This episode of Coffee with a Journalist is joined by Heather Somerville of The Wall…
During this episode of Coffee with a Journalist, host, Beck Bamberger, talks with Bryan Walsh of Axios. At Axios, Bryan serves as the Future Correspondent covering emerging tech and trends impacting work, geopolitics, warfare, and more. Listen in as Bryan discusses his move from a 20-year career at TIME to Axios, his oddly relevant book, End Times, and where he sees the future of the world and journalism heading.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: Bryan, we want to, of course, dive into your inbox. Now, you’ve been in Axios since February of 2020. So it’s not like you’ve been on that beat for a long time, like you were at Time, but how crazy is your inbox with pitches?
Bryan Walsh: It’s pretty crazy, I’d say. I mean, what I do is look at emerging tech, big emerging trends, and that means a lot of startups. I mean a lot of companies that are in this kind of space, whether it’s AI, whether it’s biotechnology, automation, what have, telehealth, a lot of companies are doing a lot of things, which means a lot of people reaching out to me with ideas, with CEOs who want to talk, announcements, things like that.
So every day is kind of an element of triage to try to figure out, okay, who can I respond to? Who would I want to respond to? What am I working on where this might piece into that later?”
So I do a newsletter twice a week and you add that up, that’s like eight or nine pieces altogether between those two. So that’s a lot of people I need to talk to. So I’m often open to speaking to people, even if I don’t automatically have something in mind, because I know it could be something that could then be stored for later. You use it to add to a trend or so forth because you always need… Three makes a trend, so you always need to get that third person as well.
BB: Exactly. Do you cleanse your inbox in any way, shape, or form or do you let it ride? Do you save things in a folder of any sort, pitch-wise?
BW: I’m a pretty bad organizer when it comes to email. I depend on search. Maybe I’ll star things, favorite things. I often move things into like an Evernote file. So I’ll do that if it’s something I can put them in and slot them in the subject areas. But I have to admit especially since I joined Axios, the size of that inbox has just been growing and growing. I’ll spend a day writing a piece, writing the newsletter and that means things sort of pile up during that time.
BW: So one of my new year’s resolutions is to try to get a little bit more efficient, a little bit better at figuring out how I can put all this in my fingertips and not get so much anxiety when I look at the number on the Gmail app on my iPhone.
His Thoughts on Pitches
BB: Let us know if you figure that out. I mean every other journalist on here would want to know your secrets because no one’s solved it yet. Oh, man. Now, do you respond to pitches?
BW: I do. I do not respond to every pitch.
BB: That’s impossible, I imagine.
BW: Yeah. I mean I pick and choose based off what sounds interesting. What happens to dovetail with what I was thinking about writing that week? Because I work in a fairly short turnaround. I’ll sometimes have things working for longer periods of time, but in reality, when you’re doing this twice a week, that’s amounts to almost like 4,000 words. You need to just sort of like, “Okay, what am I doing?” Making sure there’s something in the newsletter every two or three days. And so I sort of do focus on like, “Okay, I have a sense that there’s something in the news or there’s something that’s been piquing my interest or I want to just know about the pandemic or I want to do something about AI.
Okay. Then I take a look and see who’s… As part of among other things, when it comes to pitches, like okay, who’s been reaching out around different sectors and then sort of select the ones I think we’ll use or work for that. As well it’s just sometimes things that sound interesting or I think could be useful down the line.
It’s always great to have those introductory conversations because then that can lead both to maybe a story or even just someone that you can then sort of call on later on when you’re looking for some support within a piece or a sort of a gut check or what have you.”
How He Writes Stories
BB: So given the array of the stories you do cover because it is about the future, which is all-encompassing, you just did, for example, a piece on the end of hopefully mosquitoes, a biotech company, then you did a review of a book called The Ministry for the Future. So like wide range. And then of course the newsletter that you have. How do you come up with the story to do, given how vast your beat is?
BW: Yeah. Sometimes I have sort of things in mind that I just need to hit, I need to update. So there might be something where bigger, broader, such as like where is synthetic biology right now. Just kind of a subset of a biotech that involves synthesizing DNA, coming up with cool new products. The thing you mentioned about the mosquito actually is a synthetic biology company. So they will actually figure out a way to create a new repellent that actually works with the bacteria in your skin and so forth.
BW: So sometimes it’s that. Sometimes I’m looking something off the news because the pandemic had really overtaken so much of what I and everyone else writes about. So if there’s something happening in the news around the vaccine gets approved, okay, well that suddenly has generated interest in how these new kinds of vaccines are going to be made in the future.
BW: Have we reached a new threshold? A new turning point around how fast we can do this, then I will want to do almost a news-driven story around that and look to see who can be talked to or who’s working in that space. And then other times it’s just things that strike my fancy or stuff that I have a particular interest in.
Like in part, because of the book, I’m very interested in big, potentially dangerous technological catastrophes. Or those working in that space.”
BW: So are you working in the space of one engineer’s germs and how that could go wrong or how to secure that. Or are you working in AI ethics and the question of how we better use those kinds of technologies? So things like that. So it’s like half and half news-driven. Me less so than a lot of my colleagues at Axios who were doing business, doing politics. That’s a very news-driven cycle. I had the luxury and also sometimes the burden because I have to generate myself of trying to just all right, pick a trend out of the general stream that is the future and decide, okay, what do I want to write about this moment, knowing that there’s going to be another one in two or three days?
BB: Yeah. That’s a lot to keep up with.
BW: Yeah, it is.
Bryan’s right. The issues around COVID-19 and climate change are far from over. That’s why it’s important to look to our leaders tackling those challenges head-on. Check out our blog, 5 Voices to Amplify: Leaders Tackling 2021, to learn more about key leaders combatting the issues around the pandemic, social justice, and more.