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Coffee with a Journalist: Katharine Schwab, Fast Company

                   Coffee with a Journalist - Katharine Schwab, Fast Company
     

In episode 16 of Coffee with a Journalist, Fast Company’s Deputy Tech Editor Katharine Schwab joins host Beck Bamberger to discuss into her experience and work in journalism. Before her role as Deputy Editor, Katharine previously served Fast Company as an Associate Editor focusing on the intersection of technology, design, and culture. During their talk, Katharine and Beck delve into her transition from covering architecture and design to tech, her efforts to bring personal perspectives to large tech stories, her love for houseplants, and more!

Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:

Her Thoughts on Pitching

Beck: Yeah. So we always talk about inboxes on this particular show, because people want to know what does your inbox look like? So do you get a lot of pitches directly, or how does your inbox look?

Katharine: Yeah, I do get a lot of pitches, and I think it’s been kind of frustrating recently because I’ve also transitioned the topic that I cover. So I used to be a design reporter for Fast Company, and now I’ve transitioned kind of full time to covering tech, but a lot of people in my inbox have not tracked that transition so I still get a lot of pitches around architecture or kind of niche design stuff that is just not relevant to me anymore.

Beck: Why are they still pitching you that then?

Katharine: It’s really annoying.

Beck: I don’t understand.

Katharine: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people don’t do their research. It’s very clear.

Beck: It says deputy tech editor right on your Twitter, folks.

Katharine: Mm-hmm (affirmative), it does. Yeah. It’s very clear. It’s in my handle. I have people asking, and then I try to kind of let people know, hey, I don’t cover this anymore. Please reach out to our design reporters.

Beck: Don’t tell me their next question is, oh, well, what do you cover?

Katharine: Oh, it is. Oh, it is.

Beck: No!

Katharine: It is. It literally says in my email signature, deputy tech editor. It’s pretty obvious what I cover.

Beck: That’s awful.

Katharine: If they say that I just don’t respond. I’m like you can do your own research on that. I’m really easy to find on the internet.

Beck: Of course. Oh, God.

Katharine: Yeah. Pet peeve.

Her Work Inbox 

Beck: Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of pet peeves shared on this show here. Are you one of those inbox zero people? How do you fly through the pitches?

Katharine: Oh, no. Oh gosh, no,

Beck: Tell us more.

Katharine: I am not an inbox zero person. I try to have things read at least, but my inbox is quite a mess. I tend to have kind of everything that I’m working on or that is still active, whether it’s pitches I’m considering, or if I’m reporting something, all of those messages, of course, things I need to get back to, edits that are waiting, all of that stuff kind of sits in a big jumble in my inbox. Then I have all the unread messages. I try to go through maybe once a day, but I try to keep it just once a day, because otherwise it gets really overwhelming.

Beck: Oh yeah. Yeah. I would imagine. This is what every person we chat with too, has, which is just how do you deal with the deluge of just so many?

Katharine: Well, and if you get behind, it’s-

Beck: Then you get behind and then you get depressed, like you can handle it. But then on the extreme side, we’ve had a handful of people who are ninja-like inbox zero people.

Katharine: Really?

Beck: Within the hour. Oh, yeah. It’s fascinating.

Katharine: I am so impressed.

Beck: It’s fascinating. I don’t know how. I mean, it’s your full time job.

Katharine: Yeah. You could never get anything else done. At least I couldn’t, that’s for sure.

Beck: Yeah. Gosh. So what makes you open an email? Or let’s say, more specifically, a pitch? Is it all about the subject line? Is it you know the person? Is it, what?

Katharine: So I have a confession to make that I’m so bad with remembering people who are pitching me. Sometimes I get emails saying we worked together on this story once. They’re like, don’t you remember me? I feel so terrible about it. But it’s really the subject line. I mean, I think I do get a lot of just like spam, they’ve sent it to a thousand people, kind of pitches, and those are deleted pretty quick. I do try to respond and at least say this isn’t a fit or whatever, but-

Beck: You do? To all of those?

Katharine: No, no, no, no. Not to those. Not to the big scam ones.

Beck: Okay, okay.

Katharine: But if someone has taken the time to craft something and has clearly put some thought into it, I try to at least be respectful of their time and say either no thank you or ask a couple of questions or whatever it is. But yeah, the subject line definitely means a lot.

How She Writes Stories

Beck: Earlier, you said, Katharine, that you guys have a small team and you are funneling through, okay, what are we going to talk about? What are we going to publish? What stories are we going to do? How does that happen? Is it a daily meeting that occurs? And then what happens from there with the actual story? Can you walk us through that?

Katharine: Yeah. So it’s not really daily, because we’re a magazine, we’re sensitive to the news cycle, but we’re not tied to it, which is a really lovely freedom to have.

