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Coffee With A Journalist - Maya Shwayder, Digital Trends

Coffee with a Journalist: Maya Shwayder, Digital Trends

Episode 31 of Coffee with a Journalist is joined by Maya Shwayder, freelance journalist and former Tech and Privacy Reporter at Digital Trends. During her talk with host, Beck Bamberger, Maya gives her insights on various topics from journalism layoffs amidst COVID to the threats and opportunities for the future of local journalism. Also, hear her takes on crafting a captivating cold pitch and reporting for the “content beast” that is the internet.

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

Her Work Inbox

Beck:

Yes. The first thing we’d like to talk about your inbox. What’s happening in there? It’s maybe changed recently, but like how bad are the pitches and how do you organize it?

Maya:

It has changed a bit recently since I was laid off. I was recording this mid-October. So I was laid off about a week ago.

Beck:

Yes.

Maya:

The pitch volume has gone down.

Beck:

Yes.

Maya:

Which I honestly appreciate because it gives me a little more time to focus.

Beck:

Yeah.

Maya:

But I will say as the pitch volume has gone down, the general quality of the pitches has also gotten worse. It seems like all of the people who I enjoyed talking to, or who usually would send me interesting things have faded into the background and the people who I’m going to guess that they weren’t paying attention to what was happening in the journalism industry. All of those people are still in my inbox, bugging me about things that I, not that I didn’t care about them, but just, it was unclear where I was going to be able to place those stories. And now it’s even more unclear. So it’s sort of well, what am I going to have to sift through today?

Beck:

Yeah. I have to say you’re, I think the first person we’ve had on well, people have changed around, but like who just experienced, being laid off and we all know the situation in journalism right now, so understanding, so freshly the change of your inbox, this is the first time we’re hearing the insight into that.

Maya:

Yeah. I mean, I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

Beck:

Of course. Yeah.

Maya:

I will say that it really is only within the last year because I lived abroad for so long. It really is only within the last year that I started experiencing like the stereotypical journalists inbox of just stuff flooding in that you really weren’t expecting, and don’t necessarily have the time to look at. The two that end in terms of organizing. I have two diff… I use Gmail as my primary inbox and I have two different labels that I use. So I do my level best to try to at least take between five and 30 seconds to look at emails that come in. And what I will do is I will label it one of two things, either just generic press releases, stuff that I’ll get around to maybe when I have time.

Maya:

And then I have another sub label that says, look at these. And that is press releases that I took a look at and thought, Oh, this might actually be interesting, but I don’t have time right now let me come back to this and actually look at it later. So, that is the general organization tree. And because I’m freelance, I won’t really assign out which story I’m going to put in which place until I’ve actually found a home for it. So that involves more emails being sent out and spreadsheets tracking, which editors I’ve harassed about what and such and such.

Beck:

Now. Okay. Did you look at every single email previously in your full-time job? Cause that’s rare.

Maya:

Right. I will not say I looked at every single, I will say I did my best to look at 80% of the ones that came in.

Beck:

Yeah. That’s still pretty high.

Maya:

It’s still high. And I will say, as someone who in my profile, isn’t quite as high as someone who maybe works at an NPR or New York times. So their inboxes are, I’m sure much fuller than mine. I do the math at one point. I think I get, I don’t know, maybe three to 500 unsolicited emails a month from PR folks.

Beck:

Oh.

Maya:

My editor, my former editor at digital trends where I was previously working, he would get around oh, a thousand a day. Which that is a really unsustainable amount. So I tried to take advantage of the fact that, mine is maybe a little bit more manageable to try to give the pitches they’re due because I having interacted with PR people in this way, I understand the goal that a lot of them have and where they’re coming from. That doesn’t mean that necessarily can help you out or am interested in the story that you have. But I will at least try to open the email, read the subject line, read the first couple of sentences. And if it grabs me, then I’ll keep reading. And if not, then I am a.

Her Thoughts on Pitches

Beck:

Yeah. Any good pitches as, let’s say in the last six months that had a subject line that just grabbed you?

Maya:

Yes. Actually one of the last stories I wrote for digital trends, this person did a really good job targeting this story. I had written a bit previously about native Americans living on reservations, who were struggling with internet connectivity at a time when that is our lifeline. Everyone needs internet and everyone needs fast, reliable internet.

Maya:

And that is just not a thing that many people in this country have access to, especially if you’re living out on the Navajo reservation, a three hour drive from the nearest big city. So I had done some reporting on this and then this person who I’d never met them before, but they ended up in my inbox and the subject line was something along the lines of, the American library association is proud to announce that these native libraries on these reservations had banded together to create a local broadband network.

Maya:

And I read that. I was like, Oh man, that is my shit. That is exactly what I want to be writing about. And it was just, it was a little story. It took like one day to report and it certainly is nothing like life-changing, is not going to win me any awards, but it was the type of story that I really enjoy writing about. This person I asked her how she found me and she said, “Oh, I was doing research about who had written about this previously, and I found you, so I decided to take a chance”. I’m like, good job. You did the right thing.

