On episode 37 of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast, Erin Griffith, New York Times writer, joins host, Beck Bamberger, to talk about her role, processes, and outlooks on journalism. Erin is a San Francisco-based reporter covering tech startups and venture capital. During their conversation, Erin breaks down her role reporting for The New York Times, the types of stories she covers, and her mixed feelings for journalism’s future.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Thoughts on Pitches
Beck Bamberger: What makes you open the, let’s say, 10 out of a hundred that you’d see? Are you ever opening pitches? Are you ever looking at pitches? People like to know this part.
Erin Griffith: Yeah, not really. I mean…
BB: Honest answer.
EG: I definitely keep ones that seem interesting based on the subject, like if it’s a funding that has the amount in the subject or it’s a company that has the firm in the subject.
I mean, generally most funding announcements, I will archive sometimes without reading it but just to have it in my inbox so that way, if it happens that I’m writing a very specific story and I need, okay, I want to find some examples of start-ups that are doing X or Y, I can quickly search through my inbox and say, ‘Okay, at least I know how to get in touch with this company,’ so I’ll respond.”
Generally, it’s like the PR firm is no longer working with them and that strategy doesn’t really work that well.
I mean, I do keep the funding announcements around just to sort of have my finger on that. I don’t know what would make me open a pitch. If it just so happens that someone is pitching me on something that I happen to be working on. I mean, I often do more pulled back kind of trend stories that are not… They’re not going to be your funding announcement that has the headline of Company X raised y but a lot of times if I’m doing kind of a market story, I’m going to have four or five companies in that story talking about like, “Okay, it was really hard to raise our funding because of these macro trends that are happening,” or, “Oh my god, there’s so much money around, I had 10 investors coming at me, outbidding each other.” And so when I’m working on a story like that, and those pitches come in, I’m always thinking like, “Okay, would this company be willing? Will they fit into what I’m working on, and would they be willing to talk to me?” Not necessarily just about whatever is in their press release, but about certain aspects of their funding. So, I definitely keep those things around for that.
BB: And you file them or do you have a filing flag system of some sort?
EG: No. No.
BB: Wow, you just let it ride.
EG: A little bit. I mean, let’s see, I’m looking now at my filing system for my emails and, let’s see. Usually, it’s like if I’m working on a particular story. I have one for Airbnb, one for DoorDash. Those are my two main companies that I’m covering. I’ve just various other themes, like, well, I’m also covering the Epic and Apple suit. So, I’ve that. I’ve got themes around an IPO folder, a moral turpitude folder, a folder of recruiters because those are always good sources.
BB: Oh, recruiters. Oh, that’s a new one. I haven’t heard of that. Tech recruiters, people who are finding tech talent?
EG: Yeah. They often know when a company has to raise money because they’re hiring, and they know if there’s a bunch of layoffs, or if a bunch of high-profile people are starting to flee a start-up.
BB: I’ve never heard that someone, and we’ve talked to a lot of people on here, who have actually found recruiters to be of interest. Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe recruiters should start pitching you. Hmm.
EG: Well, then I doubt they want to be on the record.
BB: They probably don’t. They probably don’t. That’s right. Okay. Well, Erin, since you do write less now versus your previous places, where every day you were cranking out Term Sheet for Fortune, for instance. Thank goodness, that’s definitely changed.
How She Writes Stories
BB: How do you go about creating a story that’s maybe not news breaking but definitely takes some meat? So, for example, you’ve just broke this piece on All Raise, which is a women’s organization advocating for female representation in VCs, and they raised a chunk of change to get them now to this next level, all that stuff. I mean, does that come from a pitch? Does that come from you’re on a walk and you’re like, “You know what I’m going to do?” Where do stories come from?
EG: Yeah, that was just a straight news story that, yeah, that did come from a pitch. And that’s for sure more of an exception than the rule of what I normally do.
I put the categories of stories that I do into two buckets. One is enterprise where it’s my own idea, and I’ve done a bunch of reporting around it. And the other is news, and those are generally shorter, faster, and they wouldn’t run on the front of B1.”
