Today, on Coffee with a Journalist, we sit down with Erika Wheless of Digiday. At…
In this episode of Coffee with a Journalist, host, Beck Bamberger, sits down to talk with Mar Masson Maack of The Next Web. At The Next Web, Mar serves as editor for Growth Quarters and Podium. During their conversation, Mar discusses the stories he is looking to write, how founders can craft newsworthy stories, and the future of post-pandemic journalism.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Thoughts on Pitches
BB: Do you now have a meticulous way in which you suss out these pitches? Are you one of those mass deleters, or do you read? I know. Rarely, I hear on this show there is a rare bunch that reads every single pitch, which absolutely stuns me still.
MM: Well, all of those must be great at time management when it comes to other stuff because, well, that would take quite a long time. Well, when I started out, I was kind of diligently going through everything and turning down things by writing them back and stuff. But then I quickly figured you can’t give an inch really.
BB: That’s going to take forever.
MM: Yeah. Because I mean, as soon as you reply in any fashion, you’re kind of dragged into this back and forth, so, unfortunately, I’ve become the desensitized journalist who just doesn’t even open the email. I really go by the subject line and check who it’s from at the moment now because like I just can’t really get any more scattered than I already am. So I do a lot of sussing out in just that thing. I can just go quickly through it, mark this read or…
BB: Got you. Okay, that’s very common for people. You’re looking at the subject line. What interests you and it’s been a good subject line?
MM: Basically, if it just sounds like a human wrote it.
BB: It’s so basic. It’s so basic.
MM: Of course, I mean, it depends on what your beat is, and it’s quite confusing because I’ve actually switched up beats quite a lot since I started at TNW. I mean, I might be on some old mailing lists that might have been relevant. But then, again, I’m also on some mailing lists that were never relevant for me or where my name is marked as Mark or even get a few Johns all of a sudden, so I’m not sure.
BB: Johns. What?
MM: I guess that’s their default one.
MM: Yeah. But anything that feels like an empty PR release, just like a press release, I don’t open those.
If it’s someone reaching out to talk to me directly, so someone that’s representing an interesting interviewee or something like that, if they managed to kind of phrase that in the subject line, then I might open it.”
But then, again, like also what I’m worried about now, and like I think a lot of the journalists are, is that we know that there’s a lot of tracking in emails. So I kind of worry that if I open an email that people will keep sending me ones because they saw I almost bit.
How He Writes Stories
BB: Dang. When you’re thinking of a piece that you’re going to do, and I know it’s a little different because you’re in an editing type of mode, but where does the inspiration come from, the stories you do?
MM: It’s a tough one because right now, yeah, I have a lot of editorial duties, so it’s tough to find the time. But I still try to do one a week. It’s usually interviews, something long that.
I’m more of a fan of long-form, although it’s tough in a fast-paced media environment. But I just like the writing challenge of it and the structure and trying to make it more readable. But I don’t know. I’m just trying to find something quirky or interesting or like a spin on something normal.”
BB: Sometimes, when I ask that, people are like, “Oh, yeah. You know, I go on walks and I think about something,” or, “Oh, yeah. It strikes me in the middle of the night when I’m kind of thinking of a story angle.” Some people have said openly that a lot of them come from pitches. Then some people say, “Yeah, no. It doesn’t come from pitches,” 10%.
MM: Yeah. I’d say throughout my time at TNW, maybe done one or two pitches.
BB: Wow. Out of all the stuff you’ve done?
MM: Yeah. Well, maybe a few more but still it’s –
BB: That’s a small margin. That’s a very small margin. But, I mean, a recent one was a pitch that wasn’t directed towards me but it was related to a piece that I had just done, so it kind of went the wrong way. But still, I ended up doing that. I’m currently writing that up. But in that case, I’m trying to change it up a bit. So now, I’m openly asking for pitches for a certain series that I’m doing.
BB: Changing that up. Do you want to mention that, by the way? Even though I know this podcast will go air a little bit later, but is there anything you’re looking for like on an ongoing basis you’d want to throw out?
MM: I’m kind of doing an informal series now, well, basically calling out jargon startup job titles. I mean, we’ve all –
BB: Love it. Love it.
MM: We will see like the wizards and ninjas and so forth. But the thing is, of course, this is a – I’ve been kind of thinking about it for a while, and it’s a tough one to approach because I quite like the skeptical sarcastic tone. But, of course, the readers are other entrepreneurs, so you have to be also friendly.
BB: Know your audience.
MM: Yeah, and also friendly at the same time. The first article that appeared now a couple weeks ago in the series was “What the Hell is a Chief Meeting Designer?”
BB: There’s someone whose job that is?
BB: To make sure meetings go well?
MM: That’s the thing. That’s kind of what I was digging into. So he’s a chief meeting designer at Slido.