Beck: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katharine: We don’t have a daily meeting, but I think we are talking every day and kind of going through, oh, this looks interesting, oh, should we follow up on this? What could be a unique kind of more Fast Company angle on this bigger story? From there, often it’s kind of managing the capacity of my writers to make sure they’re not overwhelmed, because they all have so much going on all the time and often there’s things that would be great to cover and we just don’t have the capacity because we’re so tiny.

Beck: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Katharine: We’re really going kind of up against staffs that entirely cover tech, or big publications have dedicated reporters for each big tech company. I mean, we’re so far away from that. So we really have to be smart and try to choose in a savvy way what it makes sense to spend our time on. So we just can’t keep up with all the tech news that’s happening every day. It’s a constant struggle to figure out what stories make the most sense for us to be telling.

Beck: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You recently did a story on Pinterest, and I know you wanted to chat about that. So how did that story come to be? Tell us a bit more about it.

Katharine: Yeah. So in mid-June, two women who used to work at Pinterest, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Banks, both went public with allegations of discrimination and kind of talked a lot about their experiences working at Pinterest as black women. Kind of in response to Pinterest’s Black Lives Matter statement, they really wanted to call it out for how hypocritical it was based on how poorly they were treated at the company.

Katharine: So, I mean, everyone picked up this story. Every news outlet, every tech section of every news outlet covered this in some way, shape, or form. I originally reached out to them kind of with the idea of actually them publishing a first-person essay about their experiences. I try to do that often, because I think hearing directly from people whose lives have been impacted by technology, whether that’s through their work or kind of on a more personal level, that can be a really powerful way to tell a story that we don’t see as much. So that’s something that I personally feel invested in, in helping those stories be told.

Beck: Mm-hmm . You recently did a story on Pinterest, and I know you wanted to chat about that. So how did that story come to be? Tell us a bit more about it.

Katharine: Yeah. So in mid-June, two women who used to work at Pinterest, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Banks, both went public with allegations of discrimination and kind of talked a lot about their experiences working at Pinterest as black women. Kind of in response to Pinterest’s Black Lives Matter statement, they really wanted to call it out for how hypocritical it was based on how poorly they were treated at the company.

Katharine: So, I mean, everyone picked up this story. Every news outlet, every tech section of every news outlet covered this in some way, shape, or form. I originally reached out to them kind of with the idea of actually them publishing a first person essay about their experiences. I try to do that often, because I think hearing directly from people whose lives have been impacted by technology, whether that’s through their work or kind of on a more personal level, that can be a really powerful way to tell a story that we don’t see as much. So that’s something that I personally feel invested in, in helping those stories be told.

Katharine: So I originally reached out to them about that, and then it quickly became clear that that wasn’t really the right format for the story. So after a long interview with them, I kind of decided that I really wanted to focus on this practice of leveling, which is something that happens in tech. It’s kind of the fundamental way employees are structured at a tech company. They’re divided into levels.

Beck: I’ve never actually heard of it before until I was looking at your piece, to tell you the truth.

Katharine: Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely a tech specific thing. So I thought that because the story had already been told so much based on their tweets, their viral tweets, about this, I thought I could really kind of bring something new to the story by looking at the history of leveling and looking at how leveling has been used in tech generally in a discriminatory way.

Katharine: There is an ongoing Google lawsuit where essentially the main plaintiff was mis-leveled. She was brought in at a lower level. So I spoke to the employment lawyer for that case and he was able to provide some really crucial background to these women’s stories at Pinterest. In some ways it felt like a rare story because they gone public, they had both kind of done everything right, they filed discrimination complaints with the state of California. They had tried everything internally to get their levels corrected and were denied and were denied. So they were so brave in speaking about their experiences and really being the face of this. It was great to be able to bring some of that extra context that this is systemic, this is a systemic problem.

Beck: Oh yeah. Interesting with this piece, too, because the story was out there and yet you were then able to take it, use it in a different way, make it into something totally different, and then thinking it was going to be a first-person narrative, but then finding that that was not the best format. I mean, that just shows the evolution of the story that can happen.

Katharine: Yeah, it was kind of a wild ride. It was funny, after the story was published, one of the women reached out to me and said, do you remember when this was going to be a first-person essay? I’m so glad that wasn’t the form it ultimately took, because this was the right way to tell this story.

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We loved Katharine’s perspective on responding to every pitch that shows intention and effort. For more great insights into how journalists respond, check out our blog 4 Journalists on Responding to Their Inbox where journalists from The Wall Street Journal, CNN Underscored, TechCrunch, and Mashable dissect why and how they respond to pitches. 

To stay up to date on the latest episode releases, be sure to subscribe to the Coffee with a Journalist podcast where, each week, we sit down to talk with journalists from the world’s leading publications to gain insight into their storytelling processes, their predictions for the future of journalism, and everything in between!