This episode of Coffee with a Journalist is joined by Heather Somerville of The Wall…
On this episode of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, host, Beck Bamberger, is joined by David Carnoy, executive editor at CNET. In his role, David covers tech, gadgets, and e-publishing. During their conversation, David dives into the stories he and his team look for, the importance of a good editor, and the future of “churnalism”.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: Well, speaking of fresh, is there anything going on that is decent in your inbox in terms of pitches? Do you get a bunch?
David Carnoy: I get a lot and we’re obviously facing CES, the virtual CES in about a week. I’m getting a ton of those pitches. I also get a lot of pitches from Chinese companies, which can be a little challenging too.
BB: Ooh. How do those pitches look?
DC: The funny part is they always for some reason, it’s lost in translation or something. They will say, “Can we make a collaboration?” I don’t do collaborations. You send me this stuff and I decide whether to do something on it. It’s a little weird. I just try to point that out to people, where I’m not doing –
DC: Collaboration. Yes.
DC: We try to keep things on one side of the wall.
BB: Given the type of stuff that you cover, which is on products, specifically; of course, all tech products, do you get a bunch of stuff? How are you doing this in COVID, to touch and feel and do everything?
DC: My wife is going to kill me if I get any more stuff in, so I try to limit it. It’s more challenging to send things back. At the office, we do have a guy who helps out with that. That becomes more me. The companies are pretty good about it, including labels and stuff like that.
BB: Return labels.
DC: All in all, I’m just trying to be a little bit more selective in terms of what I get in. We were actually bought recently by Red Ventures. We have not been back in the office since March. We actually have to move out of the office, so I have to figure out how to get some stuff out and send some stuff back. That’s the bigger logistical challenge right now.
BB: You’ve just passed 20 years. Is that right, at CNET?
DC: Yes. Unfortunately, in the middle of the pandemic. I didn’t get a lunch.
BB: Yeah, it was April 2020. 20 years. Wow, at CNET. We’ll talk a little bit more about that. Back to the inbox, do you have a way, a system of how you sort through pitches?
DC: No, not really. Honestly, I’m actually pretty good – relatively good about responding if it’s something that’s actually in my wheelhouse. Some editors let a lot of stuff go by and miss a lot of things. I had people who work for me who did that, which I was not happy about. I’m pretty quick at identifying stuff that could be interesting. I go from there. Then ask a few questions sometimes, to see maybe a price point, or sometimes the product isn’t necessarily available in the US. That could be an issue. We’re more geared towards facilitating commerce so that the thing is actually available for sale.
I don’t do as much rewriting press releases and saying a product has been announced. I’d rather have some hands-on with it and be able to say something about that.”
Say for instance, just before I got on with you, Bose came out with new open-ear earbuds.
DC: Yes. They sit on top of your ears, or sport earbuds. I quickly had to write that up. Certain higher-profile companies, we’re going to cover those releases, because they tend to do a lot of traffic and that certainly factors into our coverage. We also have a speed desk that does some quick announcements and stuff like that. That’s something they want to cover a short product announcement stuff. That does still happen, but that’s part of a little bit more – part of our news team.
How He Writes Stories
BB: David, we do talk on the show about making a great story and how that comes to be. Does it happen sometimes when you’re just on a walk with your dog and something strikes you, or you’re like, “Oh, I saw two things on Twitter and I got in a rabbit hole and then I got this investigative piece.” Or, “Oh, I actually got a really good pitch and I decided to go into this.” You’re a little bit different because you’re doing product, product, product, and quite an array of tech products. Is there though a way in which you think of, “Ah, I need to do a piece on this type of product”?
DC: Yeah. I think, sometimes I do some opinion pieces, might just have a column for a long time. I think in some ways, I am in many ways, a typical CNET reader. If I want something, or I’m interested in something, it tends to resonate with our readers. Questions about something, or I try to find an angle on a product, oftentimes we do five different articles on a hot product. They tend to be Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, the big companies, but everyone’s writing about those products. We try to come up with an angle that people are interested in. Sometimes you have to put yourself out on a limb a little bit.
BB: I’m thinking of you got to have a little bit of creativity in this, because you can’t just say, “Yeah, here’s a product. Here, I liked it. Here’s a product. Here I liked it,” because you come out, by the way, for people who know and are following any of your articles, I mean, you are prolific. You coming out within a month, dozens of pieces. I’m looking at your December. You had a busy December, for example.
DC: Honestly, a lot of the time, a lot of the articles are updates, sometimes with substantial updates.
We tend to this world of SEO, people looking for best products and that tends to be a fair amount of my focus. I’m more into evergreen content.”
I think, in terms of pitches, we’re looking for stuff that isn’t so much. We have our news team, that’s what they do. On our end, we’re looking for things that can live for a while, that can be updated, whether that’s some form of a guide, or especially around a product category.