And so those stories sometimes can come from pitches. It’s very rare. That happens to be the last story that I know that I’m talking to you but generally that is not the case.
For this instance, it’s because it’s an important cause and it’s an important work they’re doing, and it’s also important to point out that, despite all of the work that’s happening, the progress has still been really slow. And generally, the news side of things, it’s pretty much limited to the really big late-stage unicorn companies, the ones that are going public, and sometimes if they raise a really crazy round of funding, but that’s so common now that that’s not even super newsworthy either. So, that story was definitely more the exception.
BB: Got it. And then you’d probably say, so then the likelihood of a pitch actually coming into creating a story, significantly low.
EG: Yeah, especially if it’s about a specific company. Unless it’s, like I said, the two main companies that I’m covering now are DoorDash and Airbnb, and next year that’ll probably be expanded to include like Instacart or whatever the companies that are about to go… The ones that are just pre-IPO.”
Yeah. So, generally, if I’m going to do a story about an individual company, it’s pretty rare, and it’s usually because I’m so busy covering other stuff. I would like to do more of those kinds of companies. Like, the only one I can really think of that I did in the last two years is I did a profile of Brex, and I did a story about the funding of StockX, which was that sneaker stock exchange.
BB: Which is oddly popular to me in ways I don’t understand still. Yeah.
EG: Yeah, it’s so interesting. And both of those were kind of unusual in that, yeah, I generally am not doing those, but they kind of come from my own idea. The StockX one was a pitch, I believe, because of the funding. But it was one of those things where it was kind of wrapped into this interesting cultural phenomenon and my editors were super interested in it so it managed to actually get through.
BB: Long story short, there’s no great straight pathway and pitch probability low on that. So, there you go.
EG: Yeah, I mean, like I said, it’s more like if it fits into something broader that I’m working on, and a lot of times, especially if it’s a pitch from somebody that I have a relationship with, or I know, or I know the company, or I’ve met with the execs and I am interested in the company, I would like to write something about them, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, I’ll just kind of file that away and be like, “Oh, well, if, sometimes, I end up working on a story about remote work in the pandemic,” just to pick a super generic example or whatever, I’ll just keep that in mind. But yeah, it’s almost always much broader… We have a general audience and they don’t really need to know about every little start-up.
Her Thoughts on the Future of Journalism
BB: Okay. Lastly, almost lastly, Erin, here for what we have today, and I have to tell you answers have been very positive as of late, but you just answer how you wish, which is the future of journalism. What do you think?
EG: Yeah, I think I feel pretty anxious about it, to be honest. I think the sort of trust that has been eroded in recent years is really scary. It’s really crazy to think about the fact that our country has just separate news universes and you can’t even have conversations sometimes with people on an agreed shared set of facts. So, that really freaks me out.
EG: I’m encouraged by some of the trends that we’re seeing around people actually paying for the news because if you think back five years ago when we all were pivoting to video, and chasing ever-diminishing returns for advertising, and trying to pander to very unpredictable social media distribution feeds, that was not good. So, I think moving to a subscription world is better, although there are definitely drawbacks to that too around who gets access to quality information.
But I think retraining the world to pay for quality information is working in some respects and that’s encouraging. And the whole Substack move I think is super cool too. I worry about people getting newsletter fatigue, but I also, I read a bunch of them and I think it’s awesome, and I think it’s really cool that so many talented, smart people are making their own way too.”
So, I hope that that’s sustainable and continues to be a good outlet in the year when so many awesome journalists have unfortunately lost their jobs. I feel really mixed. It scares me that the local news and market is just completely just decimated. Those jobs are going away. They weren’t paying very well, to begin with. All that kind of stuff really does make me nervous. But I hope that new things grow.
For Erin, it is rare to build out a story from a pitch that is outside of her wheelhouse. For everything you need to know on crafting the most attractive and relevant pitch possible, check out our complete guide to pitching the media. In it, we break down everything you need to know, from the differences between a media pitch and a press release to the 5 key elements every media pitch should include.
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