Beck:

Good.

Maya:

I mean, yeah. So I guess that shows like just a little bit of research into some recent stories that someone does can, that can yield some results. So yeah, that was, that’s one that’s really stuck with me because that was a cold pitch. I had no idea who this person was, but they did a good job.

How She Writes Stories

Beck:

So that describes okay, from a cold pitch and you were already writing about it, but what about something, and this is what we’d like to talk about of the making of a story. So for example, you did one for Digital Trends about the angst that students were feeling college students about Proctor apps.

Maya:

Yes.

Beck:

And how invasive that is. Where does a story like that come from? Do they come from pitches? Are you like in the shower and you have a moment of inspiration? Are you looking at something on Netflix and you’re like, Oh. How did the thought come about?

Maya:

That one came from a report, I think. I want to say that came from a report that I saw on the website of the electronic frontier foundation, which as I’m sure many people know is one of the premier pro-privacy groups in the US.

Beck:

Yeah.

Maya:

And I saw a report that they had done about trying to fight back against proctoring apps and how they were really invasive. And this just, it was a light bulb moment of, Oh crap, this is going to be a thing because schools are all remote now. And this is something that I had done some reporting on with a friend of mine about how remote school was just changing absolutely everything around educational technology and the way people learn and like disability access and things like that. So as someone who is slash was a privacy reporter for Digital Trends, I thought, Oh man, I haven’t seen anything about this yet.

Maya:

So I got in touch with the EFF and said, I’d really like to talk to your expert about this. And then it, fortunately, things were able to fall into place from there. She was able to connect with a few students with another expert who was working on this and that all managed to fall into place. It took a little while, that report, I think I spent a good three weeks on and it came together at the last minute because it was one of those things where like I talked to the report or I talked to the expert and he said, “Oh yeah, don’t worry I’ll put you in touch”. And then I don’t hear from her. And then I find another person and I get back to them and then the next person comes forward. And it’s just sort of this like dogged, you have to keep poking at the problem for the thing to finally be written.

Beck:

God. So do you have a big swath of how long a story takes? Sometimes it can take, especially if it’s breaking news, it can take hours.

Maya:

Right.

Beck:

But Oh 48 hours to, four months you’re working on something. Would you experience that?

Maya:

I mean, it can really vary. I will say for a lot of places I’ve worked and this is true I think for a lot of journalists, we all work in service of the demon, that is the internet these days, and the internet is a content monster and you always just need to be turning out content.

Beck:

You have to feed it, the monster.

Maya:

If you ever defeat this monster, you can only mildly satisfy it for a day.

Beck:

Is no true.

Maya:

Yeah. It really, I mean, but what this means is that a lot of your stories are same-day turnaround. Which is not my favorite, like I get the need to get the information out there, but this is one of my least favorite things about being a journalist is when you have an editor or a producer, who’s on you to be like, there’s this big breaking news story, let’s get original sources, a new reporting and a brand new angle and some new experts to talk about it in the space of, let’s be honest, it’s not even 24 hours, it’s five hours.

Maya:

Like news breaks at 10:00 AM, you have until 4:00 PM to get the thing reported. And to that end, the way PR people can really help in that respect is just be fast on your email. If a reporter is contacting you and needs to, find an expert ASAP, they need that expert ASAP. And it can benefit both of you. If you are, on your email, I can find… Some of the PR people I’m closest to are people who, I’ve never met them in real life, but they have been there for me when I really needed to find a person to talk to. And I owe them a lot for that. I’ve said that before elsewhere, but it really is true. So yeah, for those same-day turnaround stories, you really need to be fast and everyone hates doing earliest, I hate doing them.

Maya:

I always wish I had more time. I like to be able to spend two or three days on a story, if it’s not a big investigation, if I’m spending longer, it probably means the story isn’t going to happen, or I’m just, wasting my time, barking up the wrong tree somehow. Especially as a freelancer, I’m willing to put in two to three days of effort to try to make a story happen. And after that, it’s diminishing returns. You have a full-time person somewhere, then you have a little bit more flexibility. Okay. I can spend two weeks. I can spend three weeks. I can spend four weeks. If it’s something that’s really, really in-depth because my livelihood doesn’t depend on me, churning out content in the way it does. If you’re a freelancer.

Beck:

Yeah, Man.

________

Like Maya, many journalists are open to cold pitches that are captivating and relevant. For more information on refining your pitching efforts, check out our blog, Your Complete Guide to Pitching the Media. We break down the differences between a media pitch versus a press release, essential elements of a successful pitch, how to send that make-or-break follow-up email, and more! 

Be sure to subscribe to Coffee with a Journalist for more great conversations with top-tier journalists and follow us on Twitter to get our latest blog and content releases!

Mathew Cruz

Mathew started at OnePitch in January of 2020 as a Marketing Apprentice. He currently serves as the SEO & Content Marketing Specialist handling content creation from social media to the OnePitch blog. Mathew studied Integrated Marketing Communications at San Diego State University. In his free time, he loves creating art, visiting museums, and traveling.

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