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Coffee with a Journalist: Ben Frumin, Wirecutter

Coffee With A Journalist: Ben Frumin, Wirecutter

This week we’re joined by Wirecutter editor-in-chief, Ben Frumin. Before Wirecutter, Ben was the editor-in-chief of TheWeek.com, a senior editor at Talking Points Memo, and a professor at Columbia Journalism School.

During the episode, Ben talks about his process for reviewing and vetting pitches, the quality and standards the Wirecutter team follows, how they approach product reviews, and more.

Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

 

What Does Wirecutter Cover?

[00:01:58] BB: Yes. Ben, we did a little bit of our video recording so far, and I very much got the impression that you all are inundated, frankly inundated with products that are dying to be featured and covered, of course. Can you tell us a little bit about your inbox and what lies within?

[00:02:16] BF: Yeah, absolutely. You are right. I mean, Wirecutter, we believe that we are the premier product recommendation service in the country. We serve millions and millions of readers. We cover thousands of product categories, and it is powerful. Like Wirecutter’s recommendation is something that is really meaningful to millions of people and can absolutely be a big deal for a product to be chosen as a Wirecutter pick.

“The way that we make these [product] picks is strictly and entirely through our editorially independent and journalistically rigorous process.”

The way that we make these picks is strictly and entirely through or editorially independent and journalistically rigorous process. But I understand that lots of companies would love to have their products reviewed by Wirecutter. That said, I will gladly take you through my inbox. This may be slightly disappointing. I am an inbox zero sort of person. So I treat my inbox almost as a to-do list, where if there are emails sitting in my inbox that I haven’t dealt with, it like stresses me out a little bit. So I have vanishingly few things in here, but let me open it up, and I should say too –

 

His Thoughts on Pitches

 

 

 

[00:04:13] BB: Wow, wow. That is incredible. Okay. So with the pitches now, do you ever have something you respond back to, you refer back to six months later, something like that?

[00:04:27] BF: Yeah. I would say, look, 99% of the pitches, probably more than that that arrive in my inbox, I delete or archive with barely a second spent on the subject line. I can tell almost immediately if the pitch is bad and if it’s not going to land, if it’s not offering something of value to Wirecutter and our readers. It takes me longer to see if there’s potentially value there. But so, so many of them I can dismiss almost out of hand. 

Good pitches I will return to if there was a product that was kind of interesting but wasn’t the right time or didn’t make sense for us at the time, but I might read it later. But usually, I’ll deal with something the moment that it arrives and either read it and archive or delete it, once in a while reply, glance at the subject line, delete it. Or in rare cases where it is really excellent pitch, I’ll follow up with one of our journalists to see if they have this product on their radar, if they want me to make the connection for them, etc.

“But usually, I’ll deal with something the moment that it arrives and either read it and archive or delete it, once in a while reply, glance at the subject line, delete it.”

But I will say just looking at my inbox, Beck, I have four emails in my work inbox, and one of them is a Google Doc replies to edits I had just made on a story prior to recording this podcast. Another is about subscriber engagement numbers. Another is a pitch email, which I am planning on responding to because I do appreciate the simplicity and straightforwardness and thoughtfulness of this pitch email. The last is a budgeting email from our director of finance.

[00:05:44] BB: Okay. Now, because you’re the editor in chief, and this differs sometimes with reporters versus “journalists,” do you forward along pitches as well? Can you go a little bit more into that?

[00:05:55] BF: Yeah, absolutely. In the rare case of a truly good and reader-serving pitch, I will sometimes follow up myself. If it is a general PR introduction, if it’s something I’m frankly just curious about, if it’s an area of coverage that perhaps we’re not in, but I might be interested in learning a little bit more about it, I will follow up myself. If it’s a product category or an area of coverage that we’re already in, and again in the rare case where it’s a really great pitch that seems intriguing, I will typically follow up with the reporter or the editor on our staff who covers this and honestly just pass it along to them in some cases and say, “Do with this what you will. I just wanted to pass it along to you.”

“Far too many pitches to me come from the perspective of like what the company is excited about or what they think the appetite of a breathless or gleeful recipient, rather than the much more simple and straightforward thing of how is this going to make somebody’s life better.” 

In other cases, I might ask a more pointed question like, “This seems kind of interesting. Is this worth us including in a scout report and consider reviewing in the future? Is this something we’ve dismissed in the past and why?” But again, those really, even that level of inquiry and passing it along, are the exceptions rather than the rule.

 

 

 

How the Team at Wirecutter Vets Products

[00:12:42] BB: Okay. Ben, when you consider a laptop holder, a bounce house, you wrote an article once on that, how do you come up with the idea of that story that you want to do? Because as you mentioned in an earlier, when we were doing our video segments, or actually I don’t even think we put this on the recording necessarily, you’re not like showing up at a warehouse being like, “Which 300 products do I want to touch and play with today?” Like you only get and receive stuff that you say, “Yes, please send me.” So do stories in any way, shape, or form, evolve organically in your mind during your meetings, and then you sell us out the products? Or is it more reactive?

[00:13:59] BF: The Wirecutter-specific answer I will say is that when we are trying to decide what product categories to cover beyond what we already cover, and it is worth saying that we have something like 1,500 product reviews that we are constantly revising, maintaining, testing new products for, reassessing the long-term viability of our existing picks, like it is very much like a year-round garden that needs constant tending, rather than like a flower stamp selling fresh cut bouquets that wilt and die four days after you buy them. We are caretakers in a way who are constantly pressing ourselves to make our catalogue of existing work as excellent as it can be.

But, of course, we do plenty of new things too, and these ideas come in any number of ways. It is usually, honestly, a mix of quantitative kind of analysis and data, as well as our own journalistic judgment. So we have all sorts of tools where we can try to identify what people are interested in right now, what people are hoping to learn about right now. We look at search volume. We look at various social metrics, trying to understand like what are emerging categories that people might be interested in.

“Some of it, though, is also just our own journalistic judgment. All of this data can tell you what people are looking for today, what they’re interested in today. But it can’t tell you what they may need a year from now or what things that they don’t need to know about might be of interest to them.” 

This can be not necessarily new categories. It can be changes to the way we live that change what people prioritize or what products are important to them. As one light-hearted example I will tell you, in March 2020, during the great toilet paper shortage, in the early days of the pandemic, traffic to Wirecutter’s guide to the best bidets spiked by 5,000% because people were looking for alternatives. We have all kinds of ways of trying to look at what matters to millions of shoppers. What are they looking into? 

Some of it, though, is also just our own journalistic judgment. All of this data can tell you what people are looking for today, what they’re interested in today. But it can’t tell you what they may need a year from now or what things that they don’t need to know about might be of interest to them. But once we know that we’re covering something, whether it’s a bounce house or metal detectors or a laptop stand or any number of things, our journalists do what’s called a scout report, which is like a reporting and research project that usually takes a few days, where they assess the entire product category. Who are the big players? What are the bestselling models? What makes a good one of these?

 

 

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Learn more pitch tips and insights from previous guests on Coffee with a Journalist in our journalist spotlight videos available for free on YouTube.

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Jered is the co-founder, COO and support manager at OnePitch. He handles operations for OnePitch; along with strategy, support, business development and hiring. He studied Communications with an emphasis in marketing at Cal State University Long Beach. In his free time, he enjoys surfing, eating cheap street food, cooking, and exploring the outdoors.

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