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This week on Coffee with a Journalist we’re joined by Kendall Baker of Axios. As a sports editor, Kendall writes the daily Axios Sports newsletter and he covers the stats and stories driving the conversation. He is also the former Founder of Sports Internet which was acquired by Axios in 2019.
During the episode, Kendall shares about his love of playing and following sports, some of the ways he compiles the sports newsletter at Axios, why he appreciates personal notes from sources, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
[00:02:47] BB: Excellent. We like to talk about inboxes and how absurd they can get busy. But you’re an editor, so sometimes that is a little bit different with what’s going on in terms of pitches. How’s your inbox? What does it look like?
[00:03:02] KB: My inbox, I’ve always been super as organized as you kind of be as somebody who sends a newsletter from his email. Therefore, every reply — I have a ton of email coming in every day. It’s kind of over the years gotten harder and harder to manage, because I’m getting hundreds of replies from readers. I was getting a ton of pitches. It’s definitely become increasingly challenging kind of over time. I’ve had to adapt to that volume and kind of develop new ways to keep my system somewhat organized.
I do my best to keep things in what I would call swath. Reply from a reader is obviously much different than somebody pitching me, which is obviously also much different from a co-worker email me. I have filters as I can I have in there to kind of keep things visually for me to knock out.
[00:03:50] BB: Oh! So filters. I mean, people have very basic filters on the show, like a flag. That’s about it. Do you have some sophisticated filtering system?
[00:03:58] KB: Somewhat.
[00:03:59] BB: Okay. Tell us.
[00:04:00] KB: For instance, I mean, this is just kind of very specific to what I do, but I had mentioned, reader replies, the way I’m able to get those to all come into one place is basically a custom filter that has — the subject line is, RE: Axios Sports, which is the name of my newsletter. Any email that’s coming in that is someone replying to my newsletter is filtered. That’s kind of how I do that. Then the other ones are pretty simple. If it’s from axios.com email, it gets filtered in the team. Then I have kind of automated filters to kind of hopefully filter out important versus not important. We got a bunch of things working and it’s not perfect but it kind of gets what I need my attention on up the top of my view is great.
[00:04:44] BB: I have to say, it’s quite sophisticated out of all the boxes I heard on here, my goodness.
[00:04:49] KB: Yeah. Well, it’s necessary when your whole life essentially is email, you got to have some organization and realize — especially, as the newsletter continuous to grow, it becomes harder and harder. But I’ve always been very committed to replying to my readers, because I think it’s just such a great experience on their end to respond to a newsletter and then author gets back to you. Every time, people are like, “Oh my gosh! Thanks for replying.” I really try to make that a priority and if I didn’t have this, those would kind of get lost and I wouldn’t be able to maintain those relationships and that’s important to me.
His Thoughts on Pitches
[00:05:24] BB: So you’re one of the first people who’s ever mentioned responding to readers and actually getting an influx of readers who want to engage with you in some way, shape or form. Usually, it’s kind of a buried thing from a publicist like, “Oh! Loved your last article. Hey! Do you want to cover my client?” It’s like that type of compliment in some way, shape or form, which is not — what’s the percentage would you say of like reader engagement versus pitches versus all the other things happening.
[00:05:55] KB: I mean, pitches continue to grow. It’s getting there, but I’d say, I still get more reader replies each day than pitches.
“I would say my favorite source always have a personal note somewhere in there. When they’re contacting me, there’s some type of not strictly business.”
[00:06:01] BB: Really? That’s amazing.
[00:06:05] KB: Yeah. I get probably 50 to 100 a day.
[00:06:07] BB: Wow! Of readers?
“Your name pops up in their email from that day on, they’re like, “This is my friend. My friend is messaging me.” It doesn’t require that much effort. Like I said, it’s kind of fun from my perspective.”
[00:06:09] KB: Yeah.
[00:06:09] BB: Man, you’re popular, Kendall.
[00:06:12] KB: Well, listen. I mean, we have a half a million subscribers in sports, which is very casual and one of those things where people had very strong opinion. What I kind of love about it is, it’s a great kind of space for debate because in many ways, what you’re debating doesn’t really matter. [Inaudible 00:06:33] but when you’re debating, “Well, you said this is the thirds best player in the NBA and I actually know this guy.” It’s just kind of fun banter and I think it gives people a license to — I mean, I’ll get paragraphs on paragraphs of people just clearly just needed to get this out and this is now outlet — and all of a sudden, the person who writes the newsletter they read respond back to them and they’re like, “Great point.” It’s just a cool experience for them and it’s a cool experience for me too to hear from you.
