In this episode of Coffee with a Journalist Season 2, host Beck Bamberger sits down with New York-based journalist Max Willens, Platforms Reporter at Digiday. Beck and Max chat about his story-crafting process, guilty-pleasure pop playlists, and insights on the journalism space today. Listen in or read below as he talks about his journalistic journey, views, and predictions!
How He Writes Stories
Beck: Excellent. So currently Max, you’re writing about platforms, but you’ve covered a lot of stuff on Digiday. You’re very into sports. We just had a little discussion about that. First off, let’s jump in with what it takes to make a great story when you’re actually compiling one and looking to do a great piece.
Max: I think that what it comes down to ultimately is having enough time and being prepared to have all the necessary ingredients. I think that when you talk about digital media in particular, things have gotten really fast. All of a sudden it’s not, “Take a couple of days to write the story.” It’s, “Take a couple hours.” And I’ve done great work under those circumstances before, but I find that consistently the thing that kind of puts me in position to feel like I’m writing a good story is just getting the time necessary to talk to the right people, think something through in a thorough fashion. It’s really more about time than anything else I think.
Beck: And with time, is it like a particular right time? Like do you have to be like, “Oh, in my right space?” Is it like a Sunday morning would be better for you than like a Monday morning? Is like time different in that sense?
Max: No, I think it’s really just more a question of, I mean because the thing too about being a reporter is you’re always hunting for something else to write. I can’t, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where someone has pitched me or I’ve come across a story idea and thought I’m not even going to think about this right now because I need something for next week, for next month. And so really there’s not really like an optimal time provided there’s enough kind of runway.
Beck: And how have you, so you were mentioning previously, Oh you’d have maybe a few days, like maybe you get the story assignment Monday, you turn it in on Friday, now you got 1:00 PM and you need it in by 6:00 PM let’s say. How have you adapted to that? Is it just like, “Okay, no one email me, no one talk to me, I’m in the dark hole. I will come out?” Like do you do that? How do you do that?
Max: Well, I think a lot of it boils down to it’s a combination of sort of newsworthiness and if something breaks and I need to kind of pounce on it, I will just kind of lock down, close as many tabs on my browser as I can and just sort of get it done. But for the most part it’s really trying to just, being smart about juggling my time management, right? So, and understanding that, “Okay, I can start writing this at 10:10 AM on Monday, it’ll be done by 1:30.” Maybe work with the editor, clean it up, and then I have, I’ll have three to five hours back end of the day, what am I doing, how am I setting the table for the rest of the week, the rest of the month?
Max: Do I have longer term assignments that I need to kind of get into shape? And so it’s really just more of a question of if I’m doing my job properly of kind of keeping the pipeline kind of like well oiled and full.
His Thoughts on Pitching
Beck: So when you’re talking about you got to have the time, you lock down into the space, where are you getting the pieces for the construction of a story? Are you getting actual pitches? Are you having people call you and give you text message? Are you hearing on Twitter? Like where do the essence of the stories actually come from?
Max: Well, it comes from everything. I mean, I think what it really boils down to is that it’s really kind of a mostly a relationships thing. I can count on zero fingers the number of times someone that I don’t know has called me and said, I’ve got a great idea for you that has never gone well. I mean, maybe it’s partly it’s me who knows, but pretty much everything that… I try to also, as much as I can like build and follow my own nose a little bit. So it’s working with people that I know kind of know things that can help put things together. It’s working with finding maybe finding sources of information that can confirm a hypothesis that kind of floats into my head. But it really, I mean in all those instances it’s in an ideal world it’s about doing things with people that I’m familiar with. And thankfully having covered media for a couple of years, I feel like, I know who to talk to and when and so on, but there’s always more people out there to learn from.
Max: But I do think that getting kind of like blitz in an era… And it’s funny too because like I’m kind of on the older edge of the millennial generation, but I’m still kind of firmly in that pocket of people that doesn’t like phone calls from numbers I don’t know. As a reporter that means like one of two things. Either it means a pitch from somebody I don’t know, or maybe I’ve gotten something wrong and I’m about to get yelled at and-
Beck: Does that happen? People have called you to say, “Hey sir, you just got this wrong, incorrect, factually mistake?”
Max: Once…I mean, listen, I’m, none of us are perfect. It’s happened once or twice. Yeah.
His Work Inbox
Beck: That you could… Yeah. Okay. Just to clarify, just to clarify. Okay, so speaking of your inbox, so with pitches that come in it, making an assumption, it doesn’t sound like then you’re going to be opening pitches you don’t know.
Max: There’s a lot of that. It’s regrettable, but I think, yeah, like the margin for error is lower. I mean, basically like I think I’ll read anything that seems to indicate that they know what I write about. There are lots of pitches that I get and this is even from people that like know me fairly well, that I think maybe they understand that they just have to tell their client that they tried, that they put something in front of me. Even though they know I don’t write about marketing tech for example, but they’ll still say, “Here’s why you really need to write about what’s going on with Adobe.”
Max: And I’ll say, I’m too polite to say, “Where have you ever seen a story from me that involves this company or doing a specific thing?” But anyway, I guess now I’m like rambling a little bit.
Max: I guess what is… To sum it up, like if it comes from someone that I know, then I’ll give it a fair look. If it’s from someone I don’t know, it just has to reflect that they have taken a bit of a look at what I do and that they think it’s worth my time. That’s really all they need to get me to open it. What happens after that is a different story. But like, just in terms of like clicking on the email that as long as it seems like they’ve thought it through a little bit, I’ll take a look.
Beck: So then in your actual inbox, if you then don’t click on it within what? 24 hours, like you assume it goes into that 57,000?Like how do you manage that from let’s say your editor emailing you something, “Hey, we need to do this by this time.” Do you filter? What do we do?
Max: Well, I basically, I mean it’s funny, I feel like most of my colleagues are a lot more organized than I am. Basically my, I don’t know, my weird lizard brain sort of is good at just sort of glancing at my inbox. I have notifications set up so that if people, things come in like there are certain people that if I got something from them it will appear kind of more visibly on my radar screen. But generally speaking, I mean that’s a fair point too actually, which is that like if I get a pitch, especially if it’s sent at like a weird time, like if you send it outside of normal business hours, excuse me, it’s likely that I’m not going to see it. And you’re going to have to check in, nudge me, whatever.
Max: That’s definitely a thing that has to happen because, and also too, I mean the other thing is that like I spend a lot of time looking at my phone and at my desk computer, but I work on a lot of things that at my job. And sometimes I’m being pulled into meetings, I’m going to meet with sources, I’m at events, taping podcasts. And I could get a hundred emails in that time and sometimes I’ll think I’ll go through one page of them and go, “All right, whatever.” The thing about having 57,000 unread emails is you don’t remember if you have 57,560 emails or 57,610 unread emails. And so I guess that does mean that some stuff slips through the cracks, but I’ve never really known somebody really important to miss me because of that.
Make your next great pitch to Max or a journalist like him today! Check out our 1000 Pitches report, the perfect launching point for inspiration! Click HERE to download your copy of the report today!
For more tech journalist insights, head to the podcast page and listen to other guests on Coffee With a Journalist including Gabriela Barkho from Modern Retail and David Ingram from NBC News.