Are you looking for pitching insights directly from journalists? As a follow-up to the State…
Our guest this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Jane Thier of CFO Dive. As an associate editor at CFO Dive, Jane covers the news surrounding financial executives from major companies to politics and universities. During the episode, Jane tells us more about the various publications underneath Industry Dive, how often she is producing stories and what she includes in them, what she values in a pitch, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
BB: Nice. Tell us a bit about your inbox, how crazy is it in there?
JT: Well, I keep a zero inbox first of all.
BB: Oh, you’re zero. Okay.
JT: I go crazy if I don’t. I mean, even in my college inbox that I don’t use anymore, I can’t have something unread. It’s just — I’m very much easy to figure out from like data perspective, and that I see that little red ping that I have something unread, and I can’t rest until it’s gone. So they have me locked and loaded. Inside my inbox, let me literally open it right now. Yeah, I have a lot of emails.
BB: How many is a lot?
JT: Since we started this call 14 minutes ago, I’ve only gotten three new emails, because the last thing I did before I got on the call was read all my unread emails. As I spent more time with my publication, my pitches have slowly but surely gotten more focused on what I write about. But I’ll tell you, I’m looking at this right now, it’s pretty clean because I delete things that I know I don’t need right away, so the pitches that I’m going to delete right away, this might not be best practices, but are the ones that don’t open with, “Hi, Jane.” Because I know they’re just sent out and they didn’t even try. I got one earlier today that just said, “Hi!” and then brackets like name here.
BB: Yep. Okay. You get to zero inbox. By the way, how often is that? Like every day you got to get to zero?
JT: Oh, I don’t let them. I mean, if I have like right now, I have my inbox open in another tab, and I see I have four emails. As soon as we’re finished with our conversation, they’re going right in the trash. I can’t have it not unread.
BB: You’re one of the vicious people. You’re like Ryan from Buzzfeed, who does like — he’s also a vicious — delete it, I got to get to zero. I got to get to zero.
JT: I won’t go so far as to say it’s a reflection of my style as a worker. I think it’s just more the aesthetic of I feel a little bit calmer approaching my day if I know there’s not. It’s kind of the equivalent of a stack of like mismatched files on the desk, like I just — even though, I wouldn’t say that it’s like a trait. I’m sure there are incredible journalists whose inboxes are a nightmare. I think it’s just like, this is an easy actionable thing I can do.
Her Thoughts on Pitches
JT: Yeah, it’s not great. It happens all the time. My method, I mean, it’s not foolproof because I’ll often get a really fantastic pitch, and I think it’s so personalized. Then later I find out, it’s been sent to our entire team, or the whole newsroom of my company. But there are a few PR reps who will consistently send me pitches that I don’t open, because they don’t at all align with my coverage. I’d look into just blocking those, so they don’t come into my inbox. But once in a while, they’ll clue me into something and they want it cover, so I keep them around. But generally, just addressing me by name is kind of my number one. I’ll much more likely to open if it’s like, “Hi, Jane!”
Pitch Jane with: “Hey, Jane! I saw you just covered this study last week, and then this study the week before. It’s so funny this dovetails so neatly with what X executive has been doing at this company and he could talk more about it.”
The most common pitch I get though, like what I’m most likely to find in my inbox is somebody attaching a press release to an email and they’re offering up their new CFO hire for an interview. They’re saying, “At this company, we’ve just got this new guy. Here’s where he came from and we would love it if you could future this on CFO Dive.” I get these constantly, and I probably follow up with between one and three, or one in four of them depending on the week. One rule of thumb that I maintain for my own coverage is that if I don’t get to interview the CFO themselves, I won’t run the piece. Because there’s nothing insightful to our readers about me just rewording a press release. So when I get that pitch from PR rep, my mandatory response is going to be, “This looks great. Thanks for sending this. I love to speak with this person in a phone call, or an email Q&A and ask them what they want to tell our readers directly.” If they’re not available, I will likely pass.”
I put together a piece where I was asking a bunch of different CFOs how ESG requirements fall under their control as opposed to HR’s control, or any public facing control.