Sometimes, people will pitch me on a product and I’m like, “Okay. That’s interesting, but I need to put it in context of three or four other products.” I’ll actually ask, “Hey, can you tell me what some of the competitors are?” In some ways, in terms of one tip would be, sometimes, you have to include your competitors to actually get a story done on your product. I know PR people don’t like to do that sometimes, but in some ways, you could be part of a larger piece. I do things for instance, like best places to buy online glasses. There are a gazillion places.
BB: Yeah, I saw that. Yeah.
DC: There are gazillion places that sell online. Some people pitch me, some people I reach out to, in terms of I think of the major players. I’ll say like, how are you different from your competitors? They’ll have to try to tell me, because these things are seen on the surface pretty similar. To get any context in terms of your, whatever market you’re in is helpful.
BB: How do you determine doing something, like on the one you did on Christmas? High-tech ski gear. Do you always do ski gear, for example? Or were you like, “You know what? I want to talk about ski.”
DC: I’d be doing that. Yeah. I mean, some of the things are personal passions. I ski. I started going to some – They have these events that are similar to tech events, but for the outdoor market. They were having some of those in New York, and so I noticed – CNET is branching into all kinds of areas, not necessarily just technical, doing mattresses, or all kinds of items.
BB: Oh, a little bit more consumer reports-ish, would you say?
DC: No. I mean, I think it’s just more, I would say, we necessarily get into such exhausted testing. The idea is just to get into more areas, where people are looking for buying advice and providing that.
BB: Let’s go back to the ski story. The ski piece came from a personal interest.
DC: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because over the years, I’ve done that for probably five or six years and I generally –
BB: That’s all the way back.
DC: Generally, updating the story and it’s based largely on SEO. CNET does really well, SEO. We can go into almost any category and rank pretty high pretty quickly. You could even take something that isn’t what you associate with CNET, like high-tech ski gear. All of a sudden –
BB: Pops up.
DC: I’ll get some PR people like, “Hey.” They notice that it’s ranked pretty high and suddenly they’re asking if their product could be featured.
BB: You’re on the list.
DC: Yeah, yeah. They’re surprised, because it’ll drive more traffic to their client than another story from Outside Magazine, or something that you would think would be a leader in the category. That, I think surprised a lot of people. It generally takes a little bit – I’m fairly well-versed in ski gear, but I’m not a hardcore. That isn’t my first and foremost thing I do. It takes a little while to gain the respect of the hard-core people.
His Thoughts on the Future of Journalism
BB: Gosh. Well, speaking of 20 years, now at CNET and that precedes and you had a couple other jobs before that, such as being an editor at Success Magazine, we always ask this, which is what do you think about the future of journalism?
DC: I do think, I had worked a long time ago for the Village Voice, an investigative reporter named Wayne Barrett. He wrote a book about Trump and happened to die. He would have been a great source. I think, investigative journalism, there’s a huge place for that. It’s obviously a vital part of the journalism world.
I think, what I do, I sometimes get to practice certain things that require investigations to try to get to the truth. Our news team tends to do more of that. I think, in our world, I also do some videos, so that was a big part of what we also do.
It’s about being prolific now and the best, whether it’s Maggie Haberman at the New York Times churning out one article after another on politics. Same is true for whatever field you’re in. If you’re in tech, you have to constantly be in front of readers and constantly being out there. That’s why I refer to it a little bit more as ‘churnalism,’ churning stuff out.”
Back in the day, when I used to work for magazines, you had to fit your words to a page. Now, there are fewer outlets that provide the training for younger people to become so-called seasoned journalists. I learned a lot from editors. Now, I think, people just learn on the job, so to speak, and crank it out. To a certain degree, unfortunately, I would say, you either got it or you don’t. You can learn things along the way. I have someone who edits me, who’s actually helpful, but you have to have a good editor and sometimes it’s questionable, whether how much stuff is getting edited.
Sometimes in our world, being first is very important. Getting the scoops and all that source up. Whether it’s your relationships. I think the writing, at least in what I do, certainly varies in terms of quality. That’s one of the things. We have some seasoned people on our news team who are very good and seasoned editors who can really massage things. We always joked about whether it was David Pogue or Walt Mossberg at the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, those guys had the benefit of having great editors. It always would be interesting to see their raw copy, because –
BB: Oh that tells the real truth of what was.
DC: I think, journalism is extremely important, especially in a world where the truth is in question. I was talking to a guy the other day. He’s like, “You don’t really know what the truth is anymore.” I was like, “You kind of do.”
BB: Yeah, you know what it is.
DC: Yeah. I think that’s fortunately, I think people, they filter their worlds through whatever media outlet.
BB: That’s a scary comment, by the way.
DC: I do think that maybe that’s the moral of the Trump story is, he was a perfectly reasonable guy and he was in fine with discourse and wasn’t arguing. The fact that he said, “you don’t know what the truth is anymore,” that’s I think the roughest aspect of these times is how mushy things have gotten and how people actually don’t really try to get at the truth and I wish would spend a little more time trying to do them. On both sides, I think –
BB: That’s the scariest phrase I’ve heard. Well, and it goes into so many things. If it’s like, okay, we can’t agree on this man was killed, let’s say, on this time at this place, at this thing, it’s like, wow. Oh, if we can’t agree, yeah, the planet’s hotter. Okay, we can’t agree on that. We got problems, I think. This goes into a whole other conversation.
