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Our newest guest this week on Coffee with a Journalist is Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai of Vice Motherboard. As a senior staff writer, Lorenzo covers hacking, information security, and digital rights. Prior to his current role, he was an intern turned reporter at Mashable, and an editorial intern at Wired.
During the episode, Lorenzo starts by sharing about the high number of irrelevant emails in his inbox, the growth of the cybersecurity team at Motherboard, answers an audience question, and more.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
[00:02:40] BB: Yes. Well, as I mentioned, we are excited to chat with you today. Let’s start with your inbox. How crazy is it in your inbox?
[00:02:49] LFB: It’s hard to tell because I don’t know. I can’t see the inboxes of other journalists, but it’s bad. Like a couple of weeks ago, I went on vacation and I did a conscious effort not to check my email. When I came back, I was very overwhelmed with all the emails I got. A lot of them are not really relevant at all to me. I get like pitches about some indie rapper or rock band releasing a new mix.
[00:03:17] BB: What?
[00:03:18] LFB: Yeah. It’s weird. I mean, I guess, I have a VICE email, so we cover all kinds of stuff and obviously a lot of cybersecurity pitches. Those are relevant, at least, by a lot of random stuff and yet way too many emails.
“I mean, that’s kind of my main strategy, and I try to reply to the pitches that are relevant. But sometimes, there’s just no time, so I just archive.”
[00:03:34] BB: What do you do with pitches? Do you file, delete? Do you do the mass delete thing just to get them all out? What would you say?
[00:03:42] LFB: Sometimes, I have the email tab open all the time and sort of like in the corner of the screen so that I can check it. But I’ve tried to like get away from that because most of the time even a good pitch is not really urgent, so I can check it later. So what I’ve been trying to do more in the last year or so is to just check it once or twice a day and maybe three times a day; morning, midday, and end of the day. Sometimes, I do like I sit on the couch, check it through my phone. So I can just focus on that, rather than being in front of the computer and being distracted. Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, that’s kind of my main strategy, and I try to reply to the pitches that are relevant. But sometimes, there’s just no time, so I just archive.
[00:04:26] BB: Got it. Do you do what I’ve heard many journalists now do? They’ll do their own like search, kind of like their own private Google. They’ll go, “Oh, okay. I’m looking for that one pitch about that.” They do a search and then they find it from seven months ago. Does that ever happen for you?
[00:04:40] LFB: Well, that never happens to me. Most of the stuff that I get pitches are actively timely. So if I don’t do anything with it for a couple of days or at most a week, then that email is now irrelevant.
[00:06:16] BB: Damn. You have so many inboxes to look at then.
[00:06:19] LFB: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, again, when I went away for a week at the beginning of the month, when I came back, it was like a torrent of notifications to go through, and I didn’t even know where to start.
[00:06:30] BB: Gosh. Did you eventually dig out of it? Or did you kind of mass delete at one point?
[00:06:34] LFB: It took a couple of days because I do try to respond, especially to people that reach out to me via chat apps or Twitter, Twitter DMs because those are more personalized. A lot of the emails I can tell that PR folks have sent to a lot of people, which is fine. I understand that’s their job. Of those I don’t feel the need to respond necessarily, just to read them quickly and figure out if they’re useful or not.
His Thoughts on Pitches
[00:06:59] BB: For stories you are doing, for example, I’m looking at one here that talks about, well, police busting a major ransom gang situation in Ukraine it looks like, I’d imagine that’s kind of breaking news that you’re covering. Not something that comes from a pitch. So the question is for stories that are less news breaking, how do you come up with those story angles?
“As I said, like I get a lot of emails and I can’t say that I read them all. Sometimes, I skim through the subject line, so I think the subject line is very important, and sometimes that’s all I need to see.”
[00:07:23] LFB: Yeah. So as you said, there’s a lot of the bread and butter is breaking news. In that case, that one we saw on Twitter. There’s a huge cybersecurity community on Twitter, so it’s a very useful tool. When it’s not breaking news, yeah, it could start as a pitch. Again, I think most of the interesting stuff comes through people that messaged me on Twitter or one of these chat apps like Signal or WhatsApp because in those cases, it’s people actually doing something like hacking them. They’re hacking something. They found a vulnerability in something else.
