If you are currently a journalist (or formerly practiced this noble profession) and are looking…
This week’s guest on Coffee with a Journalist is John Timmer of Ars Technica. As a senior science editor, John helps to inform readers about the science community’s latest research and analyses. Previously, he has done over a decade’s worth of research in genetics and developmental biology at places like Cornell Medical College and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
During the episode, John shares about his transition from academia into journalism, the science community’s system for pitching stories, why it’s not okay to follow up with him, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
[00:02:46] BB: Quite perfect. What is your inbox like on the daily?
[00:02:52] JT: My inbox the site of an ongoing war between my attention span and the public relations community really.
[00:03:00] BB: Yes. I love how you call it a community, yes. Perfect!
[00:03:05] JT: I’ve got a lot of responsibilities beyond writing. I edit, I manage freelancers, things like that. If I’m lucky, I write one story a day and I get somewhere on the order of 50 to 60 pitches most days.
“I told you about the number of pitches versus stories and the math means that if you get people on top of that circling back every time, then it just gets completely unmanageable.”
[00:03:27] BB: That’s a lot.
[00:03:27] JT: The math just doesn’t work out.
[00:05:24] BB: How do you organize those pitches? Are you a mass deleter? Inbox-zero person? Flag or color code system?
[00:05:31] JT: I am not a mass delete. I actually, but I’m not organizes. I’m somewhere in between the two. I will at least glance in everything that comes in, because I have gotten good information via pitches. I don’t just want to blindly through everything out. There’s a lot of places that will just email every single writer at Ars Technica. I get thing on areas that are part of the site, but I never have personally covered. Those, I’ve started to just mark it spam. I may eventually miss something good from them, but my inbox —
His Thoughts on Pitches
[00:06:13] BB: Yeah, it’s not coming to you. Okay. Question about that. That is a frequent and very bad practice, that people have mentioned before. Are you guys on Slack? Do you talk about this? Do you all kind of joke about like, “Oh, yeah! Did you see so and so send us all the same pitch?”? Is that like discussed or do you guys just know that it’s happening and secretly just ignore it?
[00:06:33] JT: It’s discussed when the pitch is off target for every single writer on site.
[00:06:40] BB: Oh gosh!
“Really, a quick summary in a paragraph up top is the most helpful for me, in terms of the body of the pitch. I need to make judgements very quickly because of the volume of things that I get through. So if I could just get a sense of what the pitch is about. That will help me to decide whether to read further or not.”
[00:06:40] JT: Yeah! You get these random things for a new TV show or a new album or something that we don’t really cover. We’ll laugh at that. But aside from that, it’s just a hazard of the business it seems.
[00:06:57] BB: Yeah, it does. Not a practice we want to embrace in any way. What would you say is — and we’re going to have a little fill in the blank here time in just a minute, but what would you say is your top tip to publicists?
[00:07:12] JT: Know who you’re pitching. If you look at the last, even just glance down the titles of less 20 articles I’ve written, you’ll have some sense what interest me, what I write about, what areas I cover. If you’re on target, you’re more likely to get a response even if it’s, “I’m too busy for this now.” But the ones that look interesting, I don’t throw away in case it’s a subject I come back to. I can always search my email. My memory is really bad about a lot of things, but it’s pretty good about things I’ve seen before. If I find something related of, and dig back and found out that I did have sources offered to me two years ago or something.
How He Writes Stories
[00:03:30] BB: With that, especially — okay, that’s a 1 to 60 ration, let’s say. How many of those pitches ever do convert? I mean, from the numerical sense, we can maybe tell but you’re not writing a story necessarily from a pitch 100%. How often are the stories converting from a pitch?
[00:03:49] JT: It’s even worst than it sounds. The science writing community, the structure around that is a little unusual in the journalism. And that a lot of what we write about are new studies that come out. There’s a whole system in place for handling that. That includes what are called press information officers at universities and research places. But also, the journalist that publish the studies, Science Nature, Developmental Biology, all these journals will give you access to papers before they’re published. They had press officers as well. That is sort of going on in parallel with the sort of traditional public relations emails that I’m’ getting. I sort of got a foot in both worlds, really.
[00:04:45] BB: I had never factor in or thought about the academia side of it and the PR that’s on that side.
“My favorite sources always…know they have something I’m interested in and that starts a conversation right there because we’ve got shared interest at that point.”
[00:04:52] JT: Yeah, the journalist has each week, noon on Wednesday, which just few hours ago, it means, Nature releases a bunch of papers. 2:00 PM on Thursday means it’s Science’s turn. These cycles are happening every week, and a lot of my story ideas come out of that. In terms of direct email pitches, the ratio is even lower than one story a day might indicate.
[00:14:20] BB: That’s nice. Yes. My favorite stories to write are —
[00:14:26] JT: Ones that there’s a long history. Science is a process and often, there’s progress decades earlier that comes to fruition later and it’s a human activity, so often there’s a buildup of people getting committed to a certain problem and things like that. When I find the stories that personally satisfy me most are the ones where the new results are like an afterthought and it’s mostly about how we got there and why it’s important for the time to go out there. To give you a specific example. The whole detection of gravitational waves, which won a Nobel Prize recently. The National Science Foundation, a government organization that’s pretty conservative with how it gives out its money, basically told these people, “We’re going to fund you to build something we know won’t work, so that you’ll know how to build something that will.” They committed to this for like a decade of millions of dollars of money to sort of build iteration, learn from it and then build the second one. That worked and got the Nobel Prize. That’s sort of history that really makes for a compelling story to me.
[00:15:50] BB: The problem with that though, with history, it moves so dang slow. You got to wait many, many years.
[00:15:53] JT: Well, that’s the advantage of being in the same job for 10, 15 years.
[00:08:31] BB: There you go. Okay. Well, we do have an audience ask, John. I’m going to tee it up for you. This comes from Jeffrey Lerman, who’s from Glencore and he says — this may be a long topic. “What is your view on how to restore faith in journalism?” Oh! That’s probably the most philosophical question we’ve ever gotten and I don’t know how much time you have, but what would you say?
[00:08:57] JT: Oh, man! That’s a tough one.
[00:09:00] BB: Jeffrey, that is a tough one, but what would you say? Now, obviously it’s a bias question to speak academically, because restore faith in journalism. Not assuming we need to, but go ahead.
[00:09:10] JT: Yeah. I would say we do need to. I’ll acknowledge the problem. Really, the thing that’s most essential there is for it to no longer be in the interest of people to denigrate journalism. If you couldn’t get mileage out of saying fake news, be it political, economic or whatever, then there’s no incentive to that. People will shape what they believe based on the societal groups they feel that they’re a member of. So if you have a political party or a professional organization or something like that that’s always saying the press is misrepresenting us. Then the people who identify as members of that group will adopt that.
There will always be a demand for something like that, so the question is, how do we stop this supply of people saying that the press is the problem here? That is the sort of generic way of putting it. How specifically to do that is way beyond my ability to offer suggestions.
[00:10:26] BB: Jeffrey, that’s probably a topic to discuss at length over a long dinner, perhaps. But I love — we’re getting some very interesting audience ask and I love it.
[00:10:35] JT: I think that’s more for wine with a journalist than coffee.
John is an anomaly in journalism in the sense that his writing focuses on very complex subjects and rarely does he write about companies. Make sure if you are planning to pitch him you craft a highly relevant and targeted pitch and don’t bother following up if he doesn’t respond to your initial email.
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