Today, on Coffee with a Journalist, we sit down with Erika Wheless of Digiday. At…
This episode of Coffee with a Journalist is joined by Heather Somerville of The Wall Street Journal. At The Wall Street Journal, Heather works as a technology reporter covering tech financing, startups, and venture capital. Listen in as she talks with host, Beck Bamberger, about managing pitches in her inbox, crafting a great story, and the future of journalism and traditional journalism institutions.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: We’re excited to have you. Let’s start, Heather, with what we always like to start with, which is the inbox. How crazy is your inbox?
Heather Somerville: It’s pretty full. It’s pretty jammed yesterday, so I’ve got to go back a day to take care of emails that I didn’t respond to that are a day old, which is never a good place to start.
BB: Never good.
HS: It’s pretty full of PR pitches that I probably won’t get to. Lots of tech newsletters that I will hopefully have time to read, but unlikely to get to today. Probably a lot of industry and analysis and reports that I will also bookmark and hopefully read sooner rather than later.
BB: Got you. What’s your inbox cleaning system, if there is a system, or you just let it roll? Are you one of those people that let it roll? Or you delete voraciously, like every pitch that comes in?
HS: Probably somewhere in the middle. I try to make sure things are tidy before I go to bed at the end of the day.
BB: Oh, that’s good.
HS: Some days are more successful than others.
BB: Oh, got you. Okay. Then for pitches that get your attention, because you are inundated with them, what makes you open a pitch, if ever?
HS: I do open most of them.
BB: Really? You’re in a rare bunch. You’re in a rare bunch.
HS: I respond to a miniscule percentage of them. I say, if there’s some relationship with the individual who’s making the pitch, I will certainly open it and respond to it, for no other reason than to maintain that relationship, acknowledge that person’s time and effort. That’s just simply not how we get our best stories. They don’t tend to come through pitches, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time engaging with them.
Often, a pitch for a coffee with someone in the old days, or now it’d be a Zoom call these days, and to get to know someone else in the field, someone who may have something to say that’s interesting about a topic that I’m reporting on. I’m very happy to make time for those sorts of things.
BB: Okay. Is it, if someone wants to be in that elite group of the few that get the response, what would you say are a couple of those elements? Is it, “Hey, I’ve got a source”? What would you say, gets you that response? Because again, you can’t have the coffee as you’re saying.
HS: I think emails that very clearly show that the person making the pitch has actually read my work and knows what I do is a good place to start. A suggestion for a person to connect with who knows something about a story that I’ve written, or an area that I’m really interested in and can add value to that reporting:
The people who are able to dial right into that very quickly and very succinctly with few words, those are the types of pitches that I’ll engage with and often respond to.”
The ones that are just like, “I have to have a great story for you.” Well, that’s again, that’s not how good journalist is generally done. Those would probably be passed over.
How She Writes Stories
BB: Yes. Got you. Okay, that gives us some good insight. Speaking of the stories you do, so you cover technology, financing, venture capital, startups, which is pretty broad. A lot of times, you’ve covered the big ones, like the Ubers and Lyfts and Airbnbs of the world and so forth. What is it that helps you come up with the story you want to do? Now, sometimes when we ask people, they’re like, “Well, it’s what my editor has to do.” Or it’s a breaking news thing, which is totally that. Is it ever you’re on a walk, you’re taking a shower, and you’re like, “You know what I haven’t done before?” Or do you ever see a pitch that you’re like, “That reminds me of four other pitches I saw earlier in the week. Let me look at that.” What would you say?
HS: Yeah, I don’t know that they come to me in the shower, or out for a walk necessarily.
I would say, it’s really a combination of things that I feel passionate about, as well as things that are the topic of conversation at the moment. They are somethings that are on my beat, entrepreneurs are talking about, investors are talking about, regulators interested in regulating tech are talking about.”
BB: Which is a bidding topic right now, for sure.
HS: Yeah. It’s an area where there’s overlap between something I feel strongly is a public service to unpack and explain and deliver to readers, as well as is the buzzy topic of the day in circles, where people are looking very closely at technology and its implications to the world.
BB: We have an audience ask here. This is coming from Michelle Kafka from the Kafka Media Group. She is asking, “How do you feel about embargoes on announcements and what’s your ideal timeline for receiving an embargo pitch?”
HS: I’m not crazy about them, just because in general, I don’t like to be on someone else’s timeline. That being said, they’re part of the course these days. They’re very common.
I would just say in terms of preferred timing, just giving the reporter enough time to do their work properly, so that would depend, of course, on the meat of the announcement.”
I would say, there are announcements in less than an hour that’s probably not great.
BB: Not good. Yeah, not good.
HS: I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule on that.
Though not many stories come directly from pitches, Heather understands the unique role PR professionals play in building connections between journalists and sources. Learn more about this distinctive relationship in our article, The Three Main Objectives of Media Relations.
For more great conversations every week with top-tier journalists like Heather, be sure to subscribe to the Coffee with a Journalist podcast and follow us on Twitter to stay updated on our latest blogs, tools, and resources for all things PR.