“I probably get a handful of encrypted emails a year at this point. On Signal and other chat apps, yes, all the time. That’s actually the best channel for me to get pitches or tips. Yeah, Signal, and I’m on all kinds of chat apps, so WhatsApp, Telegram, Wire, Wickr.”
In terms of like PR pitches, the most interesting ones are those from cybersecurity companies that are doing research. By that, I mean, maybe they’re studying a particular device or technology, and they found a vulnerability. Or more often, it’s a company that has found new malware or computer virus or some sort of cyber espionage campaign. Those are interesting for us because they are more relevant to our audience. We don’t really cover things like investment, new companies, mergers. Those are things that are kind of outside our scope.
How He Writes Stories
[00:08:35] BB: Speaking of, could you describe for us, for those who do not know, what Motherboard covers specifically for VICE?
“So everything that has to do with tech and science falls under our purview…that’s a lot of what we do and we care about and also a lot of privacy and surveillance.”
[00:08:41] LFB: I think the one line is we’re attacking science website. So everything that has to do with tech and science falls under our purview. But more in particular, we’ve had always a very good back in coverage over the years. That’s a lot of what we do and we care about and also a lot of privacy and surveillance. So facial recognition news, stories about citizen, that sort of vigilante app that is freaking a lot of people. We have in the last couple of years, thanks to two new excellent reporters, Lauren Gurley and Edward Ongweso, we have been covering a lot of labor news. So strikes, attempts to unionize at Amazon, Uber, and companies like that. So anything that has to do with gig workers and unions falls under that. That’s been a huge beat for us because in the last couple of years, people have really started caring about this. The tide has turned in terms of how people see these companies and their relationship with their workers.
[00:09:44] BB: Quite true. I wonder how much that is driven though by great coverage.
[00:09:48] LFB: Yeah. I mean, I guess, you never know what started, right? I don’t think people just wake up and say, “Hey, I don’t think Amazon is being fair to their workers. I don’t think Uber is being fair to their workers.” Readers are busy. They have their lives. We can’t ask that from them. So, yeah, I probably started with some initial college years ago. We weren’t the first ones. The New York Times has done great work on that. Gizmodo did some good work on that a few years ago. So, yeah, I think it was from our editors, sort of like a concerted effort to recognize that this was a huge new avenue for news and coverage. We invested in it by hiring two new reporters and a new editor.
[00:10:29] BB: We have Lorenzo a audience-asked care. This is from Colin Jordan from it looks like Egnyte or E-nyte. It’s spelled with an E. He asks or this person asks, “How much freedom do you have in writing, editing, and publishing your own articles?”
[00:10:46] LFB: Good question. So I’m trying to like guess exactly what they mean by freedom. In terms of like choosing stories and getting assignments, I am among the lucky ones. I have a lot of freedom and I think that’s a very Motherboard way to look at what to cover. Our editors, even the ones that have left, always believed that it’s important to give writers freedom to cover what they’re interested in because they will do a better job if they write about what they care about. So I can choose. Yeah, I have a lot of freedom to choose. I get assignments as well and I think that’s healthy. I think it’s good to have editors that sometimes tell you what to do because there are some days in which I may be not as inspired or maybe I don’t get a good tip, and so I need something else to do. That’s the sort of pitching and writing process within Motherboard.
In terms of editing, my stories get edited by at least one editor or sometimes two. If it’s very controversial, then maybe even a third, and maybe we send it to the lawyers. But that’s rare, luckily. In terms of publishing, we do have – Everyone has access to the CMS. But that’s just really the last step. Everything is locked in. The story has been edited, so it’s just a matter of like copy pasting the text and putting it out.
[00:12:04] BB: Man. If you’re getting lawyers involved on a piece you’re going to publish, you know it’s serious.
[00:12:08] LFB: Yeah. You kind of want to avoid that because –
[00:12:10] BB: Yes. That was what I was going to say.
[00:12:12] LFB: It slows down the process, and that’s their job, and we love them for that, but if you can avoid it. We’ve gone through some legal processes before, and so we know what to look for and when to call in the lawyers or not at this point.
Make sure when you’re pitching Lorenzo that you know what he writes about the Vice Motherboard’s audience (see above). And, if you’re sending him a follow up, make sure you limit the number of them or you could end up in his trash folder.
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