Joining us this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Manasa Gogineni of VentureBeat. As…
This week on Coffee with a Journalist we’re joined by Ben Stegner of MakeUseOf. As a deputy editor at MakeUseOf, Ben oversees the Android, iOS, and Mac sections. He’s also the onboarding manager in charge of getting new writers up to speed on everything MakeUseOf. During the episode, Ben tells us more about his role and the many responsibilities he has, why he tends to delete all the pitches he receives, where he gets ideas for writing articles, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
BB: First though, tell us about your inbox. Is it crazy with pitches? How is it in there?
BS: Yeah. It’s not too crazy. Right now, my inbox is mostly comprised of responses from article, feedback from the authors, a couple of random pitches, like I have one from Detroit public TVs. I get a lot of newsletters and things that I didn’t remember signing up for. I think recently, someone has actually been using my email address to sign up for all kinds of weird services. I’ve gotten like Instagram, and Twitter like, “Hey! Someone signed up, here’s your code” or like someone signed me up for Pampers, Diaper Clubs. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in there.
“Not too many like PR pitches at the moment. I have a couple of things like companies I met at CES in previous years that have updates.”
BB: Oh no!
BS: That’s exciting I guess, but in terms of actual work stuff, yeah, feedback. Asana is the task management that we use, so I have notifications turned on for that. I get a lot of Asana updates from pitches and things like that. Not too many like PR pitches at the moment. I have a couple of things like companies I met at CES in previous years that have updates. As the onboarding manager, I review samples for new writers, so I have some new samples to look out from my colleagues. That’s mainly it. Yeah, most PR pitches, either I spam quickly because they’re just not applicable to me or if it looks like something we might cover, I forward them onto the appropriate teammate who would deal with that.
BB: Got you. At least, you’re one of the few that’s like the nice forward, you pass them along.
“I just kind of leave [everything] in a giant bundle, and then if I need something, I search for it.”
BS: Yeah. I was the sponsored post manager for the site for a little over a year, so I appreciate when people did that for me. So I try to keep in that mindset and think if I was still doing that, what would I want them to do, so just forward it along and let them deal with it and decide if it’s even worth dealing with really.
BB: Yes, so you’re doing the trafficking of the pitches. Now, do you do the inbox zero or do you file? What do you do?
BB: No. You know what? To be honest with you, I have never really followed inbox zero. I use Mailbird for windows as a mail client. We just Gmail, but I prefer desktop mail. If it’s spam, I spam it. I archive it if it’s, okay, I have acknowledged that and I archive it. But everything, I just kind of leave in a giant bundle, and then if I need something, I search for it. In the past, like when I first started at college and somewhere along the line when I started at MakeUseOf, I did set up some folders and I started using them, but I don’t know. I don’t refer back to emails usually often enough, that it makes sense for me to spend time sorting them into folders. I’m more of just a, search for it if I need it. But otherwise, I just kind of — I do have my inbox set to always show unread emails at the top. I use unread as kind of like, “You haven’t looked at this yet, you need to deal with this whenever.” It’s kind of like a task list in that way.
His Thoughts on Pitches
BB: It’s always interesting when we talk to editors, because then you’re kind of funneling things if you are so lovely to do so, so that’s good to hear. What should people be pitching you for, Ben?
BS: Well, in terms of actual PR pitches, MakeUseOf really doesn’t do too much with those. Because like I talked about earlier, we’re kind of like the tech side for people that don’t really know too much about the world of tech. Occasionally, the biggest one for pitches would be sponsored post. So if you have like a piece of software or sometimes even hardware, we have a workflow for that, that you think would make a good fit for our readers, I would send it on to the person that handles sponsored posts and we can work out the terms for that.
“Well, in terms of actual PR pitches, MakeUseOf really doesn’t do too much with those.”
But in terms of working with pitches, my more relevant workflow is working with authors for the sites that are pitching to us. I don’t do that quite as much now as a deputy editor, but I did it a lot in the past before we shook up our workflow last year. That’s more of the pitches that I deal with myself.
“If I’m not already familiar with it, I think about it, and then I teach myself about it and then I write about it.”
How He Writes Stories
Here Ben Shares about the focus on MakeUseOf’s coverage:
BB: Yes. First Ben, just for people who do not know, can you give us a little overview of MakeUseOf?
BS: Sure. MakeUseOf has been around since about 2006 or 2007. I would describe it as a tech website for the everyday person, so it’s for people that want to find a cool new app to use for some purpose or want to get help when something’s not going right with their computer. We’re not like an industry site or anything like that, we’re all about helping the average person fix their problem in a clear and succinct way. It’s kind of like when you ask your techy friend for help, and they give you an explanation, we want to kind of be that for people at large.
Here, Ben shares more about his coverage:
BB: You do a lot of how-tos by the way of your articles, like how to figure out this, how to fix that, which is like — yeah, the tech stuff you need.
BS: Yeah. Those are kind of my bread and butter. As a site, we do a lot of different stuff, like app, listicles, and we do buyer’s guides for hardware recommendations. Some of those, I don’t really find as natural to write. I think for me, I like how-tos and I like explainers. I like taking something that’s confusing and just laying it out in simple terms. I remember, this was like when I first started in 2014. At the time, there was a big controversy over new permissions for the Facebook messenger app. All these people were going crazy over it, it was like — people that weren’t tech writers were going on like Facebook live or whatever it was at the time and saying, “Look at these permissions and it wasn’t all accurate.
“As a site, we do a lot of different stuff, like app listicles, and we do buyer’s guides for hardware recommendations. Some of those, I don’t really find as natural to write. I think for me, I like how-tos and I like explainers. I like taking something that’s confusing and just laying it out in simple terms.”
I remember at that time, I’m like, “Let write this article.” I think one of my editors suggested it to me, explain how bad these permissions are, look at it from a level-headed perspective. I remember that article doing pretty well for the time, and I was excited because it was like, I’m taking something that’s there’s all these confusion about out there. Then if people find my article, they’ll know actually what’s up, so I love that type of article that just kind of dispels the confusion.
BB: Yeah. That must be rewarding. How nice. Ben, when you are thinking of a story you are going to write, like here’s one about Spotify Premium. Is it really good money? Is it not for your family? Should you spend it? Or maybe you’re doing like, you have another one on like how to fix air codes. How do you get the ideas for stories?
“I would just kind of think about, would someone see this and not know what it means or not know how to best set this option for their purposes.”
BS: Yes. I have a couple of different places I do it now. Early on, it was mostly pitching my own ideas as a new writer. Nowadays, I do a little bit of that, like if some of those ideas come from if I have a conversation with someone in real life and they have a problem with whatever with their computer. Sometimes that leads to an article. Sometimes there’s like an update for a piece of software that has some new annoyance or some new feature that’s not entirely clear at first, so I’ll pitch something to explain that better.
I also do a lot of article updates now. We have a big push now to update a lot of our content at the site, so I’m also regularly updating stuff. I’ve been at the site since 2014 like I said, so a lot of stuff I wrote in the past is, people still search for it but it’s really outdated so I do a lot of that. that Spotify one was actually an idea from the editor for our entertainment sections. Spotify recently raised its prices, and they raised all their prices in Europe and they raised just the price of family in the US. That was like a response to that, kind of like an offshoot of that, of people looking for maybe a better value after that price increase happened.
Although Ben isn’t actively writing about or responding to pitches that doesn’t mean he overlooks them or places them immediately in the trash. If you are considering pitching a journalist, take a look at these 50 pitching tips from our first guests on Season 2 of Coffee with a Journalist.
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