This episode of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast is joined by Michael Liedtke of the Associated Press. At AP, Michael serves as a Business and Tech Reporter covering tech’s impact on culture and society. During our discussion, Michael discusses his takes on various journalism topics with host, Beck Bamberger, including his 30+ years in journalism, how he crafts a story, and the changes he sees affecting the future of the industry.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
His Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: But first let’s start with your inbox. How does it look in there? And how many pitches are you getting?
Michael Liedtke: A lot. Still a lot, yeah. It kind of slowed down in the early stages of the pandemic. I guess people were still feeling their way around. But yeah, it’s gotten pretty much a steady flow. I don’t keep track. It’s a steady stream, a steady stream.
BB: A week. How many would you say a week?
ML: So a week, so I’m just going to guess about, all my email, this is internal, like maybe 1,000 emails a week.
BB: Oh yeah. That’s a lot. That’s a lot. Do you have some type of organizational system to keep the pitches and so forth organized?
ML: I’ll flag the ones that are interesting to me. After a while you get to, there’s stuff that you can tell is more, I don’t want to say spammy, but more mass blast stuff that seems like I’ll get to that later, and sometimes, just because of the flow of things, I might not.
You can tell from the subjects, like some people are just, they don’t understand what you’re covering or just sending like, “It’s tech so you must be interested,” which is not necessarily the case, right?”
BB: That is true. Mm-hmm (affirmative). How do you suss that out from an email in the subject line where you’re like, “Clearly that’s spam”?
ML: Well, a lot of it’s, I could say reporter instincts. But also, to tell you the truth, a lot of it’s like anything else in relationships, of course I’m more likely, if I know someone and I’ve dealt with them in the past and they’ve given me good ideas, or I’ve met them, or it’s a company that I cover, obviously I’m going to open those, for sure. But general ones, I’m more likely to, you’re going to get my attention more if it seems like it knows, this definitely knows what I cover and why, and it also knows what The AP’s interested in. You can kind of tell from that line where, “Oh, it’s peaked my interest.” Or again, if it’s someone I know, I’m always going to open it, right?
BB: Got it. Okay. Are you one of the inbox zero people or you let it ride to thousands and thousands?
ML: I let it ride.
BB: Oh, my God.
ML: You know what? Here’s the secret. The AP for some reason, until a couple of years ago, we had a fairly limited amount of, believe it or not, even way beyond the times of Gmail, I could never understand it, I used to gripe about it, we had like some ridiculous, like 750 megabytes of storage. You had to do a constant, you actually were forced to do… You had to separate the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly.
ML: A couple of years ago, we went, now we have like that 100 gigabytes. So you get lazy and you go, “I don’t care. I don’t need to get to it right away.” Yeah, it will stack up. So I don’t have that discipline anymore, where I had to actually weed through the things.
BB: You said you flag your pitches. Do you sometimes get back to a pitch months later? A year later? We’ve heard people say, “Yeah, 12 months later, something hits.”
ML: I will get back to the person, “Hey, this is interesting, but that’s right… I’m looking at this thing. I may come back to you about it.” Or, often I’ll get a pitch about a story that I’ve already written and they’re trying to amplify and I go, “That could be, but right now, I’m not going to write about that.” But yeah, definitely. So yeah, you’ll hear back from me usually if it’s something like, “That’s interesting.” Because I want to let you know I may be coming back to you, or it’s something I want to look at further. So, yeah. Rarely do I flag something without letting the person know that, “Hey, you’ve got my interest.”
BB: Oh, okay. Oh, that’s good. So you’ll be notified if you get the flag, okay.
ML: Yeah. Sometimes they misdirect to me, where I see something that’s more, that they just don’t… The AP can be confusing. We have people all over the world. We’re all kinds of different things. So I would say, “Because we are separate, I can’t speak for them,” I said. “But this is an area that’s covered by so-and-so, and you may want to, you want to maybe run it by them,” and I give them their email address and let them take it from there. I try to be helpful in that way. And it helps us, too. Sometimes they are good, it’s just out of my realm, and I’m not going to cover it, so I can’t really tell them yay or nay.
How He Writes Stories
BB: Tell us a little bit about how you craft one of your great stories. For instance, does it come from a pitch? Does it come from, you’re having a brainstorm in the shower? Does it come from some lead that you call? Where do those come from?
ML: I do get some great inspirations in the shower, but sometimes story ideas, but it can come from anywhere. It’s just, part of the job is keeping on track on what is of interest. As you get to know your beat better, you know, you understand what is more likely to affect the general populace.
For one thing, The AP is maybe different. We’re not a tech blog. We’re not going to go deep into the weeds type of stuff, which is fine. A lot of tech blogs go into that, and will get kind of wonky and nerdy. We are definitely more like the main street journal.”