BB: You just piece it, piece it, piece it. Okay. Now, back to the inbox. Do you ever use it and find people through it? Like a lot of journalists I speak to on this, specifically say, “I just use it as like, it’s my Rolodex nowadays.” I go and go, “Oh, is she. Let me put that in my search file.” “Oh, yeah. Those are those 10 people that spoke to me or sent me an email six months ago as a pitch that I dig up.” Do you every use your inbox like that?
JT: I definitely do. When I was really early in my role and I couldn’t quite get as many interviews, because people didn’t know about our publication, and we weren’t familiar with my work, we are much smaller than we are now. I had a lot of trouble getting people to talk to me, so I would find a few executives who had spoken to me in the past, and I would just keep going back to them for more and more and more. Because anytime something happened, I just wanted to be able to get someone to weigh in. Earlier in my career, I definitely relied on a few people who I just happen to have spoken to. I remember, like I would speak to executive search firms, or research firms and I would call their press contact and asked to be connected to a certain representative that I’ve spoken to before and I knew was really good at explaining things. Just because I was trying as best I could to form a network.
But pretty early on, probably six to eight months in, my manager recommended to me that I start sending LinkedIn connection requests after each successful interview. Now, LinkedIn has kind of supplanted my inbox as the definitive source of like, here’s who I can rely on because the people who are most active on LinkedIn and are sharing the research or anything else pertaining to their work, they are kind of putting themselves in front of me, so I can be reminded. “Oh, they were great/ I should ask them about this.”
How She Writes Stories
BB: Well, that was fun. For those who don’t know, let’s start with just CFO Dive. What’s on there? Tell us more.
JT: CFO Dive is a daily business newsletter under Industry Dive, our larger parent company, which is a B2B business journalism startup based here in Washington, DC. It has a bunch of daily newsletters that are directed at different industries. They’re all B2B focused. I’m on CFO Dive, which is based at finance leaders and the issues that they care about, but we also have a marketing dive, and a healthcare dive, and retail dive, and restaurant dive. We’re adding more all the time.
But I’m on the one that is particularly focused on executive turnover, and IPOs, business news of all kinds. I started there just after graduating college in summer of 2019, and yeah, I’ve been on the beat since then, and I’ve learned so much, and it’s really cool and really exciting and the company is fantastic.
JT: I think PR reps have started to figure out what I’ll respond to. But when I first started, I didn’t get many pitches at all, and I had to comb through the headlines each day to find what I was going to write about. Because as part of my daily newsletter, we go out Monday through Friday, 6:00 AM so I typically turn something around every day.
But now I’m lucky enough to be in a position where the stories for the most part come to me, and I can spend the rest of my research time considering longer-term stories.
At the beginning of the year, environmental, social and government standards, governance standards, ESG reporting has become a huge thing upon companies. Because people are demanding a lot more from their companies and the corporations that they support in terms of making clear what they believe and what they stand for ethical practices, diversity, commitments, fairness and equity, that kind of thing.
Here, Beck asks Jane a bit more about how she specifically sources and writes her stories:
BB: Jane, as you’re thinking about a story that you’re going to do, we like to think, we want to go into, well, how do you come about thinking about a great juicy story. Okay, of course, you do the CFO profiles, but you had recently like a Trump organization, bank records, subpoena thing. You had, CFO’s excited about SPACs piece, so it’s more shake shack CFO wants to be — somewhere like hard-hitting news versus more theoretical or trend pieces. Where do you come up with those stories?
The piece took just shy of two months from start to finish, and the hardest part was definitely cutting it down because our readers and me, myself as a writer don’t really know much about the intricacies of the endowment or higher ed spending generally, just because it’s really complex.
JT: This is something my manager and I have been working on a lot as I’ve been with the publication for longer, and longer is I’m trying to really form more of my own ideas. I think it can be very easy typically because this past year has really not come up short with news for businesses and things executives want to read, so I have to take it upon myself just because I’m getting a lot of pitches each day and I could ride on that forever. I need to still carve out time each afternoon or whenever to do some thinking and some forging for new or insightful ideas. If it comes down to a more creative story, or a great story, a story I’m really proud of.