BB: Yeah, the slide. Yeah. The slide thing that does all the Google Slides. I just use them for a presentation.
MM: Exactly. Yeah. They’re –
BB: Why do you have to have someone in charge of meetings for that company?
MM: Yeah. That’s what interesting is, but it’s actually quite related to the company’s bottom line, and it’s kind of smart marketing as well.
MM: Yeah. But what was really fun about that interview is that the interviewee, Juraj, he was totally up for that tone. Basically, we kind of set it up beforehand like, “Okay, I’m going to be the kind of mean one, let’s say, calling out the bullshit in a playful way. But it’s actually more about teeing up his answers in a more fun way but also giving him the chance of just telling things like it is because there’s often a lot of stuff is kind of wrapped up in all sorts of jargon and bullshit. So I think it can be kind of fun for us to uncover it a bit while still not devaluing what we’re talking about. It’s been a kind of interesting challenge now. The next one I’m working on is a senior clubhouse executive.
BB: Yes, clubhouse. Now, wait a second. You want to like know people at Clubhouse. Do you want to like – What’s the angle there?
MM: Yeah. Well, we’ll find out.
MM: I’m not a big fan of Clubhouse, but it certainly stood out, that title. These are the type of pitches that I’m definitely looking for these days, so if you got a weird startup title that you’re actually using.
BB: Weird startup title, okay. That you’re fine obviously with like throwing out there and being like, “This is like -”
MM: Yeah. This is the one that I don’t mind seeing in my inbox.
BB: We do have an audience ask here, Már. We tell people that we’re having certain people on such as yourself and then we get questions submitted. This is from Pete from TapToReport. “How can startup founders get your attention? We usually don’t have a PR person and we have no name recognition, so what do we do?” Poor Pete.
MM: This is actually something that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around as well because, I mean, in the beginning when like TNW started, then there was this big tech boom. You could cover any type of startup announcement, and it was interesting, and it was fresh or whatever. But then I think like – Well, after Facebook kind of got involved with darker stuff, and you had this kind of more tech cynicism going on and also kind of crypto scams and stuff, like just the whole reporting on something unproven became harder.
But what I’m trying to kind of encourage startup founders to do, which I know is hard and I’m not sure how it relates to their bottom line, but from a content perspective I’m always trying to get them to share the lessons they’ve learned.”
Try to talk about something that isn’t your product and I think it will still pay off in the end. I think a lot of people want coverage that says, “Okay, wow. This startup’s app is amazing. I wish millions of people used it.” But, in fact, like that’s got to be really tough to reach out.
The people that I feature on Growth Quarters because we have a contributors platform where people can pitch, well, it’s a slow process and can be a harsh one. Well, it’s about helping other startups. If you come to Growth Quarters, it’s not where you’re talking to possible consumers in a sense. You’re giving advice, you’re helping out other startups, and you’re not reporting numbers that are necessarily for investors. You’re trying to be a positive force in that scene. If you talk about, “Okay, here’s the challenge that I faced when I was setting up my first developer team, not knowing anything about development –”
BB: That’s valuable.
MM: That’s kind of like a unique human insight into the process and that’s where you can kind of be a fly on the wall in a situation where you aren’t yet in. I think this type of thought leadership can get you a long way. But then, again, I’m only talking about it as a person that’s interested in the content. I’m just judging it by the parameters of how good the writing is, how intriguing the story is. But, of course, it can be hard for founders to actually find the time to sit down and write something, especially if they might not be that confident as writers.
BB: There are solutions for that. You could find a freelancer, all that good stuff. Yeah.
MM: Yeah. But I think also like if you maybe start to add something to your daily process. Let’s say if you sit down once a week and you try to process a problem you had that week by writing it out. Just say, “I did this. This was a failure, whatever. I kind of learned that.” Then you already have kind of a basic structure of a possible story that you can at least put out there and help people with because the people that I’ve reached out to are the ones on Twitter that might do a long thread about a problem they faced and how they solved it. All of a sudden, they get a journalist coming to them, asking to publish their piece, which is rare.
BB: Yeah. That is very rare.
MM: Yeah. Maybe look outside that B2C angle and just start talking about all the aspects of your journey, of your product, of whatever.
BB: Yeah. What you learned.
MM: Yeah. Especially like try to pinpoint like smaller details. Use a small detail. Tell a big story. For example, okay, our first user quit. This was the issue or something. Then you were actually by point like grabbing on to that one detail. You can get a sense of a much larger story with a bigger lesson that’s still enticing enough to grab onto.
Like Mar, many journalists have interesting perspectives on the future of journalism. But how many of them get to report on the future every day? To learn more about what it’s like as a “Future Correspondent,” listen to our podcast episode with Bryan Walsh of Axios. Also, be sure to subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Twitter for the latest news and insights on all things PR.