So we are looking at, we have to understand the nerdy stuff, but we explain it. We’re mostly interested in stuff that’s going to have a bubble to the mainstream and really reshape the culture or the society or affect people personally more. We’re not as likely to get into the stuff that the nerdy guys find fascinating. It is kind of interesting to me, it’s just not something we’re going to write about.
BB: You want to have more of a holistic view.
ML: Yes, yes. That’s a good way of putting it.
BB: Yes. Gotcha. And by the way, for people, because we were talking about this before we hit the record button, your beat has changed and of course it’s changed over 20 years. But you used to do some more startup-y stuff, but now you’re really doing like the Apples, the Googles, the big, Big Kahunas, the fangs, as we call them.
ML: Yes, definitely the fangs. I also cover Netflix a lot. This is a true story. On Netflix, I did my first story. I’ll never forget it because of what happened. I had this great feature. This was back when it was the DVD by mail and it was just taking off. It was 2001. Of course, I had this big feature lined up. I had talked to Reed and all these people like, “This is kind of interesting. Some people think it could kill Blockbuster.” At that time, like, “Nah, it can’t.” The reason I remember it is, it was slated, it was moving on September 11th, 2001. To say the least, it got lost in the shuffle that day.
ML: Yeah, it went out early that morning. I think it went out after midnight that day. Reed used to joke about that. I mean, not about the event.
BB: No, of course.
ML: But how the first story that I did-
BB: So, wait, it was like a story that was kind of… Was it a-
ML: It was a feature about Netflix. Because then people, not a lot of… I think it had like two million. It was kind of the new concept. Like, “What? DVD by mail?” And you could hold onto the thing as long as you wanted. So it was a feature and it was like, I thought, a cool feature. But of course, a major event overshadowed everything that went out that day, understandably.
BB: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ML: Anyway, that’s just a backstory, how long I’ve been around, but how long I’ve been covering Netflix, too.
BB: No, it makes sense.
ML: We’re coming up on 20 years next year, on that.-
BB: Wow, that’s true.
His Thoughts on the Future of Journalism
BB: There you go. Okay. Now, this is a pertinent question for you, Michael. Given your long history in journalism, what do you think the future of journalism looks like?
ML: Well, thank God we had it, right? I mean, I’m not just talking about… The last four years, I think the value of it, it’s never been in dispute, but it really came, I think crystallized for a lot of people, how important a free press and the job that so many great journalists did in a difficult time in our… and when it’s been under assault, especially by people in power. So I think it’s got a place.
ML: I worry about the business model, like a lot of people, because of the way we’ve traded dollars for dimes, or even pennies, maybe, the transition from print to digital. New York Times has got a great model. It seems to work, with subscriptions. Certainly some of these big publications are going to be around. But I worry mostly about local journalism. Because like a lot, I used to work in community newspapers, were great, was where I started my career. And they’re gone, the ones that I used to work for. All those things that are slipping through the cracks, the weird stuff that goes on, people in power on the local level that affects people lives, are probably not getting caught or exposed to the scale of some of the things that happened on the national level the last few years.
ML: But usually, because there’s a demand for it, there’s usually… A model is usually figured out for it. I just don’t know about the written word as much. Because even video is so huge, and video does play a huge, important role, right? But I don’t know, text seems to be getting diminished, the importance of text. I worry about that.
ML: I’m honest with, I encourage, I get a lot of questions from, young people about journalism. It’s fairly clear to me that, I was just a word guy. That’s why I went into journalism. I’ve learned a little bit about photography. Don’t do video very much.
We have to multitask more. I think a lot of the young people are just digital natives that are natural at that anyway. But you need to do everything now, I think, the future’s going to be. You’re not just going to be a word guy or a picture guy. We have great photographers that do nothing but take pictures at The AP. But I think you’re going to be more of a hybrid.”
We’re already seeing that, doing podcasts like here, too. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades more than ever, I think, is going to be the future. So I always advise people to do that. Yeah.
BB: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you ever speak to colleges or universities?
ML: I have a couple of times. It’s been a few years. I talk to some high school classes. I still enjoy that. Yeah. I want to encourage people to do it, but I also feel like you got to be frank about what’s… I started in the business when there was still the, before there was even a computer at every station that you were still… It was at the stage where you had electric typewriters. They ran what you wrote on the paper and ran it through these machines that transformed it in a way to put it on the printing press.
Like Michael, the threats on local journalism is one for many journalists. For more insights on this issue, check out our blog, 3 Journalists on the Fate of Local Journalism. Also, be sure to subscribe to the podcast for the latest episode drops and follow us on Twitter for notifications on our newest blogs, pitch templates, and more!