Our brand new guest this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Issie Lapowsky of Protocol. As a senior reporter at Protocol, Issie covers the intersectionality of technology, politics, and national affairs. Prior to joining Protocol, Issie was a senior writer for Wired, a contributor at CBS, and a reporter/staff writer for Inc. Magazine.
During today’s episode, Issie starts by sharing more about the uniqueness of Protocol’s coverage, who she gets the best stories and ideas from, how many follow ups are acceptable, and more. Let’s jump into the episode now!
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
BB: Okay. Issie, how is your inbox? How do you keep it organized?
IL: Oh my God! I don’t.
IL: I mean, yeah. I absolutely do not keep it organized. My inbox is a hot mess, and I am a mark-all-as-read person.
“On my best days, I will flag things for follow up to remind myself to go back to them later.”
BB: Me too.
IL: But that’s how I keep it not organized, but it’s sort of out of sight, out of mind. That’s how I get rid of the nasty notifications and just get on with my day. No, my inbox is not good. It’s not a model for anybody out there to emulate.
BB: There’s very few that are, I feel. I’ve had so many people be like they’re master leaders. Last week, I had a star system person, who like pink and red and all these types of stars. I was like, “Wow, that’s a pretty elaborate one.” Mass, just total put it in the delete, all the way. Like everyone has a different thing. Specifically for pitches, do you do any filing system of those or how do you handle pitches?
IL: On my best days, I will flag things for follow up to remind myself to go back to them later. Sometimes I will not remember to even check my flagged messages for like a month, and then that’s when I get — that’s when — your listeners out there probably get an email from me saying, “I’m so sorry for the delay, but is this still something we can work on together?” Yeah, so I don’t really have a filing system. I drive some of my tech reporter colleagues who are very into the productivity apps and whatnot. That’s because I organize things, like I Slack myself, my story, my different reminders and my to-d list.
IL: But it’s not like fancy Slack tool. It’s like literally, I just have a DM conversation myself, a very long one, where I go back and see some of the stuff that I wanted to remember, and like often not. Then yeah, I’m not very good about filing pitches away, but I do try to respond to them. As much as I mark all as read, I do try to skim all my inbox as these emails come in. If anything seems like remotely interesting, I try to follow up right away.
A big problem that I have is because I cover policy, I do have an inbox that fills up with just every press pool email from the White House. That’s the stuff that I miss most often, is because I’m so used to most of it being background noise that doesn’t really [inaudible 00:06:27] with my beath. Then every so often, there’s a call that’s about something very relevant to my beat, and I have to make sure to be on the lookout to catch those.
Her Thoughts on Pitches
BB: Yeah, exactly. Of course, as we know with pitching, there’s always an objective, which is like, “This is my client. Don’t you want to cover it?” So, yes, I hear you on that front. You’re speaking a little bit of like, “Okay. I get my story ideas from people and the conversations I’m having. Are you ever open to?” Because we get asked this a lot. Are you ever open to like, “Oh! Hey! I got someone that just might be of interest” or this person with this fancy title who like is a source, could be a resource. No pitch, no story to push. Just like, there are fancy title, someone person who used to be at the EPA that’s and on the committee of blah blah. Like is that interesting and compelling to you as an email or a pitch?
IL: Yeah. It definitely is, but it has to come in the right way. Like I have people pitch me just a generic person to talk to and I don’t know what I’m supposed talk to them about. If this person at the EPA has specific thoughts on such and such new rule that just came out or has some kind of insider knowledge that they feel I need to cover. Like give me some sense of what they want to talk about. It doesn’t have to be a fully-formed pitch, like, “Hey, a profile of my client who used to work at the EPA.” But just, what does this person know that I need to know.
IL: Generally, like I don’t know. I find that conversations where somebody just comes in and wants to talk about trends, I don’t go that for.
BB: We’ll have time for that, no.
IL: Yeah. It’s always, even if I don’t respond to that pitch right away and say, “Yes, I want to talk to this person out of the blue about like, “Who knows what?” and maybe it will go somewhere. Even though I don’t do that, I will return to it when I’m covering something that’s relevant. For instance, I just wrote a story about the SEC has this new program on giving away money for broadband access to low-income Americans or people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. I was interested in writing about not just the fact that the program existed, which a lot of news was covering at the time, but probably, the implementation was rolling out, like how it was building.
“A lot of good pitches can get buried somehow under that sort of avalanche of just generic reports coming out of the government.”
I just look back in my inbox and found a great pitch that included a number of activist and community organizers, and people who are actually working to get people signed up for this. There were like a number of sources for me in there that I immediately went back to, and they kind of stated their case for why they thought — what they thought the next steps needed to be now that the program was out there. Just because I didn’t respond to that pitch immediately, I did return —
How She Writes Stories
BB: Yep. Okay. When you are thinking and contemplating, and looking at your Slack channel to yourself for instance on what you might consider. I’m noticing just from your coverage, you covered everything from what Facebook is doing on Trump, or what Google is committing to ad tech or the Senate passes billions, all the stuff. Like that’s a big hot topic, I saw it got pass just recently. How do you think of doing a story? Does it hit you like, “Oh, I’m on my walk with my dog” or “I’m in the shower” or “I’m just looking at my Slack channel”? Is there any inspiration funnel for you?
“You’ll never get a response from me if you follow up too many times.”
IL: Yeah. I mean, it’s mostly talking to people. It’s mostly — that’s where I get my best stories, is talking to people who are in this line of work or studying it, or have some insider knowledge and I can report out a story that are telling me, hopefully for the first time. The best stories that I write and the best inspiration is when I’m just talking to people and they tell me something I don’t know, that I think that our readers don’t know. Then of course, there’s the new cycle. You mentioned the senate passed billions of dollars in the US Innovation and Competition Act. That is a multi-hundred-billion-dollar bill that is pouring money into science and technology. As a tech reporter, I have to cover that, so do all the other reports covering congress or politics in general the idea of some bipartisan progress happening in the country.
“Protocol is a tech publication we launched last year. We are by the publisher of Politico, but a completely separate brand. We cover the people, power and politics of tech, which is sort of our tag line, but I would say, we’re differentiated in that we are writing less so for a consumer audience and more so for a tech audience, of people who are working tech, regulating tech, studying tech.”
That’s just a big news story that affects my beat and then I need to cover. Sometimes it’s driven by the companies. Those are the times when Facebook has big announcement and they will pre-brief reporters or Facebook will make some change, and then I kind of have to synthesize that for our readers. Sometimes it’s the courts. I recently covered the Supreme Court decision on a big anti-hacking statute. Sometimes it is pitches. I do like to work with PR people who have a good sense of what I cover, and who have really useful sources for me to talk to. But I have to say, that pitches are I guess the hardest type of inspiration. Because as a reported and somebody who tries to do a lot of accountability reporting, I often am trying to find the stories that I’m not getting pitched on.
When it comes to pitching Issie, make sure your story is unique and don’t try to oversell your brand or client. If you don’t hear back from her either you can follow up but make sure you only send one email follow up or else you could end up in her spam folder.
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