just keep it in my inbox or file it in a certain way and I will get to you eventually. And I just, doing all the tricks people do on your inbox, like forward or hey, putting something personal on this. I just, please don’t. It’s not a good time. And we all have limited time. Don’t mess with my time that way. And yeah.
Beck: so you don’t like the personal note like someone saying, “Oh Baby Yoda, you’re totally into that.” You don’t even care. You’d just rather not.
Ann-Marie: If I have a relationship with you already, I appreciate it. It’s like, oh, okay, we’re being … We’ve met, we’ve had drinks, we’ve had coffee. But if it’s just … It’s usually always a pitch that’s unrelated to my beat, and they’re just trying to catch my attention and I don’t appreciate it because it’s like, you didn’t even pitch me something relevant to what I’m reporting on, and now you made me hate whatever I supposedly liked in the subject.
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