I’ve recently wrote one a few weeks ago, I wrapped it up about higher education CFOs and how they’ve been really struggling this year to make their universities sustainable. I’ll walk you through little bit of how I got there. I think that’s a good piece to think about, because it’s fresh in my mind. I graduated college in 2019, so I made it into the workforce just before COVID hit. I was able to witness just how much the pandemic has really challenged colleges, both their administrators and their students. There’s another publication at Industry Dive that focuses, they’re called Higher Ed Dive. They look at universities exclusively. I was really fascinated by their coverage.
Throughout 2020, I covered comments from the CFO of Harvard, which if you do not know is the richest school in America by a landslide. Their CFO had told the Crimson, their newspaper about the school spending cuts and acknowledged the outrage and confusion among the student body about how money had been allocated. For context, Harvard has a $40 billion plus endowment and people were confused as to why they couldn’t just use all that money to ensure that none of their students or faculty were left in the lurch. This got me thinking, why is the CFO answerable to what must be a decision in someone else’s hands, and also, why can’t the endowment be drawn at a time like this. I had this idea in the back of my mind for a few months before I finally decided to investigate.
In early February, I started charting out a long research project, which we call a deep dive on CFO Dive. My guiding question was, how did university CFOs survive 2020? What decisions did they make? What was the most important thing to do? I gathered that ostensibly. Being university CFO was a lot harder than being the CFO of a private company, but I couldn’t really articulate how. My first move was getting the lay of the land, so I spoke with my colleague, Hallie, who is the senior editor at Higher Ed Dive about what an endowment really is, what it’s meant for, how much universities are allowed to use of it each year. I also spoke to a consultant at a consultancy geared just towards higher ed, and she referred me to a few college finance leaders. and she helped me shape my questions.
All said and done I had three 45-minute interviews with the CFOs of my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, as well as Denison University, and the University of Alabama. I asked each of these individuals about their early spending decisions, the decision-making process at school versus that of business, and how they spent their endowment and their CARES Act funds. The piece took just shy of two months from start to finish, and the hardest part was definitely cutting it down because our readers and me, myself as a writer don’t really know much about the intricacies of the endowment or higher ed spending generally, just because it’s really complex.
I had to constantly rework my intro with my editing team and my explanatory paragraph to ensure that I wasn’t overdoing the explanation, but was still giving proper context. The piece ran last month under the title, How University CFOs Survive the 2020 Pandemic? and I’m really proud of it.
BB: Nice. Okay. That’s a great example of — didn’t come from a pitch by the way. Took some deep digging, it’s also a deep dive and lots of interviews. Then you had to explain it, and contextualize and all that stuff. Do you ever get story ideas that are as lengthy as this from pitches?
JT: I wouldn’t say I get the actual story idea. I think it will often — when that’s happened, it’s been unintentional, like somebody will offer up an executive at their company or an executive they represent and say, “You can speak to this, this, this” and then I’ll have an idea of like, “I’ve been thinking about this lately.” Maybe I should write a bigger piece on this, and feature their voice.
BB: Okay, getting tips here. Okay. We do have an audience ask. This one comes from Bruna Barbosa from Clearlink. Bruna is asking, “What are one or two things that you commonly see missing from pitches that you wish you had?”
JT: You would be surprised how many pitches are so clearly copy and pasted from their — I don’t know where pitches originate, but the font will change when it likes say, “I think X will be a great fit at” and then they’ll put in CFO Dive, and it’s like three points font smaller or —
BB: Oh, no.
JT: Yeah. Or we think this coverage could be great. Like just the very obvious. I just say this because as a writer, I know that my copy is kind of a reflection of my own process and my own attention to detail. So when I see these, now there are certain names, when I get in my inbox, I will just delete right away because it’s clear this person has done no research at all about what we’re doing, so I might as well just focus on the pitches that have put time into and make me feel valued as a business partner. As, I know you’re busy, I’m busy, let’s see if we can do something here with my client. It’s like, of course, I am in no position to turn people away for silly reasons. But I would say over time, I’ve come to see there are certain names that pop up, and when they’re missing the basic like addressing my name or consistent typeface through the email, that I definitely don’t give them as much consideration as others.
For Jane, the simplest way to connect with her is to keep your pitch relevant to her beat, introduce the person or company you want to pitch her, and add one or two reasons how they fit into her subject matter. For more pitching tips 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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