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In this episode of Season 2 of Coffee with a Journalist, host Beck Bamberger is joined by David Ingram from NBC News. David is a San Francisco-based tech reporter for NBC News who dives into how tech’s latest innovations are changing the world and our everyday lives. Beck sits down with David to talk about where he sees the future of journalism heading, how his stories come to life, and his views on covering the rapidly changing world of tech.
His Work Inbox
Beck: Actually, why don’t we just start with that? Can you tell us about how your inbox looks on a day to day? Tell us, if you want, at 6:00 AM, what does it look like? 6:00 PM, what does it look like? What does it look like on Sunday? Is it filled with pitches on Sunday?
David: It’s filled all the time. I try to manage it the best I can. Some days are better than others. Frankly, the number of pitches that I’ve gotten, and I think a lot of other tech reporters would say this, has really gotten out of hand for the amount of time we have, and where tech journalism is going.
I used to work for this editor who … He’s an excellent editor. This was back when I worked at the Charlotte Observer. He was a former White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He used to say that, “If it’s in a press release, it’s by definition not news.” Which, that is probably not what a lot of people want to hear, and I think that’s a little extreme, but …
Beck: A bit, but I get it. Because who else has that press release? Would be my question.
David: Exactly. So much of journalism now is getting away from the commoditized news, the same story everyone has. No one wants to write that story, and, frankly, no one wants to read or edit that story. I think, as journalists, we’re all increasingly looking for the original stories based on original reporting. Which, that’s the harder story to do for sure, but I think that’s where the past of journalism and the future of journalism is.
Beck: Is that via exclusives and via scoops that no one else is sending out, would you say?
David: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it. Those ideas can come internally or they can come externally, but, having exclusives, that’s one of the main things that reporters are looking for.
Beck: If you saw that in your inbox, the subject line “exclusive”, you’re more apt to open that than “Press-release … Tech release product”?
David: It’s hard for me to give advice about how to write that kind of thing, because I’ve never been in that side of the business. It is difficult for me to to say, “Here’s what you should do.” Going back to your original, question … I think I currently have, I’ll just say, scores of unread emails that I hope to get to-
Beck: More than a dozen?
David: More than a dozen.
Beck: More than a hundred?
David: Yeah. More than a hundred.
David: I hope to get that down to a more manageable number by the end of tonight.
Beck: Is that your routine, too, to get it to as close to zero as you can end of day? How do you manage that?
David: A lot of it is, you scroll your inbox and see, “Has my editor emailed me this morning? Is there another name that I recognize that has emailed me this morning?”
Email’s tough, because a lot of times I feel like, as a journalist, I could either do my work or I could read email. Email is not work. The email is what’s stopping you from doing work. For me, the work is interviewing people, researching a company, or researching a question I’m trying to solve for a story. Preparing for interviews, the actual writing of stories. Email is none of those things.
His Thoughts on Pitching
Beck: No, that’s fine. Have you ever had someone pitch you otherwise that’s been effective? Do you like to get DMs? Do you like to get a text message? Is there any other way, or is it still, it’s an email?
David: If I’m going to get a pitch, I’d prefer it by email.
Beck: That’s what everyone says, yeah. Keeps it contained. Contain the virus. It’s all there.
David: I wouldn’t say that, but … Twitter DMs or something, or LinkedIn messages, when I get those I’m thinking, “This is someone at a company who wants to go outside official channels and tell me something they’re not supposed to.” That is vastly more useful than most of the pitches I get.
Beck: That’s a signal for you of information that could be very ripe?
David: Yeah. When I open a Twitter DM and it’s just a pitch …
Beck: You’re pissed?
David: Kind of, yeah.
How He Writes Stories
Beck: Talk to us about how you actually come up, and create, and then publish a story. Because I think this is little talked about just with journalists, of, how do you actually write a story? Where does it start from?
Okay. You got a pitch, let’s say. You heard a little tip. What happens then? How long does this take? I know some investigative stories can be months and months in the works. What’s a typical one for you, and how long is that actually taking?
David: It’s hard to generalize, but … Because I also do, I think, all kinds of different kinds of stories.
Beck: You cover everything from Apple, social media, cars …
David: Yeah. Also I do breaking news stories, where something will happen. Let’s say the California attorney general is announcing a lawsuit. I was an old wire reporter, so I will get two to four paragraphs to my editor as quickly as possible, and we’ll get a story up, and then we’ll build it out over time. There’s a sort of breaking news drill to that.
There are longer investigations that take months and months. Then there are in-between stories, where you want to spend a couple of days, maybe a week or two, reporting, probably, that story. That you get an idea and then you want to move on it pretty quickly.
I don’t think there’s really a secret to it. You draw up a list of people you want to talk to, either specific people or categories. You draw up a list of … Actually, I’ve had the same routine since college.
Beck: Let’s break down this routine.
David: Since I was a reporter in college. This is probably a little embarrassing, but, actually-
Beck: Who cares? Let’s talk about it.
David: It worked for me back then, and it still works for me. I just write down a whole list of questions that I want to have answered by the end of my reporting.
Beck: Okay. You’re not done with the reporting until you got all those answers, right? More or less?
David: Yeah, more or less.
Beck: Then do you physically write down … Is this happening on a notebook, piece of paper? Or this is …
David: I usually use my laptop.
Beck: Okay. Then the names. Then you make a list also for that?
David: I make a list of the names, people I want to talk to.
Beck: Okay. You go down the list.
David: I go down the list.
Beck: Damn. Crossing them out?
David: It’s a little methodical, I guess.
Beck: Is it in order of importance, or is it just “these 10 people”, all these same, equal distance? Or is it, “Okay, I got to talk to one and two first before I get to number ten”?
David: It’s in the order of when they come to mind. As I’m brainstorming, either alone, or with a colleague, or with an editor, who do I want to talk to for a story? I will write down names of people in categories.
Beck: Then, how do you go after those people? Cyber-stalk them? Look and see?
David: Everyone talks to NBC News.
Beck: This is true. You pull that card? You hit them up and say, “Hey”?
David: I call them on their cell phone, and they …
Beck: You call them on their cell phone?
David: They speak to me immediately. No.
Beck: I was going to say. I was like, “Damn, this is good privacy information.”
David: It depends who it is. There are some people I speak to regularly who are regular sources that I can call or text.
Beck: How do you become a regular source on your list? Good, viable information, always delivered?
David: Yeah, that’s a good way. Things that other people don’t know. Things that they’re not supposed to tell me, but they do anyway.
Beck: Juicy. How many of those people do you have? Dozens?
David: No comment.
Beck: No comment. Okay. We don’t know who’s on the list of Dave’s. Okay. All right. You got your sluice, you got your people, and you dig up the rest.
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