How He Writes Stories
[00:09:05] BB: Oh man! Well, thank you for sharing that. So interesting. For your newsletter, by the way and there are many newsletters that now exist for journalists. Are you seeking pitches for that?
[00:09:14] KB: I don’t see pitches. I get lots of pitches.
“I also want to be looking forward. I also want to be connecting dots. I also want to be zooming out, all these kinds of verbs you can use to kind of bring a new perspective to the story.”
[00:09:17] BB: Sure, you do, yes.
[00:09:18] KB: But no, you don’t really seek any of them.
[00:09:20] BB: Yeah, I got you. For most newsletter, I would find that that’s not the case. Okay. For things that you are writing more in the long form, Kendall. So you just did an article for example on the Tokyo Olympics, you’ve done something about the NCAA model unraveling, you’re talking about the — you’re talking all this stuff. It is quite expansive the array of sports that you cover. Do you have a way in which you come up with the inspiration for these stories or are you typically reacting to the news that’s happening?
[00:09:53] KB: That’s a great question. I think my job is very much a balance of those two things and it’s something I’m very aware of, balancing those two things. Because it’s easy to fall into a trap of being to responsive and — I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but I don’t necessarily want to have a newsletter that’s basically every morning like, “Here’s what happened yesterday” and always kind of looking back. We’re always kind of just regurgitating information. I also want to be looking forward. I also want to be connecting dots. I also want to be zooming out, all these kinds of verbs you can use to kind of bring a new perspective to the story.
A lot of times, something that maybe, “I’m about to put in to like a round up. It’s like, “This happened yesterday. I stopped and realized, “Wait a second! That happened also, I remember from two weeks ago, this happened. Those are kind of related. How are they related?” Now all of a sudden, you had a more ever green bigger picture story that you maybe would have missed and would have just kind of shared a news nugget. Now all of a sudden, you have what we would call, a one big thing, kind of this deeper look. It really is a balance of the two and it’s kind of an art of figuring out, “Do we save this for something bigger or do we just kind of report that this happened?”
[00:11:02] BB: Do you ever have the times you’re doing your walk; you’re doing whatever you’re doing and you’re like, “Oh! Damn! I should do the story on that”?
[00:11:09] KB: Oh, of course, constantly. The cool thing about sports and I’m sure there’s plenty of journalist out there who are super involved with what they’re reporting. Two, but I think, there’s something about sports. I mean, when I’m off, I’m watching sports. On the weekends, I’m watching sports.
[00:11:25] BB: You are in it for life.
[00:11:26] KB: When I’m out with my friends, I’m talking sports. Yeah, the amount of inspiration is just kind of constant.
[00:11:33] BB: It’s your life, yeah. That’s cool.
[00:11:35] KB: Social media, like Sports Twitter for example is just a gold mine of content. If you follow the right people, you have the right feed there. You kind of scroll through on meme or like a random tweet or just kind of send you off into a rabbit hole and then you end up with a story idea. There’s just so much content being created around sports every day.
[00:11:55] BB: Does that blow your mind? I mean, how big the world of sport there are in any way, shape or form? Or you’re just like, “Wow!”
[00:12:03] KB: Oh, yeah! Well, I mean, an event in many ways, it’s a blessing for me because we, as you said, very expansive. We cover literally everything. I mean, most people who cover sports are covering a league, or a sport, maybe a couple of leagues. I cover everything, even read a section of the news, they’re called the Ultra, which is specifically for really weird sports. We intentionally get as far out there as we can. It’s great because I’ve been doing this for years and there’s not been a single day where it was like, “We don’t have enough.” It’s always, “We have too much.” That’s a better place to be when you have too much and you get to cut, versus like, “It’s the 11th hour and we do not have a top story. This is not good.” It’s always the opposite.
That, I’m just thankful for, that there is so much happening in sports all the time. One thing I’ve noticed are, news that are covered sports and sports business, which opens lots of sports business.
[00:13:00] BB: That’s a whole other thing.
[00:13:02] KB: It opens up a whole another — just the — the amount of things I’m choosing for me to write about is kind of endless and I love it.
Kendall’s favorite sources, which by the way message him quite frequently, always have a personal touch to their pitch and make sure it’s not strictly a business conversation. He also makes a note that more than four follow ups is just TOO MUCH so make sure you send him a second or third note but nothing more than that.
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