DC: Unfortunately, it may end up coming down to courts, the arbitrators of the truth that –
BB: Yes, interesting.
DC: I don’t know what else is and maybe that’s not going to work either. I tell my kids, they’re holding an iPhone in their hand, that is however many times more powerful than computers 20 years ago, let alone from when I was a kid. They’re playing games. I said, “you have this world that you – you have access to all this knowledge”- and that’s the irony of everything is that everyone has access to all this knowledge.
BB: Yet, no one is necessarily smarter. Fascinating, isn’t it?
DC: The moving Idiocracy and all that stuff. I think it’s unfortunate that you have such a powerful thing in your hand that you can research anything. I’ll look at both sides. I follow both, some right-wing and left-wing people and stuff like that, just to see –
BB: You want both sides. Yeah.
DC: Yeah. I think, certainly in the tech world, the challenges are with speed, trying to be accurate. To give an example with the AirPods Max, I was one of the few people who got an early sample. I got it at around 12 noon on a Wednesday and I had to post a video at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, along with a story. I have to shoot my own video. In the pandemic, our video guys are not shooting. I’m not, so I’m competing with YouTubers who have their own space. I’m more of a writer – but I’m trying to say something valuable about the AirPods Max.
Everyone wants to know, is it really worth $550? How is it compared to Sony and Bose headphones? I said they had the best noise canceling. People were just irate with me. Meaning like, the Sony fans and – this is on YouTube. There are other people, you put yourself out on a limb to make a declaration like that. It took a lot of people several days. They’re like, “How can you do that after just a few hours of being with the headphones?” I’m like, “This is kind of what I do. I listen to a lot of headphones -“
BB: You’re an expert.
DC: I have to make a call. This was my call. Not always completely accurate and I’ll correct myself, but I think those are the challenges that speed with accuracy, and making sure you reach out and try to cover your bases.
BB: The churnalism as you were talking about.
DC: You can always make corrections and you can always add and update your story. It is helpful in terms of your angle, but that to me is at the center. The world is obviously moving so fast. You realize with newspapers like the New York Times, if you really know a subject, you realize that maybe they’re not as accurate as you think and they’re better with some subjects than others. I think, there’s no definitive source of if publications biased or not. These people are always attacking me on YouTube. “You’re an Apple fanboy. You’re a whatever.” I’m like, I think all these are huge corporations. I’m not a fan of any huge corporation.
If they make a good product, I’m going to say it’s a good product. If they do some things that are not good, I’ll say if they’re not good. I have Windows machines. I have Macs. I have Samsung products. I have Apple products and Android. I try to remain above the frame, just try to give people the best advice that I can. We really try to put things in context for people, to compare the products. In terms of the types of pitches, I think, where PR people can fall down a little bit is not being totally knowledgeable about the product.
BB: What they’re actually pitching.
DC: Yeah, it’s always interesting to see a company come out with a new product. You can see whether they’re trying to frame it from a marketing standpoint, or a PR standpoint. I often tell people, “Look, you can go with just two, maybe three things to really highlight.” Where it gets complicated is when a product is trying to do too many things at once and I have to explain what the product does and frame it for them.
BB: Yeah, not good.
DC: If I’m doing the job of either the marketing person, a PR person, that becomes a problem. Sometimes, I’ll do it. Sometimes it’s worth the effort. What will happen is you’ll see that internally, there’s been an argument over why maybe they didn’t include a feature, why they designed something a certain way. The product will be presented to me and I’ll say, “Well, why didn’t you do this, or why it wasn’t like this?” You’ll see, the person will be like, “I told you.” No, you could see almost like –
BB: Then, they take that back to their client like, “See.”
DC: No, no. They’ve already had the discussion and there are two factions. One faction, they get the feedback and they’re like, okay.
BB: Now you really are listening. Oh, man. We’ve had that before.
DC: I think, the best advice that I try to give PR people is to write a headline for it. Write the deck, the subhead, because that’s what we’re dealing with. As editors and writers, you’re thinking like, “What headline am I going to put on this story? How is it going to get attention? Why is it going to be worthwhile for me to – Why are readers going to jump on the story because I wrote a good headline for it?” Sometimes, that’s the biggest problem. Something is either a little bit too boring, or sometimes we’ll help a company out and I’ll put a great headline on it, but it’s something that they should almost come at you with at the beginning. If you have too many, you can’t have too many things in a headline. It has to be one headline.
Like David Carnoy’s story as a self-published author, many journalists have stories that are truly one for the books. From novels about today’s tech giants to real-world business stories so good that it’s hard to believe they aren’t fiction, see our list of 5 Books Written by Journalists. For more great conversations with awesome journalists like David, subscribe to our podcast. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter for more updates on our newest blog releases, PR resources, and more.