Joining us this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Manasa Gogineni of VentureBeat. As…
The guest this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Jacob Bell of BioPharma Dive. As a senior reporter at BioPharma Dive, Jacob covers the FDA, big pharma, and drugmakers. On the episode, Jacob tells us about pitches that grab his attention and ones that completely miss the mark, his preference for sources using bullets, his hopefulness for the future of journalism, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
BB: Yes. That’s so true. Well, let’s talk a little bit about your inbox, Jacob. There is probably not too much drag race stuff going on there. But maybe you get, I don’t know, season updates via your personal or your work email. But do you get a lot of pitches in there?
JB: Yes. I’ll say that the last two weeks have actually been lighter than they have for the past 12 months. So, I’m not complaining. But it’s been pretty awful. The year before April, I would say.
BB: Tell us why, awful. Just bad pitches? Too many pitches?
JB: Just so many. The inbox is always crowded, and healthcare was already really having a moment leading into the pandemic, especially like biotech, and then the floodgates just really opened with Coronavirus. So now, anything in the lexicon of healthcare will end up in my inbox.
For example, today, not covering it, but I got one that was like, are millennials dealing with their stress well? And all I could physically respond with was like, “This one, no. Maybe other ones are, but not me.”
You can follow up with me if we’ve worked together before, and I didn’t respond to your first one, because I get so many emails a day that it’s very fair to think that I just like, saw yours, meant to respond and didn’t.
BB: Yeah. Okay, so now, here’s another question with your inbox. Do you do the mass delete? Do you like let the unread ride? Do you have the inbox of 47,000 unread emails? Or what?
JB: I’m a big zero unread at the end of the day.
JB: I have to otherwise it’s just, it’s a downhill trajectory for me. But what I will say is that, if I have a working relationship with someone, it’s unlikely that we’re going to write about it, but I know the kind of thing that person sends me. I’ll open up and read it. But beyond that, I get enough in a day where I kind of have to go off the subject line to a degree. That way, I am like a big like, check, check, check, delete, type of person. If they’re resistant, they’ll follow up three or four more times.
His Thoughts on Pitches
BB: Yeah. What makes you respond to a pitch?
JB: I think when the pitcher has done a decent amount of research. I wouldn’t expect them to know every single thing I’m covering and like, the most minute detail. But I’ve never written about medical devices for the most part, and I get so many medical device pitches all the time. Luckily, we have like a sister publication that does that. I just sort of like kick them over to them. I get so many all the time.
BB: I have to say, you have, according to this, your website, your author page, 1,188 articles. So, if it’s not clear what you write about, I don’t know what would help people.
When we talk about like clinical trial data, it can be pretty complicated. And so, I’m thinking about like, “Alright. Do I have time for this story? How long will it take me to really analyze what this company is saying they found?” So, it’s a little bit more of something to chew on for a while. I don’t always have the time.
Here Jacob shares more about follow ups to pitches he receives:
JB: I can respect the second one, because I understand everyone has their job to do and if they didn’t hear back from me, maybe it did get lost in the inbox. It’s definitely happened before. But after three or four, I’m kind of like, “I just don’t see it happening.” I just let them ride.
BB: Just let them ride. Yeah. What does get your attention in the subject line?
JB: I think, again, knowing the trends in the space and where your pitch fits in, or explaining to me why your pitch is different than the other ones. Because I think most people register that if you’re working with a startup that hits a milestone, there are many other startups who are also hitting that milestone right now. So, tell me why yours might be different. I’m willing to listen. But most of the time, I sort of give the heads up of, when we talk about drug companies, for example, everyone has data, and I get that this data might be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to your company. But every company has the data, that’s been the biggest and most important thing that’s ever happened to them.
Here Jacob shares more about sourcing for his stories:
BB: Let’s talk about the sourcing thing for a quick second, because this has come up in other discussions and stuff I have, and I’ve been emphasizing this, but I’d like your gut check on this. In terms of, hey, here’s who I have to speak with you about, you, the reporter. Do you like that like bulleted out in the pitch, like I got this person, this person, this person? How do you like publicists just tell you, “Hey, I have these people ready?” Is there any format you prefer?
I like it bulleted. It gets to the point.
JB: I would prefer it bulleted out just because you see it quicker. But that being said, you always have to be careful with the sources that are being offered up to you, because most times there is some level of like vested interest. It’s not the PR contact went out, found an expert that has no relation to like the company that they’re pitching, and is offering that person up, because that’s kind of what I would do anyway. So, it’s usually someone who has some sort of stake in it all, and then you have to weigh how valuable is what they are saying with maybe some level of conflict of interest, which doesn’t mean they can’t be in the story. It just means that if you’re offering up a doctor who consults with this company, I’m probably also going to find one that doesn’t.
How He Writes Stories
BB: Yeah. This is a complicated arena to cover, given that amount of time. I’m like, looking at some of your articles on just, you got to be up to speed with the FDA and what are they saying about an Alzheimer’s drug? And what about Pfizer and what it’s doing on its negative committee vote? I’m looking at one of your things. What are the five FDA approval decisions to watch in the second quarter? It’s research intensive. How do you then come up with the stories you’re going to do?
My favorite stories to write about are ones that show the human side of business and science.
JB: Sure. I think that there’s kind of the two routes that it goes down, most days. It’s either breaking news happens, and you cover it as like spot news, and then sometimes it might be meaty enough or complicated enough, where you say, “Let’s do like a second day thing where we break it down.” We break one component of it down into even more analysis.
The other version of that is like doing medium to long term pieces about something that is in one of the beats that I cover. That, it’s hard to explain what catches my eye, it largely just comes from covering it for a certain amount of time, where you just sort of know the weather of the room, what’s going on there and what is actually needle moving, and what is just kind of like an incremental update. So, it’s just kind of like – it’s hard to explain. It’s just kind of a feeling in the air that I should write about this. I should maybe put that one on the back burner until something substantial happens.
BB: Do you ever – well, I think I know the answer, but I will ask. Do you ever write stories from pitches?
JB: Much more in that daily spot news realm of things, I would say. There will be often people who will email me and say, “Hey, we have a startup launching or we have again, clinical data that’s coming up and we’d love to offer you it under embargo and like have a CEO interview to talk about what this new startup is doing.” In that way, I do those a decent amount. When it comes to like the more feature things, it’s harder because you have to dive into those pretty deeply, and usually whoever’s pitching it to you is pitching where a client fits into a trend that might not necessarily be like the most interesting trend right now, or we’re not saying anything new by writing about it again, to just sort of feature that client.
So, I would say that I definitely will write more stories based off of sort of spot news and pitches and who they’re able to put me in touch with for sourcing for those daily ones, then for big feature trends pieces.
The thing about data is like, this isn’t just we surveyed people, and here’s the responses. That’s data that I feel like you can look at and be like, “Alright. Are there stories we can pull from this?”
When it comes to pitches, Jacob likes bullet points for ease of reading, he wants to know WHY your pitch is different from the rest, and he almost always wants to know the human element related to it. For advice on pitching directly from journalists, read the latest OnePItch eBook, The State of PItching Volume 1, to learn what 50 other journalists think about pitches and how they like them crafted.
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